After reading Bush, Engelbart, and Licklidder, I found my head spinning with different sorts of thoughts, not a whole lot of which have gelled yet. While it was definitely interesting to see the conceptual seeds which historically affected the evolution of interactive communication technologies (ICTs) I found myself smiling appreciatively at how far we’ve come moving toward the dream reality of ICTs which directly impact and augment humanity’s efficiency and communication patterns. When we’re tapping our foot impatiently as we log in to our accounts and sighing in exasperation at all the ‘wasted’ time waiting for internet applications to boot up it becomes clear that we’ve lost perspective on the time, manpower and labor which used to be involved in some of even the simplest interactions done in the course of any given project or complex task now relegated to computers and ICTs. We are definitely standing at a different vantage point now than was envisioned by our three authors when they wrote, but there are still organizational and conceptual issues that need to be resolved as we approach the ‘optimal future’ described by our three visionary writers.
I’m especially drawn to one of the concepts that both Englebart and Bush touched upon, and it has to do with the role of the individual in the process of learning. Bush (1945) talks about how the new technology for communication must present a way to preserve something he terms, ‘associative indexing’. In an associative model the individual makes mental connections between different and sometimes disparate entitites which help the individual to build up to a complex idea or relationship. It’s put forth by Bush in his article How We May Think as a means for describing the ‘natural’ human means for thinking about objects. Instead of thinking in terms of structured and rigid hierarchies of thought which require thinking in terms of what today we would call ‘file paths’ (Animals->Mammals->Cats->American Housecats->My pet housecat ->Fluffy) humans just make a connection between different items that have meaning to the individual way of thinking. (Cats <–> Fluffy <–> My pet)
Engelbart also takes some consideration to the way that the individual intelligence works through these associative patterns. In his Augmented Human Intellect Study, Engelbart (1962) makes the point that we’re struggling to adapt our learning and intelligence models to the disorganization naturally occurring within the human concept and symbolic structures. In fact, Engelbart spends a lot of time outlining the overall conceptual framework for human learning systems specifically in an attempt to demonstrate how altering the component systems of his framework is necessary if we’re going to actually approach augmenting the intelligence capacity of individual humans.
My concern with all of this has more to do with the role of the individual within the greater realm of ICT-enabled communications. As a child of the 80s and a graphic design professional, I believe wholeheartedly that we have achieved Licklidder’s called-for ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’. However, there are some previously unforeseen organizational paradigm shifts and attendant cultural effects which have already begun to unfold for us as denizens of the digital century. Last year Time Magazine named all of us (“you”) as their person of the year (December, 2006) to reflect an awareness of how each of us is now empowered and enabled individually as a result of the cultural adoption and development of ICTs (although to be fair, Time did not use that term, but did list several ICTs as prime examples).
The point about needing to approach a level of individual disorganization by creating a technology that was flexible enough to allow it (Engelbart, 1962) was well stated. We can see directly how the internet alone has yielded a tremendous amount of apparently disorganized content, and it continues growing every day. Bush’s dreams for a system that made for easily retrievable data has been partially realized, but in creating just such a tool that balanced the need for allowing individuals to create their own symbolic and conceptual structures (Engelbart, 1962) and the need for easy location, selection, and retrieval (Bush, 1945) has resulted in an explosion of content beyond the wildest dreams of either author.
All three authors seem to be looking for a mythical ‘optimal interface’ for individual users, and both Bush and Engelbart seem to be approaching the matter with a significant deal of optimism, operating under the assumption that there would still be some modicum of training and some level of minimum standards. I hazard a guess that a scientist in 1945 like Vannevar Bush would be a bit surprised to find published ‘information’ which grew out of the level of augmented individual disorganization yet which failed to meet minimum academic standards that the 1945 US culture might have expected from any published work.
It’s this optimistic assumption of responsibility that serves as an unspoken given in both Bush and Engelbart, and to a lesser extent in Licklidder as well, although Licklidder‘s bias applies more specifically to the rose-colored dreams of artificial intelligence than it refers to the individual’s responsibility within any ICT-enabled efficiency system. I don’t believe that it’s any kind of error in the judgment of these men, but rather just an extension of the fact that it’s impossible to accurately foresee the way in which any social change will carry itself out. Especially since as Engelbart points out, the model of learning is an interdependant system and a regenerative one with vastly compounded results (1962). It would be natural for anyone to assume that the positive standards which enable a change would not be altered by future events.
Yet that’s exactly what seems to have happened. We have been given tools that more closely enable us to generate spontaneous symbolic and conceptual structures in such a way as to allow us as individuals a greater degree of flexibility. We are able to customize our learning patterns in such a way that provided we have enough training to use the ICTs in the first place, we are able to organize data into relationships in a manner which more closely approximates the ‘associative indexing’ put forth by Bush. More importantly than the customization of these learning patterns, we are in a position now where we are also running into a slight setback in the communication process having to do with how decentralized and individualized our individual processes have become.
It almost feels to me that by empowering the individual with ICTs we have created first and foremost a change that has taken root within the composite processes of human/computer interactions, but primarily as they relate to the individual. In other words, the ICTs have empowered the individual to better suit their internal human processes to the external artifact processes that Engelbart defines. However, there is still yet another layer of interaction which asserts itself, and that is how to allow an ‘augmented’ and ‘symbiotic’ individual/computer to be able to communicate effectively with another. While this is the essential challenge of all communications, the empowerment of the individual level of disorganization has created indirectly the challenge of how to find a common language or a common vehicle for communication between the elements of the “disorganized” individual units within the larger whole.
How do we communicate in the age of interactive communications technologies? Is it sufficient to simply broadcast or publish for general consumption our own personal mode of disorganized conceptual and symbolic structures? Or does there need to be established a standard mode or standard code to allow for the meaningful exchange of ideas instead of relying on the abundant exchange of data which seems to be the model unlocked for our present day?
These are very valid questions, and they resonate practically within corporations, the military, and the general public. While the technical specifications can and do find a way of being democratically adopted by either the common public end users or else the constituent members of economic, scholarly, or social organizations, there is still a sense of searching for the balance or set of standards which will allow meaningful communication of knowledge to take place. In the regenerative cycle that Engelbart describes, it feels to me like we’re stumbling for the balance point to allow the other interdependent systems to “catch up” now that the Artifact processes and structures have leapt ahead sufficiently and society as a whole works to adapt to the changes presented. In so doing, the individual users and the online and ICT-dependent communities are feeding into the next ’round’ of changes and developments.
I’m not sure exactly where the current trend is, but I can definitely see that for me it’s a most important question of how to balance the disorganized needs of the individual ICT users with the concept of group standards and accepted conventions. We’re still evolving interactive communication technologies, and we’re also developing interactive communication cultures as well.
On to the next week’s reading.