I’ll be honest–I had no end of difficult in making my way through Douglas Engelbart‘s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” This is not to say that the essay, which is actually a report he filed for the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), was entirely lost on me or did not speak to me at times. In fact, I found Englebart’s fundamental thesis that computers essentially augment what we already do to be extremely fascinating and quite provocative in the way it suggests great potential for these technologies, yet also humanizes them by focusing on how they increase–and are therefore a part of–human potential.
Although only a few weeks into the reading, I am seeing a strong trend in these visionaries’ thinking: At the core they want to solve problems. Interestingly, this is a facet of computer and technology development that I think is often lost in the popular imaginary, especially since Steve Jobs ascended to the rank of celebrity guru. The focus on new technologies, whether they be iPads or Droids or iPhones or Kindles, seems to lean toward their “cool” factor; that is, they give the bearer of these technologies a certain social status that becomes the envy of others. This is not to say that these technologies do not offer amazing functionality that contributes to the endeavor that Englebart proclaimed back in 1963, namely “increasing the capability of a man [sic] to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems.” Rather, it is that our first inclination seems to be an abstract fascination with technology as a new toy, rather than a tool to expand our intellects. It is almost as if these technologies succeed in spite of us.