From Augmenting Human Intellect

My comment for From Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework by Douglas Engelbart (published 1962) from the New Media Reader.

In Augmenting Human Intellect, Douglas Engelbart defines the topic as “increasing the capability of man to approach complex problems”. At first I didn’t know what to make of this definition. As I read on to the details of his process building out this system, I started to understand “augmenting human intellect” as building tools that would aid human’s intuitive thought process. I’m not sure about actually increasing or enhancing our capabilities, however. Engelbart provided an interesting example by experimenting with three ways of putting a sentence (thought/idea) down on paper/screen. In his words, one is augmented by a typewriter (it took 7 secs), one is done in cursive script (it took 20 secs), and one “de-augmented” by attaching a piece of brick to a pen (it took 65 secs). I thought the “pen attached to brick” was a very illustrative analogy to the available tools that people had before the personal computer. And perhaps even today, we are still using a version – albeit a more advanced version – of the “pen attached to brick” tool to collect our thoughts and collaborate with others.

The most amazing part about reading this report was that I was able to dive into the mind of one of the greatest inventors of the 20th Century. Here I should note that Engelbart was the inventor of the word processor, the mouse, the window, and had helped to establish the Internet. Following through his detailed discoveries and thought process behind inventing tools that we take for granted was both insightful and inspiring. I had recently went to a prototyping workshop, where the speaker talked about using the least amount of time and resources to make “works-like” prototypes to test out ideas. Engelbart’s card indexing system, which was inspired by Bush’s Memex device, was essentially a “works-like” prototype of a very early word processor and part of the Internet mixed into one. But he was filing and marking his cards physically! He would group cards into separate decks based on category and subcategory. Each deck would have a master card with holes that link to individual cards in the deck. Reference would be marked by serial numbers on each card. And he would needle sort individual cards into linked cards based on his thought process. While doing this experiment, he made multiple discoveries with his team relating to how the human mind process information. Then he was able to make a leap from the cards, and imagine a powerful memory to store these information and connections virtually.

There are a lot from the report that we can learn from. First and foremost is the importance of prototyping, which can lead to discoveries previously unimaginable. Another is Engelbart’s way of choosing research projects. He chose projects that not only would have long term impact but also more immediate practical applications. And he remained introspective in deciding what he want to work on. Lastly, he understood the importance of keeping up with technological trends. At one point he mentioned that it would have been possible to build an electromechanical card filing system, but that he knew it would be obsolete very soon and that electronic computers would dominate in operating this type of system.

Someday, hopefully soon, I would love to read Engelbart’s entire report. I think it would be an excellent read for anyone interested in building tools and platforms for new media.

Thoughts on As We May Think

For Applications class, we were required to read two articles from the New Media Reader and post a comment in the Applications blog for each article. I picked As We May Think by Vannevar Bush (published 1945) and From Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework by Douglas Engelbart (published 1962). Below is my comment on As We May Think. My comment for Augmenting Human Intellect will be in the next post. 

Many writings have referred to this seminal article by Vannevar Bush over the years, that I’ve came across parts and pieces many times, but have never read the full thing. I was first astonished by the accessibility of the article. Unlike the writings that have since used it as reference, Bush’s piece is clear and direct, devoid of unnecessary technical jargons and academic lingo. Aside from the content, I think this directness may have been part of the reason that the article had made such a big impact to people of different disciplines.

The content of the article flows between Bush’s vast knowledge and experience in the science and technology and his imaginative speculations for the future. Some of the issues of his time in the 1940s, when it came to computers and media, evolved around the increase of information (Bush was primarily thinking of research) and lack of technology to intuitively search and index records and lack of computers to take care of repetitive complex logical problems. Today, we have much more advanced and powerful computers that not only do complex arithmetic but can also learn from aggregated human decision making. We have the Internet with Google search, hyperlinks, and Wikipedia, where we can easily find useful information. And we have online communities where ordinary netizens can collaborate with one another and even experts to address problems or even scientific research. But even with these advances and changes in technology and culture, the underlying problems that Bush mentioned still persists, namely moving from an information explosion to a knowledge explosion.

The Memex is a well-known device from the article. It has been credited numerous times as the inspiration for personal computers and the Internet. It is a testimonial to Bush’s great mind, in the way that he was able to make the leap from what had existed to what is to come. The most interesting part for me, however, is that in the description of how the “operator of the future” would use the Memex, Bush imagined a highly idealized and conventional person. This operator use the Memex for the sole purpose of accumulating knowledge, finding insights, and getting at the truth. His (Bush refers to the operator as a he) mind is able to quickly make connections between different information and win arguments with his less innovative friends at dinner parties with the aid of this technology. What Bush probably couldn’t have foreseen was what people would actually use this technology for and that with the increase of access to retrieve, add, and edit information, how much noise would be produced that would have nothing to do with furthering our knowledge or understanding. As more people talk about machine learning, I can’t help but wonder, what about human learning? The speed in which machine learning has been enhancing has far exceeded the speed of human  learning enhancement. This is unfortunate because it means that no matter how advanced our technology may be, us humans will continue to make the same irreversible mistakes that would affect future generations.

In the last paragraph, Bush acknowledges that humans “may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good”, but he ends on a positive note nonetheless, stating that it would be unfortunate to lose hope in the application of science. To add to this, I think furthering human understanding and knowledge is not just the task of scientists and technologists. Much of progress in society came from the arts and humanities. To be optimistic, like Vannevar Bush, I think there will be more technically savvy artists, writers, and activists from diverse race, gender, and backgrounds emerging soon, as we grapple with the speed of technological advances and information explosion. Graduating from a program like ITP, we will have the privilege and responsibility to participate.

Collective Memories – Experiencing the City Reliquary

cityreliquary_rock For my Applications experience, I was sent to the City Reliquary in Williamsburg. Though I’ve been living in New York for many years and have even passed by this place many times on the way to and from the G train, I’ve never taken notice of it. It’s amazing how much you miss everyday in the city if you don’t pay attention!!


From the outside the City Reliquary looks like any other hipsterish storefront in Williamsburg. And as a matter of fact, they do share the front of the space with a hipsterish store, which confuses their visitors a bit. Many people came in to check out the store, not even knowing the back is actually a museum.


This is Ben. Ben is the director of the City Reliquary and he was manning the vintage cash register on this particular Sunday. Ben is very friendly and enthusiastic. You would definitely feel bad going in the museum without donating when Ben’s around.


The City Reliquary has a rotating exhibit as well as a permanent t collection. There are lots of interestingness, from a quasi naked doll cake to old photographs of New York childhoods to memorabilia from the 1964 World’s Fair.


The back room displays a signage from the old 2nd Ave Deli, along with rows and rows of old pencil sharpeners and Chinatown styled coffee cups as well as vestiges of New York folklores.


Even the bathroom is decorated with collective memories.


There is a spacious (by NY standard) backyard, where you are welcome to chill with beer and snacks. Someone had made a shrine of New York landmarks with a bathtub.

All in all, the City Reliquary was a delightful treat. It’s a place that makes New York seem as if it’s a big eccentric family that never throws anything away and holds on to a past where magic is always around the corner.