Augmenting the Human

I just read some excerpts of Engelbart’s 1962 report, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” While the piece was interesting, I found it kind of a hard slog at the same time. Maybe it’s because I was distracted by trying to read while hanging out with my friend’s new baby, but I think part of it is that it’s just difficult for me to imagine this framework outside of the context of the present world. Engelbart describes concepts that became today’s cut-and-paste, today’s computer mouse, today’s networks, and today’s hyperlinks, but I find it difficult to parse descriptions of these notions in a pure theoretical form, without imagining their current digital or physical form.

I’m not a true digital native; in immmigration/migration parlance you might call me a member of the 1.5 generation. My mom bought a Commodore 64 when I was about 8 years old, joined a Commodore users group, and taught herself how to code. I played computer games from a young age, and wrote a report using a word processor on the Commodore (which by then had an early version of Windows-like software, which I navigated with a joystick) when I was in the seventh grade. I never composed any piece of writing by hand after that, apart from a brief try at poetry in high school. From the age of 12, then, I’ve relied on the kinds of writing practices Engelbart dreamed of:

I found rather quickly that the job of extracting rearranging, editing and copying new statements into the cards which were to represent the current set of product statements in each grouping was rather tedious. This brought me to appreciate the value of some sort of copying device with which I could transfer specified strings of words from one card to another, thus composing new statements from fragments of existing ones. This type of device should not be too hard to develop and produce for a price that a professional man could justify paying, and it would certainly facilitate some valuable symbol-structuring processes.

Although I maintain an affection for the printed word—I dislike reading books on electronic devices, for example—it boggles my mind to think of writing a journal article, let alone a book or a dissertation, without the benefit of cut-and-paste. This ability to piece thoughts together and rearrange them on the fly is integral to my writing process. So is my intelligence augmented? I guess Engelbart would say yes.

Augmenting the Human

One thought on “Augmenting the Human

  1. You are a committed seminarian to post while on new-baby duty, Semi-structured! I agree that the initial reading of Engelbart can be slow — it’s the afterglow and fallout that I think will resonate with you after the cut and paste touchstone settles down. Among the many things I cherish about Engelbart is his vision, evident from the outset, to use computers and networks to help people solve complex problems together. In my mind, this is where the real “augmentation” lies.


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