Monthly Archives: January 2014

The switching function

As Sandra mentioned, modern machinery has allowed us to multi-task far more than either of these authors might have anticipated.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, discussed the effects of multi-tasking in the context of a juggler’s brain. Basic neuroscience: neurons that fire together, wire together. The inverse holds: neurons that do NOT fire together, do NOT wire together. Brain activity involved with deep thinking (the kind necessary to formulate a “coherent picture” of an ambiguous situation – as Licklider deems vital) is vastly different than that involved in multi-tasking. As modern day demands paint productivity as the ability to employ an efficient “switching function,” our brain’s file system begins to organize methods of reaching content in PLACE of connections between the content derived from internalization.

Engelbart mentions that this is the result of the separate institutionalization of information transmission and information processing and that when melded together can create strong intellectual and social benefits.

What would this melding look like? What would a man-computer symbiosis look like in the context of constructing a coherent picture of an unclear situation? With the volume, velocity, and variety of information simply available at our fingertips, how does one formulate an opinion, question, statement, etc. WITH a computer without simply offloading clerical tasks and rendering the computer an extension of one’s self? How do we reconcile this offloading with the trend towards computer-based beings putting humans in a position to help rather than be helped?

As Licklider mentioned, the computer’s competence must supplement one’s own. As technology’s capabilities increase, will ours as well?

Late to the party…

Licklider’s piece was fascinating . As others have mentioned, it was imbued with a large amount of technological optimism. For all the amusing peculiarities of its vision, the prognostications in the piece were prescient.

That said, I struggled with it — it took a couple readings to get myself in the right headspace to read it. I come from a somewhat different background – I work on household energy and its impacts on health, predominantly in the developing world.  It took me a while to mute my views on development and technology and to try, with limited success, to place them in the framework of the 60s. I don’t think criticisms arising from those more modern perspectives are invalid — indeed, by the time of Licklider’s writings, US international development organizations had come onto the scene , Peace Corps and Fulbright were ‘things,’ and global economic disparities were acknowledged. With that in mind, the unbridled, optimistic view of technology contrasted with stark global disparities.

I found Engelbart’s piece less approachable. There’s no arguing his contributions – but, in my mind, the concept of computing as a solution to far-reaching global problems is challenging. I read into it an implied (and unintentional) ‘us and them’ mentality , where we solve global problems for others. Not sure that pans out, in the long run.

This all comes across as remarkably negative — not intentionally so. Both pieces are definitely thought-provoking, exciting, and point toward what Tap highlighted. I’m a little hung up on those folks who aren’t getting connected and don’t have any — let alone pervasive — access to communications and knowledge tools… and what the implications are of plowing forward without finding a way to reach them.

Even Pete Seeger was hopeful

Great responses!

But isn’t there at least a little room for being hopeful? Even a die-hard activist like Pete Seeger was optimistic:

Many of the key issues that we face must be addressed by some form of collective action. Surely the kind of communications and knowledge tools described by Licklider and Engelbart, including many of which we have today, have some role to play in improving our ability to understand one another and make collective decisions? Why isn’t this happening – is the problem with technology, or with ourselves?


Symbiosis and Lifelogging

I found Licklider’s concept of “Man-Computer Symbiosis” interesting for it’s relevance and applications to the technology of today and the near future, particularly that of the Swedish lifelogging technology Narrative (formerly known as Memoto). While there are, as he distinguishes from true “symbiosis”, many instances of the “Mechanically Extended Man”, I found it a bit of a challenge to immediately think of present day examples of man-computer symbiosis. After wrestling to find a technological analogy to his mutually reciprocating fig tree and Blastophaga grossorun insect, I thought of “Narrative” ( Narrative is “a tiny, wearable, automatic camera and app that gives you a searchable and shareable photographic memory.” One wears the coin sized device on his or her clothing, and the device automatically takes one photo every few minutes during the course of the user’s day. A symbiotic use of this technology would perhaps consist of the following: The device helps a user remember various events during the day. The user then curates and picks out which amongst those photographs are actually meaningful and worth remembering. The device learns which types of photos (faces, nature, objects, words) the user likes and organizes or curates such types of photos for the user; the human benefits from technology, and the technology “benefits” from the human, assuming its machine learning capabilities are up to par. I also wonder about applying Narrative to users with Alzheimers; can a symbiotic relationship be reached in which patients can benefit from fluid memory recall and the device can benefit from learning its patient’s pattern of memory lapses? More broadly, how can we design such lifelogging devices to compliment the nature of human memory? And how must we rewire our (social or psychological) behavior to adopt lifelogging devices?

Ease of Use vs. Innovation

The part that struck me the most from the readings was Engelbart’s view on how ‘ease of use’ is equated with better products, and how this can impact the pace of technological innovation. As designers, we are told to prioritize ease of use to ensure that there is a greater adoption of technology, but Engelbart believes that this dumbs down the system. I wonder how he would view something like the new Google contact lenses.

As per Om Malik (, the biggest problem with Google’s new innovation is that they have not taken into account whether a contact lens is the best way to solve this problem for diabetics. Google, may argue that this solution is far broader than just the health monitoring and therefore the next phase in their innovation cycle was the lenses. The question of how a technological product of this sort needs to be approached to encourage adoption without limiting innovation would be key for product designers.

Who is we?

My first response to the idea of improving our ability to improve was, why would we need to do that? I think my 2 year-old iPhone will last 4 more if I’m nice to it, and what else do I need? Hasn’t technology come far enough that we can start focusing on more important things now? My initial thought was, wouldn’t it be better to work on improving others’ ability to improve, to solve their own problems, etc, etc… but I made a mistake, subconsciously excluding most of the world, others, people who don’t have iPhones. Oops. 

The discussion of rethinking market pressure and processes did remind me of my time at a big evil food company a long time ago, but I don’t think Engelbart was talking about improving our first-world ability to improve production and business processes.

My question: Whose ability to improve are we talking about? What does a global community for sharing knowledge look like, and who is included or not included?

Thoughts on Licklider

What do you all think of Licklider’s final 4 assertions on p. 40? My thoughts on the first two.

  1. “First, life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.”

    Maybe. Sometimes it is nice finding other people who think just like me, but that’s also a troubling way to filter out the rest of the world. It limits what you’re able to learn more than it expands it, right? Like, some of the best parts of my experience here at Berkeley have happened when I discovered something that wasn’t even on my radar. I want my OLIVER to introduce me to the things I ought to know about, but don’t yet. Not sure how that would work exactly, but it would be cool.

  2. “Second, communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable.”

    Communication isn’t just about efficiency, dude. Melding external and internal representations is certainly a part of communicating, but hardly the only job being done. I realize that this kind of rationale is a bit dated (speaking of which, that bikini-bike cartoon kind of gave me the creeps), but if rapid, interactive model-convergence is Licklider’s idealized model of dialog, I definitely want to skip that cocktail party.

Augmenting the Augmenters

On a similar note to Colin’s earlier post, I find the focus of human augmentation on the augmenters themselves to be an important and telling aspect of both Licklider and Englebart’s writing.  While there are some predictions about the direction of future technology that, with the clarity of hindsight, seem humorously absurd (see: the illustration in Licklider’s article of a man wooing a woman with a computer-assisted drawing of a heart), the respective gists of each man’s predictions have largely come to pass over the last half of a century.  Communication has indeed become much faster.  We have the answers to an enormous number of arbitrary queries at our fingertips.  In the spirit of Selfridge’s OLIVER, our computers certainly do know “what you do, what you read, what you buy and where you buy it … who your friends are, your mere acquaintances,” for better or for worse.  Yet while many people have benefited from the dawn of the technological era, it is true that, as advocated by Englebart, the technological elite themselves have often been the first and most advantageously positioned beneficiaries.

Both Licklider’s and Englebart’s enthusiasm is archetypical for the traditional approach to the development of technology.  Both write excitedly about the hypothetical rapid acceleration of technological advance, a precursor the the “technological singularity” that, still today, many in the tech industry await with religious conviction.  But it is essential to be critical of the well-intentioned utopian view that they espouse in their writing.  Because as technology continues to advance, it seems inevitable that power will be concentrated in the hands of those who produce it.  And every ruler is a good one until they take the throne.

An alcoholic trying to save the world by drinking

Engelbart’s (and perhaps Licklider’s) folly is revealed in the “Restoring Balance” section of his IBM speech in the 1st of his two major challenges that computing has failed to address:

“We are still not able to address critically important problems- particularly if those problems demand high performance ability to collect and share knowledge across groups of people.”

To Engelbart, these problems are things like preventing the spread of AIDS, managing global natural resources, and “containing terrorism”.  The need to solve these problems and how to go about it quickly shifts into the realm of values creation.  These visions of “the good life”, I believe, have nothing to do with computing.  Trying to solve them by improving computing is as sensical as a surfer trying to decrease child mortality by surfing increasingly difficult waves.   If a computer can help the US government contain terrorism, then it would also have the ability to help terrorists spread terror in ingenious and discontinuously innovative ways.

He says that we need  to become better at being human. Now why do we need computers to do that?


Augmentation or Distraction?

Both Licklider and Engelbart idealized a world where technology could be used to further enhance human capabilities in thinking and communication. Today’s world of individual computing systems differs wildly from the shared mainframes and limited capacities of the 1960s: laptops and tablets are effective desk-surface displays, projectors and large-scale screens are flexible wall displays, and smart phones are ideal, personalized units. A connection to the Internet enables us to access almost any information we could conceivably need in order to have effective “thinking time,” with powerful search algorithms and seemingly unlimited memory right at our fingertips.


But are our current solutions a step towards realizing those ideals, or have computers become more distraction than augmentation?


The simple power of modern machinery has allowed us to multi-task beyond what Licklider or Engelbart might have expected. Licklider even described a multi-tasking situation where people could thumb through primary data while somebody else presented. We can certainly do this now: instead of interrupting a talk to ask for clarification on a term, we can simply search for it on our personal devices, or communicate silently through instant messaging to a fellow observer to discuss a background topic.


Are we depriving our fellow audience members from what could have been a worthwhile discussion? How easy is it, really, to avoid the temptation of browsing non-related topics? Personalized computers are enablers for distraction as much as they are useful for intellectual augmentation.


Are there solutions to this problem, or do we simply need to learn to discipline ourselves?