Cultural Evolution

I have noticed two themes in our semester’s readings. One is about augmenting ourselves with technology. The other is moving ourselves away from excessive technology. While one is a push for advancing the culture and efficiency of the human race, the other is a receding to the pure essence of what it means to be “human” – the “primary wants” and “individualization” of humans (Gandhi, Schumacher, Tagore).

Ted Nelson falls into the second category. His solution, hypermedia, augments and makes more efficient the process of organization, ideation, writing, and even education. Such hypermedia transcend the linear “experience” of which physical paper documents are characterized.

Nelson distinguishes file structures used for creativity and those used for data processing; the former being that which he designs “hypermedia”.

Contradiction: If Nelson’s idea heightens efficiency in creativity and problem solving, then why do so many creative writers prefer using traditional paper and pen? Why is Nelson’s complex organization tool not in pervasive use for creating fictional masterpieces?

Perhaps the way a traditional book is read and the means in which a writer writes are successful because of what the second category of our readings touch upon: they are more “human”. More simply, perhaps our minds have been selected, evolutionarily speaking, to think linearly and to write linearly. After all, men have, even before the rise of writing, told stories in a linear, narrative fashion. This harkens back to some of our first civilized societies. Our sentences are crafted linearly. We communicate with one another in a linear fashion; one thing comes after another.

The core of Nelson’s design is that which is “hyper” – complex and interrelated. And perhaps this works with some domains of work, recollection, and retrieval. But for domains of creative writing and personal reading, the linear, the “un-hyper” dimensions, seem to reign supreme. It just seems more “natural”, more “human”.

The act of writing on paper, which is so personal, lends to creativity and memory making in a way that technology does not come near.

A parallel exists for Nelson’s perspective on education. In a diagram in Dream Machines, the teacher and computer is seen as a barrier to a student’s understanding of the subject matter. The solution? Hypermedia (which he emphasizes in all caps). Education and proper learning is augmented by technology, not a far cry from his solution to solving our poor organization and writing habits.

This question has been running through my mind the past couple of weeks:

There seems to be a conflict between two different categories of thought:

1) Being more “human” (Gandhi’s “Primary Wants of Man” and “Individuality of Man”, Schumacher’s “Buddhist Economics”, Tagore’s “Creative Freedom”)

and 2) Inventive and futuristic technology to augment human capabilities and encourage thinking “Outside the Box” (like Nelson’s hypermedia)

How, as designers, can we leverage these two categories? Should we design technologies that elegantly accompany the evolutionary biologies of our brain and behavior (What it means to be human), or should we design technologies that augment and expand the “human” experience further than that of “social animals”?