Inspired by a recent blog by Mark Miller Getting beyond paper and linear media, May 6, 2010, here is some additional context from Doug Engelbart’s thinking.
In fact, you can find deep thinking on this theme as early as 1962 in his seminal report Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (see esp. section II.C.4).
Doug Engelbart was convinced from the beginning that the incredible power of the human mind has been seriously under served and limited by the ways we’ve evolved to express ourselves — by our very language, and even more so by the technologies we developed throughout history for recording and making available what’s in our mind – stone tablets, scrolls, printed paper, etc. The opportunity he saw for computers was to bring us much more advanced ways to conceptualize, express, capture, store, access, and broadly share and exchange, and otherwise leverage our thinking capacity. If you want to dramatically improve how we work together to solve important problems — i.e. to boost our collective IQ, which was Doug’s goal from the start — this idea would be a great starting point in considering how computers could be harnessed to really help with that.
So for example, if I were to make the suggestion “think of your car”, you would have an instant view in your mind of your car, “now picture the interior, front seat, dash board, what’s inside your glove compartment” your mind just bombs around the information you have stored away at any level of detail, in any combination, from any vantage point, depending on what you’re thinking about at a given moment. Our minds can also make instantaneous connections between different pieces of information, sparking brand new ideas.
Pages that you scroll through don’t offer this agility. Search engines offer a bit more help, although (1) search hits typically point you to the top of a page or file, rather than directly to the piece of information you are searching on, so after you click on the link you then need to Find or Scroll your way down through the (in this moment) extraneous stuff to finally arrive at what the search engine found potentially relevant, and (2) there are typically multiple hits, and sorting through them is laborious. If the author thought ahead to put anchor points at the places which in future someone might want to link to, that could help.
Connecting information in our information spaces provides further challenges. First, there are barriers between information spaces. Second, once I find the info I’m looking for, I can’t save or share a link directly to it for the same reason the search engines can’t, so I’m generally limited to creating a link to the top of a file with pointers on how to get to the specific info. Note that I thoughtfully inserted the anchor name #Pages on the preceding paragraph, so you can send someone this link https://collectiveiq.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/more-on-getting-beyond-paper-and-linear-media/#Pages directly to that paragraph. However, it would be hard for you to know that, it’s hard to find that out on your own unless you can View Source and painstakingly read through the HTML code.
One thing that could really help would be for our tools to provide more granular addressability for us. Spreadsheet applications do this — every cell in every spreadsheet is uniquely addressable. Documents should offer the same granularity. You’ll find a crude example in Doug’s 1962 paper cited above with its “purple numbers” in the right margins; clicking on a purple number will “jump” you to that paragraph, right-clicking on it allows you to Copy Link Location directly to that paragraph to paste elsewhere (see Doug Engelbart Institute’s About Our Website).
Over the years Doug identified a set of key functional and architectural elements like granular addressability that are crucial for advancing how computers can really begin to augment rather than automate or otherwise bypass the untapped potential of our individual and collective intellect. See About an Open Hyperdocument System (OHS) for highlights and links to more detail.
Note that beyond our language and tools, the way we interface to our work can be greatly limiting our untapped potential. This interface goes beyond the usual concerns of human-computer interface (HCI — the interface to our tools), to encompass the interface to our entire work environment — i.e. to tools we use as well as the facilities, work practices, processes, methodologies, customs, attitudes, etc. invoked when we engage with each other and our information. See Doug’s paper Improving Our Ability to Improve, 2003 (esp. page 11 beginning “Another critical focus area”).
Needless to say, directions in mainstream computing since Doug’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos” were largely disappointing to Doug and his like-minded colleagues — the advent of personal computers with no provision for networking or shared knowledge spaces, office automation (why would you automate how you used to work?), desktop publishing and WYSIWYG (easy to learn is great, as long as it doesn’t also mean funneling advanced users into lowest common denominator “what you see is ALL you get” paper-based paradigms).
So what’s missing in today’s information technology? A fundamental paradigm shift. I am reminded of the Einstein quote “The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
For more on Doug’s vision as well as what he and his research team implemented, see the Doug Engelbart Institute website http://dougengelbart.org.