More on getting beyond paper and linear media

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 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

4 Comments on More on getting beyond paper and linear media

  1. Hi Christina.

    It was heartwarming and a bit overwhelming to see your kind words re. my blog post, “Getting beyond paper…”. My article provided more of a background for the videos I presented, which were produced by Ted Nelson, and Google (on Engelbart’s ideas), respectively. I didn’t realize the deeper implications until I got into a conversation with a fellow blogger named Justin James in the comments. I recalled Andy van Dam saying that in NLS links contained “view” information, so a link could specify how you wanted the linked information to be formatted. I assumed that the “structured access” to information meant that a specific paragraph, or even a few sentences in a paragraph, could be referenced, rather than the whole article. As I recall, new relationships could be created dynamically to these citations, such that new discussions could take place about them in new places. I thought about how in the current web infrastructure links are only one-way, and how HTML is really a presentation/publishing format. It’s not designed to be internally addressable, except via. anchor tags, as you pointed out, and those have to be created explicitly by the author. Nelson complained further that URLs and HTML impose hierarchy where it doesn’t belong, all because our technology is wedded to the idea of monolithic files for storing information.

    Even so, I am thankful to a certain extent for the web that we have. Without it I can’t imagine how I would’ve realized any of what I’ve learned over the past 4 years (as documented on my blog).

    It was encouraging to see the guy from Google (I didn’t get his name), in his discussion with Doug, explore ideas about how Google could create a system that would somewhat resemble what Doug had in mind.

    Someone asked me what I thought of Google Wave last fall. My response was that it reminded me somewhat of Engelbart’s NLS, and then I rattled off a list of some of the exceptions. Now I have some more things to add to what’s not in Wave, come to think of it (individual comments in discussion areas can’t be linked/referenced, much less paragraphs within them). My understanding is that it’s an extendable platform (though again, this is not as easy to do as it was on NLS), so maybe someday its shortcomings will be remedied.




  2. Meant to ask, I had started reading through some of the material at the Doug Engelbart Institute a while back. So far I have not seen any material that talks about what Doug has discovered through his work on “Improving how to improve”. You referenced a presentation he gave some years back on this subject, but it sounded more like laying the groundwork for “Improving how to improve”. Has he written anywhere on the process he and the other people he’s worked with went through to improve their group process? Or, has he written about how to achieve a new outlook on how groups can work, using the infrastructure he’s talked about, in order to “improve how they improve?” The reason I ask is I’m wary of proposed technology-centric solutions to people problems, because if people don’t have insight into how to use a technology to its potential you get a lot of action that doesn’t improve anything. I use the internet as it exists today as an example of that.


  3. peter fargas // July 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm // Reply

    I know this thread is pretty old, but I’ll try it anyways. Maybe you’ll find some of my research inspiring- especially the chapter ORIGINS OF THIS DESIGN


  4. Thanks for finally writing about >More on getting beyond paper and linear media
    – Collective IQ Review <Loved it!


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