09 December 2008

Augmented Intelligence

It was 40 years ago today that Douglas Engelbart first demonstrated, in a single groundbreaking multimedia session, an awful lot of things that we take for granted in personal computer user interfaces now:
  • an on-screen pointer controlled by a mouse
  • a screen organised into windows
  • copying and pasting between documents
  • hyperlinks
  • one of the first (if not the first itself) slide-style presentations
The whole thing was filmed, so we can still see it today.

In 1968.

I taught for seven years, was a corporate trainer for three, and now work as a business systems analyst, and I have to say: the quality of the tools may have got better, but the tools are still basically the same. You have sound capability on most business computers, but it's often disabled or not set up, so instead you use a conference line for sound and show the visuals over remote desktop sharing. You almost always make a slide presentation, if only to kick things off, and you use the mouse pointer to keep everyone focused and on track.

And so, every time the anniversary of the invention of the mouse (in 1965) or of this demonstration comes around, I think about what the purpose of inventing all this interactive "stuff" was: the augmentation of human intelligence so that we could work better together and, to put it one way, surpass ourselves.

Have we? And if we haven't, why not?

I don't know what research has been done on this, but I do know what I've seen in workplaces, teaching, at home, and in various capacities as a volunteer. For one thing, there is often resistance to change and radically new ways of doing things. From what I've observed (and experienced myself), it's not always simple pigheadedness. There is a tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water when it comes to new technology, where some people evangelise and other people immediately become suspicious from the hard sell. I think the world would be a better place if people assessed technology rationally rather than emotionally. It feels silly to point that out, but it's true. I have four computers at home. I also have a glass pen that requires an inkwell to dip it into to write with. Both are communication technologies better suited to some contexts than others. I think we're very fortunate that Engelbart's audience wanted to analyse and innovate based on what he showd them that day 40 years ago, rather than knee-jerkedly falling into either technolust or Luddite horror.

What about groupware technologies that let people work together better? Maybe I hang out with too many Luddites, but I have to say that it's only been in the last two years that I've found people willing to use groupware without being in a paying work situation with a manager dictating its use to them. It's as if we all finally learned how to use this openly, instead of fighting with it all the time.

The major point for me as the "mother of all demonstrations" turns 40 is that while there may be the occasional flash of invention, the truth is that these changes happen far more slowly than the hype would have us believe. It's popular to build up remarkable statistics about the rate of progress. But again, that's about technology, not the real standard of living: education, nutrition, work/life balance, happiness. In some parts of the world, these have gone up. In others (including North America, where I am), they're deemed to have gone down or stayed the same, depending on the measuring stick and who's wielding it.

Ultimately the augmentation of our collective intelligence has to be done with our humanity, not our technology. Visionaries like Engelbart can provide us with excellent tools, but it's down to us to learn how to use them and apply them to the right jobs.

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