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Category: Deep Literacy

Joe & Sally

The XEROX PARC chapter of personal computing explicitly changed the user from Doug Engelbart’s high-performance knowledge worker to the secretary, whom they called ‘Sally’.

As Alan Kay pointed out, and which Doug illustrated in his seminal ’62 paper with the user ‘Joe’, Doug was trying to make a violin but not everyone wants to play a violin. Today we have the Mac and Windows with their point-and-click ease and limitations, with scarcely an innovation in the last few decades worth mentioning.

This distinction was of course never in black and white and today the average computer user is much more experienced than in earlier decades and of course it is important to provide an entry to a user with a learning curve which is not too steep.

When Doug made the Keynote Address at the World Library Summit 2002 in Singapore, he pointed out that we have made ‘truly tremendous progress’ in using computer systems to help us solve problems. He continues:

But that is not what I am going to talk to you about. Not out of lack of appreciation – even a sense of wonder – over what computer technologists have developed – but because I can see that we are not yet really making good progress toward realizing the really substantial payoff that is possible. That payoff will come when we make better use of computers to bring communities of people together and to augment the very human skills that people bring to bear on difficult problems.
Engelbart, 2018

He clearly presented what he saw as the goal; ‘to get the significant payoff from using computers to augment what people can do’:

Furthermore, Doug discussed the “seductive, destructive appeal of ‘ease of use’ – A second powerful, systematic bias that leads computing technology development away from grappling with serious issues of collaboration – the kind of thing, for example, that would really make a difference to disaster response organizations – is the belief that “ease of use” is somehow equated with better products. Going back to my tricycle/bicycle analogy, it is clear that for an unskilled user, the tricycle is much easier to use. But, as we know, the payoff from investing in learning to ride on two wheels is enormous. We seem to lose sight of this very basic distinction between “ease of use” and “performance” when we evaluate computing systems.”

Sally is now well served by the software community’s continual, gradual improvements. Let’s give Joe another shot, let’s build knowledge work systems like bikes with rockets attached.

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The Capability Infrastructure

It is important to take into account that our capabilities are always part of larger infrastructures. An example is the basic tools of reading a writing; the pencil and paper. This is not one tool nor two; They are produced by manufacturing of wood products and graphite which come from locations far from their use, transported over transportation networks into factories where other components are added, such as paint and the rubber and the metal to fasten the rubber. The pencil and paper then needs to be distributed so that they may reach the consumer who can then use these ‘tools’. This is not even taking into account the education infrastructures to for the user to know how to write.

Doug’s Capability Infrastructure Map is comprised of two pillars, which he named the Human side and the Tool side with the Basic Human capabilities underneath, illustrated with many connecting lines between these sections, to highlight their interdependence. What often happens when people want to further his work is that they ignore the Basic Human capabilities underneath and then pick a side to focus on; Human or Tool side. The crucial point is however that no capabilities are present in any of these sections – all the capabilities reside in the connections between the sections. The importance of this cannot be overstated – augmenting our capabilities is inherently what we might call ‘interdisciplinary’.

I would contend that the goals for what these capabilities is not inside the Capability Infrastructure. The infrastructure is can be employed to carry out work of any morality (or lack-of). The goals of what we should achieve through the our capabilities need to have their own space for discussion so that the capabilities can be improved to deliver on the goals. My understanding from working and talking with Doug is that this was very much implicit in his work. He himself was a deeply warm and moral human being so my take on it is that he simply didn’t fully see the need to develop a message for this beyond his core ‘augmenting our capabilities to solve urgent, complex problems collectively.’

We ignore the moral direction of our development work at our peril and we should therefore probably devote some dialogue time to what we really feel we should actually work to augment.

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Facilitated Evolution

Doug Engelbart discussed the need to facilitate evolution and this is a hugely important aspect to his work, not only as it shows his intellectual openness and lack of pride in his specific ideas (he always expected others to go further and was very disappointed after the 68 demo that the category of work didn’t seem to take off) but because it accepts our lack of understanding of any ‘ultimate’ future end point and highlights the need to ‘fumble’ our way to a better future, learning as we go along.

{ Please note there have been comments on how evolution is not evolution if it’s facilitate. This is something which can be argued over coffee for those who would like to take the time but please consider that Darwin used the word ‘evolution’ only once in writing and preferred ‘descent with modification’ which makes more sense. The earlier meaning of the word was simply ‘growth to maturity’ which fits the current use of the term well }

Evolution is a product of environment and actors co-evolving, so if someone changes the actors or the environment the evolutionary pressures change.

I feel this is a very strong concept and speaks to the complexity of the world. We simply cannot ‘design’ everything we need or want because the world is too complex and our needs and wants will change as we evolve ourselves as well.

[ Another Aside: A real-world instance of facilitated evolution is education, where the curriculum and the culture of the country and the specific institutions provide a framework for thought and behaviour, facilitating innovation in some direction and curating it in other. (a curious artifact of this in the United States is how people of a right-wing persuasion say that universities have become ‘infested’ with left wing ideology, not for a minute considering that maybe getting a good education opens and enlarges the mind and this is how a more free-thinking, or ‘liberal’ mindset manifests. ]

The need to somehow facilitating evolution then asks us to look at what the elements of our thinking and working are and how we can frame the space of the innovation.

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