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Category: Deep Literacy

Symbol Space

In Doug’s Capability Infrastructure Diagram the human system and the tool system are clearly shown as vertical columns with lines connecting in myriads of ways to create capabilities in the centre. For example, a tool system capability to ‘copy’ will only be useful if the user knows how and why to carry out the command.

What is missing from the diagram though are two things though: The technical infrastructure and the symbol space.

The technical infrastructure is document formats and network protocols. This is what either allows tools to give the user certain capabilities or constrain them. For example, the user cannot create a citation link to a specific section of a commercially bought and copy protected book, unless the vendor opens the software to allow this type of tool use.

The second issue is harder to explain and define and I’ve decided to name it the ‘Symbol Space’. What it entails is more on the Marshall McLuhan media side of things, it’s about the digital media; what it can enable–what the opportunities are and what the constraints are. The basic notion is that what a human manipulates thorough the computer is symbols.

This is where issues of symbol manipulation, view specs and high-resolution addressing comes in.

These are ‘things’ which can be implemented in technology, or ‘instantiated’ in many different ways, depending on what the infrastructures allow for. This is one thing I wish I had the opportunity to discuss with Doug.

I have put up symbolspace.info as a place to investigate this further from.

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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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