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Category: Notes On…

This category is for writings I consider fuller articles than the very brief glossary terms or other posts.

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 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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Capability Infrastructure (According to Doug Engelbart)

A short post about the Capability Infrastructure and the importance and relevancy of the technological / knowledge environments in addition to tools and human systems:  

The capabilities Doug Engelbart was aiming to augment would allow us to: 

    • Approach urgent, complex problems in order to
    • gain more rapid and better comprehension to
    • result in speedier and better solutions,
    • collectively.

These capabilities could not simply be built and let be, they would need to improve continuously as our understanding of the capabilities and problems evolve. 


We can think of capabilities as the result of what the tools allow, based on what the knowledge environment provides, exercised by a human being driven by curiosities with are either constrained by or augmented by prior understanding of the problem, the tools and the knowledge environment. 

  • What the tools allow. This is basic tool use, what we think of when we think of a tool.
  • What the knowledge environment provides. A digital environment can artificially constrain the tool use through lack of connective possibilities (such as prohibiting links inside books) and interactions (frozen PDFs for example).
  • Exercised by a human being driven by curiosities with are either constrained by or augmented by prior understanding of the problem, the tools and the knowledge environment.

Grasp #

In order to address the issue of speed and quality of comprehension we need look no further than a toddler (my son Edgar is 1 year and 1 day old today, so he is very much on my mind!), who is trying to understand something. In order to ‘get’ something he will try to ‘grasp’ it and ‘interact’ with it. This tangible interaction is to many degrees lost when we interact with our knowledge on flat, grey rectangles. Early interactions which were common in pre-digital form have been lost, such as the ability to annotate anything and to tear up and re-order our documents and to put different pieces of information on our desks and walls to really ‘expand’ our ‘view’ of the information.  

Digital Potential#

Digital information has the potential to make our interactions with the information much more fluid but so far the primary digital-native capabilities we have are the undo button and copy/cut-paste (via an invisible clipboard) and the rapid access of linked or keyword-searched whole documents. What we do not have, which would provide rich new capabilities to allow us to look at the problem information, contextual and potential improvement information, is the ability to interact with the information in fast and flexible ways–akin to racing down a hill on skis. This is something which the tool building relies on the environment to enable.  


In order to build power-tools for the mind, we need to make the environment support such power tools. This means we need to make it possible to point, to grab/grasp, manipulate, change how we view and how we share information. Much of this are issues of networks, document formats and cultural, legal and commercial artificial constraints.  

Racing Bikes#

We cannot afford to only build tricycles anymore. We must build bikes to win races, we must build racing bikes and this requires the information ‘rider’ to learn how to take both legs of the ground and learn to move at high speed through a complex environment, learning all the about the bike, it’s pros and cons, as well as learn about the environment being ridden on. At pit-stops, the rider needs to report back to the bicycle engineers what worked and what didn’t, in terms of navigation, accuracy and speed, and also listen to the engineers ideas of how experiment with the bike.

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