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Category: Why?

Collection of posts over the years as to why the work to make digital systems more richly interactive for knowledge work.

Power Tools for the mind. Why the Tech Matters

#I am writing this since there are many who maintain that when it comes to intellectual work ‘it’s not about the tools, it’s about the human side’ and that ‘what the world needs now is not different types of links’. This is in the shadow of discussions of the greatest demo the world has ever seen. On the 9th of December 1968 Doug Engelbart did not stand on a stage and talk about his strategic vision or the philosophy behind the work – vitally important as though that is. He didn’t tell us anything. He showed us. He demonstrated. It was a ‘demo’ – not a sermon nor an outline of how we should work in an ideal world. #


#There were no days when the only tools we needed to build a dwelling was our own hands to break some twine and fashion a cover above us. Homo sapiens come from a long line of tool users, we have always been tool users. There were definitely days where the tools we used were rudimentary and direct – a simple hammer striking a nail of some sort and into wood it would settle. #

#The power and control the tools provide determines the power and control we have over what we want to build. We could not have built a sky scraper with hammer and nail and certainly not a high speed car, train or aeroplane with any tool which did not exist until their invention – tools make what we use to dwell and transport us possible. #

#It is the same with mental tools. We could not build anything beyond the most rudimentary without tools to help us plan and even to conceive of the project. This highlights the need for powerful “ Tools for Thought” (Rheingold, 2000), as Howard Rheingold put it. #

#Mental Reach Through Rich Interactivity#

#Out mental reach is as determined by our tools as much as our physical reach is. #

#“What I hear, I forget. What I say, I remember. What I do, I understand.” Said Laozi. It is the ‘doing’ that matters and to do more, to reach further, to determine what you seen and how you see, we need to built ever more powerful interactive tools and media. You cannot see further than your telescope allows. You cannot drive longer than your fuel tank allows. Similarly, you cannot reach deeper into the information than your information manipulation tools allow you to do. #

#Our basic human muscles are augmented for locomotion and our basic human mental capabilities are augmented for mental motion, as enabled by our tools and our education. #

#Ever Deeper Literacy#

#I advocate what I call the continual evolution of ever more powerful tools to allow for ever increasing deeper literacy. It’s not enough to become a master of the tools we use, we need to use the tools to provide further depths and power, we need to use our tools to bootstrap ourselves. These are Doug terms and I don’t use them just for fun, my exhortation here about the importance of building ever more powerful tools is indeed rooted in his framework, XXX#

#This is why different kinds of links matter. You cannot interact with something you cannot point to or grasp. Doug advocated high resolution addressing and this will change the very flexibility of our mental spaces. #

#Frameworks (yes, they matter)#

#As a friend of Doug’s I feel I need to highlight that I am not talking tools and tech without a framework. The reason for Doug’s success comes from his philosophy but his philosophy was not simply a love of knowledge, it was a direction for the creation and refinement of human and tool systems. #

#As a teacher and father I feel I must also acknowledge the prime importance of the human side of the equation and yes, I put my money where my mouth is: I made the point at a conference with over 40 world leaders just last week that this is really about ‘Love’, a surprising comment which my friend the moderator needed to ask me 3 times to repeat since it seemed so out of place. What I am writing here does not aim to denigrate any of the other important components just because it highlights the importance of actually building continually improved tools.#

#Furthermore, for those who feel we have ‘enough’ technology and we simply need to use it better, I simply ask you if you are really sure that’s the case. Can you see an improvement in AI and computer games graphics for example? If so, then please apply the same imagination level to the future of knowledge work tools. #

#Conclusion, Invitation#

#This is why there is a passionate community at working to build something, and we need dialogue with the wider community to guide what we build. I therefore propose that the wider community joins us on discussions on Fridays (4pm GMT) to discuss the actual demo in terms of what to show and why – even to the point of writing a script. #

#Will you join us?#

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Lorand Reply 7 March 2018

Lorand has the perspective and passion to warrant serious discussion.

First of all, I am not against AI, I think it’ll be useful and that it’s inevitable (though real hard work for the inventors). You know about J. C. R. Licklider : Man-Computer Symbiosis right? That’s the also my perspective.

I am simply focusing on symbol manipulation since I see very, very little work being done in that field. I feel that the symbols are the ‘stuff’ of work in our field, since there has to be something to work with:

Text is always ‘lossy’ yes, since getting something in and out of your head is always a process. Your reference to code is interesting and there are many aspects of text which I’d like to make more code-like. The notion of a ‘direct knowledge manipulation tool’ is quite provocative. Can you describe what form the knowledge takes and how it can be directly interacted with?

Your bullet points are great. Yes, we have a strong need to build ways to reduce the need for thinking, this is energy conservation and prioritising. Usually this is good, sometimes very, very bad. We need better means to see this and we need much more powerful ways to interact with our AI to help in this and other issues. I am happy to engage on this but I am not clever enough to offer anything substantial with AI.

I need to learn more about Dust please.

For the why, we agree.

Change the world? We have no real choice: yes.

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In reply to Ed and Fleur’s request

In reply to Ed and Fleur’s request: 

I have been having the same thoughts as Ed and further to that – maybe it would help to go forward now to hear some practical examples from everyone how all this work has helped in the past and made difference or what a practical implementation might be and what results we would like to see/ could be had. How does all the knowledge materialise? (Kjlinsma & Leahy, 2017) 

I wholeheartedly agree that specifics is where it’s at, it’s where the rubber meets the road. 

I’ll start by quoting a section from  Augmenting Human Intellect (Engelbart, 1962), where he sets the scene for a ‘virtual’ demo: His fictional guide ‘Joe’ begins, “You’re probably waiting for something impressive. What I’m trying to prime you for, though, is the realisation that the impressive new tricks all are based upon lots of changes in the little things you do. This computerised system is used over and over and over again to help me do little things — where my methods and ways of handling little things are changed until, lo, they’ve added up and suddenly I can do impressive new things.” 

The specific field I have chosen to focus on with my work is the discourse students and teachers have via documents, consisting primarily of text.  

• The aim is to help the student think more clearly, do more thorough research and to produce more credible documents.  

• Conversely, the goal is also to help the teacher quickly get to grips with the students intention and to check the documents credibility. 

Credibility is an aspect I am grateful to Ed for really highlighting (and it makes sense, he was my university teacher) and we define credibility in a document largely from how well it’s reasoned and how well its cited.  

To this end I have build  Author (named in honour of Doug’s ‘Augment’, with which it shares name roots) which focuses on the reading and writing process (it features reading and writing modes, which I know is not very fashionable in some quarters but I feel that these are very different activities), and since I am an intensely visual person the visual interface is very sparse, in the words I wrote many decades ago when I was working with Sarah Walton: Information should be within eye’s reach and interactions within hand’s reach. Most of the interactions are therefore gesture or keyboard shortcut based, something someone who is familiar with cmd-b for Bold should be comfortable with. 

Since today’s Skype call is getting near, and since this is a not something I want to take too much of your time on anyway, I will highlight some of the aspects of what I have implemented: 

To do more research I have built the Liquid tool which allows the student to search any search engine based on selected text in less than half a second, making it much faster and easier, and therefore much more likely, to look things up.  

Citations are the key aspect I am focusing on to help with the credibility. To cite simply means to bring something forth and the history of citations is very messy. What I have done in Author is to make citations tags onto specific text which point to very specific places. The user can select text, cmd-t and choose to use Mendely, Amazon or Manual entry – or, if the user can copied a youTube URL, a video. On reading the document the reader can click to check the original sources, even to play – from the moment cited – the video right inside Author, making it more credible since it’s harder to miss-quote someone or have the context obscured intentionally or by error. 

The next step will be to to work on the ‘clear thinking’ aim, by building the  Dynamic Views  into Author so that a student can learn more about the space he or she is writing about in a concept map space and organise and link and see what they know and therefore maybe also learn more about what might be missing. How far this can go I don’t know, hence my hope that this can be my PhD project (pending approval). 

On the teacher/reader side I plan great things (import and Publish modules to do many automatic things to check the document) but at this point a focus on another Doug perspective, ViewSpecs, has started: Select any text and hit cmd-f and only the sentences with the selected text are displayed.  

These are some of my basic aims and how I am working on achieving them. I hope it goes some way to address the question from my point of view and I hope others in this community will add to this thread! 


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