Today is my birthday. I am 29 years old. You may commemorate this joyous occasion by sending me an item of your choice from my wishlist.
This morning I revisited a couple of early classics of hypertext and human-computer interaction, reading assignments for a class I’m taking on Distributed Information Management. The first was Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay “As We May Think”, the second was Doug Engelbart’s 1962 report on “Augmenting Human Intellect.” The prescience they exhibit is uncanny: Bush describes the web, while Engelbart describes word processing and computer-aided architectural design using a mouse. (Of course Bush and Engelbart weren’t just seers: part of the reason our present looks like their future is that the visions they outlined became blueprints for a generation of technologists.)
But what struck me upon this reading was not the foresight, but what I could see in hindsight. Both Bush and Engelbart focus on the individual human and the ways technology can extend (or “augment”) his powers of learning and reasoning. Engelbart lays out a case for what would become the early mode of human-computer interaction research, heavily focused on cognitive science and a view of individuals as symbol processors executing hierarchical plans. Contrast that to the technofuturists of today, who tend to focus on the ways technology can harness “the wisdom of crowds,” and for whom sociology has replaced cognitive science as the discipline with which computer science must blend.
It’s easy to look back 40 years and recognize that, on the one hand, Engelbart’s ideas about the mouse were incredibly prescient, but that, on the other hand, his claims that the best way to evaluate intellect augmentation technology is to try it out on intellect augmentation researchers were incredibly naive. It’s much harder to make such judgments about today’s visions of our technological future. What will our grand pronouncements about ubiquitous computing or remix culture look like 40 years from now?