Reading: “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” by Douglas Engelbart. Excepted from Summary Report AFOSR-3233 under Contract AF 49(638)-1024, SRI Project 3578 for Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Stanford Research Institute, October 1962. (Full reprint here). In these excerpts, Engelbart attempts to capture the complexity of human problems and his framework for “augmenting human intellect” to help people solve their problems efficiently. His example for a computer-based augmentation system to structure an argument (Section III.B4) emphasizes the non-linear (or non-serial) nature of thought exercises. The ability to form connections between concepts/statements seems particularly important. The computer-based augmentation system to structure an argument asks the user to call links out explicitly, as the user organizes their thoughts. These links may come in many flavors, from dictionary lookup tables to the “associative trails” that Vannevar Bush described in the first article we read. There may be links that we are unaware of when we begin to form an argument. In an earlier section of the article, Englebart describes using the a card-based system to write a memo:
I first developed a set of cards upon each of which I described a separate consideration, possibility, or specification about the memo – in the disorderly sequence in which they occurred to my as my thoughts about the basic features of the memo evolved. (Section III.A2.d)
Englebart’s thoughts may not be randomly ordered, as he implies in the statement above. Perhaps there are subconscious, implicit links between these concepts. In the systems that Englebart describe, he implicitly requires that we must know the links if we are to add them in our organization. In some ways, the augmentation system reminded me of Microsoft Word’s “track changes” functionality. Within a short time frame this feature can be an incredibly useful reminder of structure and organization decisions. There are many limitations, however. Have you ever revisited one of these documents months later? While the changes have been documented, and perhaps even numbered in the order you made the changes, it is still very hard to remember exactly why you deleted that sentence that now seems crucial to your argument. It would be wonderful to add “links” to connect these organizational changes to some motivating reason behind them (you just removed a sentence from paragraph 3, so as a result you modified a caption in Figure 5). However, we would have to wade through a massive amount of data generated by these types of versioning systems (how many times did you change paragraph 3?). We are trading one problem for another.