This post has been about three weeks in coming; I also suspect I’m going to reveal my ignorance again, but I need some clarification. Gardner started things off by posting on Wade Roush’s discussion of Continuous Computing. In his post, Gardner wrote:
As you’ll see from some of the comments I’ve left, I’m still not convinced that transparent computing is the only paradigm we should consider or work toward. (Doug Engelbart’s vision won’t let go of me.)
Hmmm. That sounds interesting. First I read Wade Roush’s discussion, which I summarize with this quotation:
Using relatively affordable set of computing devices and Web-based services, it’s now possible for people who live in populated areas of developed countries (and increasingly, developing ones) to move through their entire day inside a kind of invisible, always-on information field. …One of the most salient facts about the information field is that it enables people to both pull information about virtually anything from anywhere, at any time, and push their own ideas and their personal presence back onto the Internet
Then I followed Gardner’s links to Howard Rheingold’s discussion of Doug Engelbart’s vision, from which I quote below.
Engelbart’s vision is of the computer as a mind amplifying device, which “can help intellectual workers think better.”
The hypothesis [Englebart] presented in the 1963 framework was that computers represent a new stage in the evolution of human intellectual capabilities. The concept manipulation stage was the earliest, based in biological capabilities of the brain, followed by the stage of symbol manipulation based on speech and writing, and the stage of manual external symbol manipulation, based on printing. …
The computer-based typewriter was an example of the coming fourth stage of automated external symbol manipulation, to be brought about by, but not limited to, the application of computers to the process of thinking and communicating …
The third-stage goal was to build an entire toolkit for intellectual tasks, and develop the procedures and methods by which those tools could be used, individually and collectively, to boost the performance of people who did information-related work. The toolkit would then be used to develop new modes of computer-aided human collaboration.
This illustrates Engelbart’s notion of bootstrapping, “building the tools to build better tools, and testing them on yourself as you go along.”
Now that we have a sense of Roush’s and Engelbart’s visions, let’s revisit Gardner’s comment on Roush:
These are compelling essays and concepts, but a small worry persists: will the Grail of invisible, continuous, ubiquitous computing turn out to be a cognitive deadener, too? Some things work best when they’re visible and a little recalcitrant: writing, for example, or thinking, for another example. If we use symbols effortlessly, there’s a risk we’ll settle for the path of least resistance automatically rather than go for the more ambitious and difficult goals, the computer equivalent of a set of grunts and gestures instead of a language, which involves a fair amount of work to acquire and use well but has rich payoffs in terms of semantic density. I think in this regard of Doug Engelbart’s frustration with an “ease of use” idea that settles for less than the full potential of computers to augment our intellect.
Now admittedly, I find it easier to see common denominators than differences, but are these two views contradictory? I suspect that we may be discussing two types of people or two stages of use, with Roush describing everyday users, while Engelbart (and Gardner) talking about folks on the frontier.