Memory Supplements and Cylons (Becky)

Bush, Sutherland, and Engelbart are all discussing ways that humans can interact with existing and future technology. And each is discussing ways to bridge the gap between humans and computing systems—that is, developing interfaces. But the differences in and progression of approaches is fascinating.

Particularly interesting to look at is the way in which the authors propose to extend cognition. Bush’s Memex device seems to be all about offloading information, organizing memories in a receiving device. These memories can be linked and stored, but the ideas can’t be manipulated. In Sutherland’s Sketchpad, graphical manipulation is possible via the interface—the device is a more active participant, so to speak, in the process of meaning making. Engelbart, meanwhile, extends these ideas even further and wants to change human behavior to build a sort of symbiotic system of human-computer interaction and augmented human intelligence.

Bush describes Memex as a “memory supplement.” A piece of furniture, the technology is meant to be integrated as seamlessly as possible into humans’ surroundings. The human user does all the thinking and processing and then the products are stored in the Memex  as images or sounds (in miniature!) that can be recalled. They can be sent to others and loaded into other Memex devices to share the information wealth. This is essentially the process of saving and sharing files today.

The Memex user is responsible for establishing trails and remembering codes, which seem to be somewhat unnatural even if they’re mnemonic. Perhaps that is why we ended up with icons that look like folders and software that can establish the trails for us (and that is more organized around “goals” as Licklider describes). But the general concept of linking information has withstood the test of time. (As has, perhaps, Bush’s “roomful of girls”/secretaries in the form of Romney’s “binders full of women” and others’ colorful phrases.)

Wearable tech is a not-fully-realized projection of Bush’s ideas. Technology is becoming more seamlessly integrated into human behavior and the environment as devices become smaller. The GoPro looks close to the “little lump larger than a walnut” that Bush describes a “camera hound” wearing in the future. And thanks to ubiquitous smartphones with cameras on their backs, the capability to record life in still photos as Bush imagines is standard these days. But there is much more to do along this path.

Bush's scientist of the future and a GoPro with a head mount

Bush’s scientist of the future and a GoPro with a head mount

With the Sketchpad, or the computerized Etch A Sketch, we start to see the beginnings of interfaces that are more a part of the cognitive process as opposed to memory storage devices. Many of the descriptions seem as if they could be explaining interactions today, with Photoshop, for instance. The ideas of recursive functions and creating instances of master versions have certainly spanned the decades and been deeply ingrained in today’s software. And tablets seem to be descendants of the Sketchpad and light pen ideas.

Etch A Sketch from CC BY-SA 3.0

Etch A Sketch from CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, if I’m understanding correctly, Engelbart builds on Bush’s linking trails and describes technology that performs in a way that is similar to the way humans make meaning and manipulate symbols—a non-serial conceptual structure. Yes, the technology he describes offloads information and stores it. But it also helps humans in the process of making meaning, if humans can make little changes to their MOs.

Many of the ideas that Engelbart describes sound eerily familiar. Parts of his process of working with statements could easily be explaining today’s word processing. His clerk seems like it could be describing today’s software or hardware, I can’t quite tell which.  And I wonder if Engelbart (and Licklider) could’ve imagined where the networking concepts have led. Yet, the way the augmented architect operates, by using a pointer and then moving his hand over the keyboard, is a bit cryptic—is this is describing what we do today with a mouse and a keyboard or something else that hasn’t been adopted (97)?

Taking a broad view, Engelbart appears to be making the case for even closer integration between humans and computers. Bush too wondered about a more direct path for transferring information, though in a different context. What is the natural extension of these trains of thought? Augmented reality? Neural implants? Battlestar Galactica–style cylons?