Many of the computer designs we take for granted today have had a vivid and imaginative intellectual history. The potential in a computer to do more than just big calculations was noticeable to a significant cohort. Engelbart clearly understood that computation is not just arithmetic calculation, but a machine that can generally work on a symbolic level. In fact, he claimed in his proposal of a hypothetical machine capable of augmenting human intellect, “Every person who does his thinking with symbolized concepts (whether in the form of the English language, pictographs, formal logic, or mathematics) should be able to benefit significantly.” Engelbart acutely drew out the limitations of both the machine and man when they work individually, and demonstrated that when their strengths are combined, it allows the man to work on a new level of efficiency and productivity. Moreover, he took a closer, investigative look at the nature of human cognition to explain the benefits of a computer more suitable to universal human needs. First, he clearly understood the limitation of humans to manage large amounts of information efficiently, which is a prerequisite in solving complex problems. I think that it’s not that humans cannot handle complexity, but rather that since memorizing large data sets are unnatural, it is hard. Secondly, he identified a flaw in the way the conventional pen and paper style of expressing and accumulating human thought constraints the natural symbol-structuring of the human thought process which is not in a serial fashion, but rather a sequential one.
If there were to emerge a “symbiotic association” between man and machine, there needed to be developed an interface between the two different systems so that man can essentially “communicate” or interact with the artifact. This was a significant step forward in computational thinking, moving from the conventional model of the man having a clear understanding about his work and instructing the computer what to do before hand. The Sketchpad was a radically new way of computing, allowing for the user to “talk to the computer graphically”. One of the key features in the “magic” of Sketchpad was a comprehensive memory storage system. The computer essentially translated the graphics as distinct objects to store them and their properties in a designated location. Another was the duplication or replication feature which afforded to make copies of the “masterpicture” (subpictures) which in turn allowed for much greater flexibility in problem solving (mistakes, changes). Since the symbol-structuring in the human mind was commonly understood to work in conceptual structures, visualization of concepts, Engelbart believed, was a great start in building a common ground between the artifact and man. Difference equations built into the program also facilitated dynamic interaction between the user and the computer, because both man and machine could cognitively operate (draw inferences) on the symbolic paradigm of math. “A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane” (Bush)
- Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic, July, 1945.
- Engelbart, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” First published, 1962. As reprinted in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003
- Ivan Sutherland, “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System” (1963)
- J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960) | “The Computer as Communication Device” (1968)