“Augmenting Human Intellect” Nugget 2

First any possibility for improving the effective utilization of the intellectual power of society’s problem solvers warrants the most serious consideration. This is because man’s problem-solving capability represents possibly the most important resource possessed by a society. The other contenders for first importance are all critically dependent for their development and use upon this resource. Any possibility for evolving an art or science that can couple directly and significantly to the continued development of that resource should warrant doubly serious consideration.

– Doug Engalbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework


I chose this quote as my nugget because it makes a simple yet profound statement that captures the essence of what Engalbart is working towards in his Conceptual Framework. It reveals the staggering significance of augmenting the human intellect and allows us to see our entire existence, or at least the product of our existence, as an extension of our creative problem solving abilities.

Engalbart’s description of his augmentation system almost seems like a pet project at first, better filing systems and enhanced consumption of information to suit his research purposes. But his direct and deliberate aim at augmenting the human intellect maybe one of the most significant and important projects that we could possibly aim for.

Creative problem solving is the basis for our continued survival and existence, and improvement thereof. We have come a long way since our species first began and almost all of it can be accredited to just that. The extent of creative problem solving almost seems unregarded in today’s age so full of excess and superfluity. Especially in this country, in the U.S., in all the bountifulness, it seems easy to forget that we too have our share of problems. In fact, we have more than our share. The U.S. is one of the most inegalitarian among developed countries. Here is a simple graph from an article in The Atlantic comparing increased income inequality, with the U.S leading.

UNIV 200 - Income Inequality
Income Inequality, theatlantic.com


The U.S. also has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world, among others on a long, and ever-expanding list of problems. But it seems the weight of these problems and the significance in paying mind to them has been lost on many. We live in a specialized society, everyone has a specific job or role to play. But these problems are ours to share, and all of us should have a mind to pay some attention to them. I believe what Engalbart is fighting for is an increased capacity and ability of anyone and everyone to attack these problems head on. And the first step to counteracting these problems is to be informed.

Engalbart’s augmentation system relates back to Bush’s Memex model and ideas on “associative trails,” which Engalbart himself references and esteems. My post on Bush’s article, which you can see here, talks about Bush’s idea of making the wealth of human knowledge gained over the ages more accessible and more easily manageable. This is a huge part of Engalbart’s vision and in fact he draws much from Bush’s idea of the Memex and associative trails. Much of both of their models sound somewhat relatable to a modern computer, and Engalbart himself brings into the discussion the potential of a personal computer in achieving these goals. It is funny to think that almost his entire dream is realizable through the use of a personal computer, which I assume all of us have at our disposal.

But I also bring up the personal computer because I think some of the terminology or ideas used by Engalbart can be seen through the computer. Not much of us spend time thinking about it nowadays, but there was a time when computers weren’t so user-friendly. One of the biggest leaps into the personal computer era was the development of the GUI, or Graphic User Interface. Whenever I was reading about Engalbart’s ‘symbol structures’ GUI came to mind. GUI basically allows a user to navigate through the computer using graphic icons, rather than entering commands which was once the case, and it was developed by none other than Steve Jobs, adopted by Xerox. If you can appreciate the revolutionary significance of what Steve Jobs did, then you should watch the video I have linked below. GUI is probably  his most significant contribution to the computer world and I think it relates in many ways to Engalbart’s “symbol structures.”

Steve Jobs on GUI

One thought on ““Augmenting Human Intellect” Nugget 2”

  1. Your point about problems that are “ours to share” is exactly the point Engelbart (note the spelling!) is making in the essay and the nugget. In fact, if we don’t find a way to share them more effectively and build our collective solutions more rapidly, we’re in real trouble as a species. Your analysis here focuses on a very important part of Engelbart’s vision.

    Is the idea, however, merely to be better “informed”? Maybe so; I guess it depends on what you mean by “informed.” So I’ll ask you: what do you mean by “informed”? Do you mean that we know more about what we have to fix, or do you mean something more than that?

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