“Mind-full” Learning

7 03 2013

In our New Media Seminar today, I was rather quiet, not because I had nothing to say, but rather because my mind was constantly spinning around the conceptual framework articulated in Douglas Engelbart’s 1962 article entitled “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”

The essence of Engelbart’s article could be described as constructing a conceptual framework for conceptual frameworks. One of Engelbart’s overarching objectives, articulated so well by Gardner Campbell, was to improve (i.e., augment) the process of thinking and to improve the process of improving the process. You may need to read that last sentence twice!

I found Engelbart’s article intriguing. While reading the article and during our seminar conversation, I found myself trying to deconstruct how I read his article, what I highlighted and why, etc., being mindful of the techniques Engelbart introduces. When describing his framework, Engelbart comments “we have learned quite a few simple tricks for leaving appended road signs, supplementary information, questions, and auxiliary links on our working structures – in such a manner that they never get in our way as we work – so that the visitor to our structure can gain his comprehension and isolate what he wants in marvelously short order.” To me, this is the essence of Engelbart’s process for augmenting knowledge – to find the most elegant way to structure and connect ideas so the “scaffolding” by which the mind had created the knowledge is revealed, furthering learning and advancing knowledge.

One example I have, that connects to my previous post, can be found in the quote below from Engelbart’s article where he talks about his research program:

  • “In particular, the electronic-based experimental program could simulate the types of processes available from electromechanical artifacts, if it seemed possible (from the vantage of experience with the wide range of augmentation processes) that relatively powerful augmentation systems could be based upon their capabilities – but the relative payoffs for providing even-more-sophisticated artifact capabilities could be assessed too so that considerations of how much to invest in capital equipment versus how much increase in human effectiveness to expect could be based upon some experimental data.”
Figure 5 from Engelbart’s article

Figure 5 from Engelbart’s article

If I had the capabilities of Engelbart’s human intellect augmentation system at my fingertips, I would link the latter part of the above quote to my previous post (as I have done), and append substructures on cybernetics, binary economics, innovation and jobs, co-operatives, etc., establishing the scaffolding for a new research agenda targeted at understanding how capital and labor “productiveness” (and the combination of the two) are linked with wealth and what this holds for a sustainable future. What would be interesting is whether revealing the structure of my thought process would enable others to comprehend the ideas faster (and more deeply) than they would have done had they read the same ideas in a proposal or journal article. This question highlights a challenge faced by Engelbart when trying to articulate his ideas. There is a certain irony to writing a “linear” article describing a conceptual framework that is designed to enable you to tear the very same article apart and reconstruct it in a fundamentally different way. I have no doubt that Engelbart’s conceptual framework would enable one to experience complexity usefully, which perhaps best embodies what he was trying to achieve.

Finally, an interesting question raised during our discussion was whether a human intellect augmentation system (as envisioned by Engelbart) would lead to atrophy, automation, or augmentation of the mind. Only time will answer this question.

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