Those who believe Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are the founding fathers of social media are sorely mistaken. Facebook and Twitter may have fueled the social media-driven world today, but the ideas of computer-based community are older than many may think.
I must confess, I was among that number. I mean, of course I knew those two sites were not the first social media outlets. Who could forget about MySpace and Friendster. Or Xanga. Or AOL Instant Messenger, where you didn’t just use Comic Sans in your profile, you were proud of it. (But I digress…)
We may feel old reminiscing about these now-dated online communities, a feeling in itself that is silly for 20-somethings, but those programs were still older than the roots of social media ideas by about five decades, give or take.
In July 1945, The Atlantic published a piece by Vannevar Bush titled “As We May Think.” The content was very forward-thinking and speculative about the future of technology. Especially when it came to computer technology.
“A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”
At the time, this “memex” was not an actual piece of hardware Bush was describing, but an idea. And one that inspired.
Five years after Doug Engelbart came across Bush’s article, he began to look for a way to solve a problem that both men recognized:
“…humankind was moving into an era in which the complexity and urgency of global problems were surpassing time-honored tools for dealing with problems.” [As quoted in "The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Thinker."]
The solution that Engelbart came to (and what Bush was envisioning in the “memex”) was augmentation. Creating something that would act as an extension of our intellect but not a physical part of it. And being the Google-dependent people we are today, that is how our modern technology serves us. We are no longer required to catalog every bit of information in our brains, but rather know how to use the tools available to us to access it. Bush sought a technology to, as Howard Rheingold writes, “improve the quality of human thinking.” Not hinder. Improve.
Well, the modern technologies that developed from these early ideas have certainly expanded our tools and resources for acquiring information. However, that is more a quantifiable variable than qualitative. In fact, some believe that these tools take away from our intellectual abilities, our critical thinking skills. [See: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"]
Surely that is not what Bush and Engelbart intended. And if you ask me, any decrease in our cognitive skills is not a direct effect from advanced technologies that, quite literally, can do our thinking for us. It is your own duty to treat these tools as, well, tools.
“Human intellect uses tools, but the power of the human mind is not itself limited to the tools the human brain automatically provides.” -Rheingold
Or, in this case, the tools that technology provides.
To some, these ideas may not seem like the basis of social media, but just a general basis of modern computer technology. However, it has everything to do with social media.
Our professor personally defines social media as searching, archiving and retrieving information and using it to think better. An idea that matches Bush’s want of something to “improve the quality of human thinking.”
So when you search a hashtag about, say, the Republican National Convention (#RNC), you are provided with an archive of what people are contributing to the conversation. As you scan them you retrieve their ideas and gain context for your personal thoughts allowing you to think better about the situation.
And then you republish your reaction to the melting pot of information and ideas that is society’s “augmented knowledge system.”
The thoughts and ideas about technology and sharing knowledege that Doug Englebart and Vannevar Bush had in the 40’s and 50’s are crucial to our lives today. It surprises me that at that time men like them were hopeful in creating software and machines like computers to provide a place for individuals to share information and help them learn. However, after reading the chapter in “Tools for Thought” by Howard Rheingold and “As We May Think” by Bush it becomes clear that all the technology, software and networks we use today have been in the process of becoming a reality for many years.
One software Englebart was trying to put together resembles the social media networks and archiving software used by society today. The software named journal was a software that was designed to allow individuals or groups to a communicating space where sharing thought could be made possible. The software enabled individuals to insert comments into the group record or browse through them and allowed programmers to trace the way system features had evolved. These are softwares we use today in our everyday lives and many people could not even think about not having them.
Without individuals like Bush and Englebart, who thought of the future and did not stick with whatever was available at the moment, technology would not be what it is today. Individuals like them are most likely right at this moment trying to figure out new ways in which technology can help us learn.
The idea of augmenting human intellect that Englebart had seems to be what allowed him to continue his research and developments and not give up despite what others said. Therefore, this should be a guidance to those who are trying to contribute to society through technology.
The singular idea being expressed in both articles seems to be the idea of letting new technologies into our lives. Just as man struggled to understand the complexities of the wheel, steel, science, and so much more it will only continue as technologies advance and grow. The idea now needs to switch from this simple-minded idea that we are not able to adjust or adapt is ludicrous! My grandparents barely know how to work a computer and when it comes to a smart phone they won’t even take the time to learn. What I am trying to get at is switching peoples notions that these technologies are indeed useful and beneficial. Vannever Bush describes this idea in greater detail in his article As We May Think.
“Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.”
This idea that all these great advancements need to endure, have endured throughout time due to the willigness of the human race to continue to learn and adapt to our ever changing environment. It may no longer be about the ‘survival of the fittest’ but more so survival of the ‘adapter, thinker, learner, progress-er’. The world is becoming more adaptive as a community and not just as separate entities. It has not become U.S vs. China vs. Japan vs. Germany and so on. It has become about all coming together to adapt as a race.
The important idea is that everything is growing at a faster pace and it is for the better. Making peoples lives easier and some might say more ‘meaningful’. Expanding your knowledge of not just the world but the world around you and how you react to it. If a phone comes out that can write appointments for you, call people for you, send texts, and help run your business quicker, faster, and easier that is definitely beneficial. Not only to you but to the hundreds and sometimes upon thousands of people who interact with you on a daily basis.
“Nobody knows whether this will turn out to be the best or the worst thing the human race has done for itself, because the outcome of this empowerment will depend in large part on how we react to it and what we choose to do with it. The human mind is not going to be replaced by a machine, at least not in the foreseeable future, but there is little doubt that the worldwide availability of fantasy amplifiers, intellectual toolkits, and interactive electronic communities will change the way people think, learn, and communicate.”
Even Howard Rheingold expressed this idea in his article Tools for Thought.
“Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which recently surveyed 895 tech titans about Carr’s thesis and other topics. An overwhelming 75% believed that by 2020, people’s use of the Internet will have enhanced human intelligence.”
Marco Cava reiterates my point in his article Always-On Technology: Are we adapting, or losing focus? I could continue to spit out articles of the opposite. Marco does discuss that some people believe these new technologies are detrimental. How some believe that we are rotting our brains with all of this ‘senseless’ technology. The thing though is it is only senseless if we choose to use it in that manner. A phone can be a distracting piece of technology or it can be an informative connection tool for one to access not only the world around them but even the entire world itself. Touching on issues that are effecting them and their environment.
In the end it is our choice if we want to adapt to our ever-growing environment or not. If those of us who do adapt with it will see, in my opinion, great leaps in thinking for not only ourselves but the others who choose to adapt as well.
In 1945, a man named Vannevar Bush introduced the idea that, “A new relationship is to be formed between man and the sum of our knowledge.” While man’s scientific knowledge and research had improved numerous aspects of life, humankind was left with an increasing amount of information. Bush said, “The summation of the human experience is being rapidly expanded and we don’t have the tools to keep up.” Bush proposed that humans must learn how to interact with our technologies in order to organize and and easily reference the mass amounts of information being produced as a result of humankind’s research. With the extensive record man has created, Bush believed that man should be able to manipulate knowledge and be able to extend this information to “those who can understand it”. While Bush was thinking incredibly far ahead for 1945, he had planted the idea that extending human memory could improve the quality of human thinking.
It wasn’t until 1950 when Doug Engelbart picked up where Bush left off, expanding human intelligence. Engelbart wanted to prepare mankind to be able to solve problems and retrieve information at the rate that problems and information were being created. Engelbart though, “The complexity and urgency of global problems were surpassing time-honored tools for dealing with problems.” Similar to Bush, Engelbart believed in the sharing of information, but wanted to incorporate the interaction between computers and man. To Engelbart, computers represented an opportunity to expand the human intellect. Before Engelbart, man simply fed instructions to computers, which was a lengthy process, and if entered correctly, the computer would return an answer. Interactive computers and expansive networks would allow for communication and information sharing.
On August 29th, 2012, President Obama conducted an “AMA” on social website, Reddit. The upcoming presidential elections have created questions and concerns from Americans, and President Obama had the ability to address them via this network. One particular issue raised in Obama’s AMA was internet freedom…
“We will fight hard to make sure that the internet [sic] remains the open forum for everybody — from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business…”
Reddit is an example of the network Engelbart wanted to create. While interacting with computers, man is contributing to a network greater than Reddit, by sharing information. Engelbart predicted that we would need refined tools to solve issues. Reddit is a tool where we can look for answers.
Today, mankind has the ability to access and exchange information nearly anywhere in the world. With portable personal computers, search engines, and the inter-computer networks Engelbart strived to create, the sharing of ideas and information is available to global populations. Today, we have mainstream online tools such as Twitter to receive personalized information and have the ability to communicate with millions of individuals at our own convenience. We can Tweet, in search for information, and communicate with other users who share the information we’re looking for. This global sharing of information is an example of the foundation that both Engelbart and Bush laid down when they expressed the belief that they could augment human intelligence.
Howard Rheingold sums up Doug Engelbart’s life work in Tools For Thought chapter nine, The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Thinker, with, “All he seems to hunger for is all he ever hungered for — a world that is prepared for the kind of help he wants to give.” After reading the chapter not only will you realize that this statement is so close to the truth that it hurts, but also that Engelbart spent his life working on a project that would have lasting affects in the field of computer science for decades to come.
Engelbart spent most of his adult life being told that his passion for a computer system that interacted with humans was a tall order and could not be done. Scientists and researchers thought this was a crazy idea, computers just simply did not do this kind of work. They (opposition to Engelbart’s work) thought they knew the limitations of computers unfortunately for the rest of us they were extremely wrong. Maybe, if they had taken a step back and looked at this as a “shit you know you don’t know” issue, help would have come instead of criticism.
In a place dominated by the digital world, where would we be if several important aspects of computer science had come a decade or two sooner? How long would it have taken for digital recording or myspace to become something popular and affordable? Under the heading of Steve Schwartz’s blog you’ll find, “The only certain path to failure is not trying.” Doug Engelbart tried and eventually succeeded while everyone else thought they new the answer to his questions and by not trying failed.
Doug Engelbart obviously had loftier goals than were probably attainable with the technologies that were available to him during his time. But Doug’s ideas are even more important now than they were then. Using emerging technologies–computers, mobile phones, applications, tablets, and the like–to help solve immense world problems is something that many companies have started to focus on, and something that many more companies should be focusing on.
From Bill and Melinda Gates to small scale global application companies, using emerging technologies as a means to assist those struggling in developing countries. Engelbart’s ideas seemed way ahead of his time and also like they were misplaced. Similar to this phenomenon is the idea that new technologies can help people that do not even have modern sanitation systems, land line telephones, or even electricity. But what Engelbart needed (and what modern technological engineers need today) is for people to have a little fair and to be able to look for solutions that are outside of the box. Engelbart could have been more successful much earlier in his career if he would have had a consistent network of support and backers that fully believed in him and his seemingly crazy ideas. Investing in the future means taking risks.
Much like Engelbart’s critics, many people today question the effectiveness of using high end technologies in developing countries. It still holds true and will almost always hold true that “humankind was moving into an era in which the complexity and urgency of global problems were surpassing time-honored tools for dealing with problems”. Learning from the past, humankind must learn to try new things and take chances with the latest technology in order to make even a dent in the immense problems that are permeating the world.
Engelbart’s continually accurate predictions of the future is what led to the success of computer technology. He never put a constraint on what technology could do and therefore was always able to foresee a future with infinite possibilities. The Loneliness of a Long Distance Thinker, discusses Engelbart’s ups and downs as he tried to convey to an unprepared world the possibilities of interactive technology. He knew that it took a while for people to adapt to new ways of thinking as he stated, “It is likely that each individual develops a certain repertory of process capabilities from which he selects and adapts those that will compose the processes that he executes. This repertory is like a toolkit. Just as the mechanic must know what his tools can do and how to use them, so the intellectual worker must know the capabilities of his tools and have suitable methods, strategies, and rules of thumb for making use of them.”
Engelbart’s vision was that technology would evolve so that people were able to share ideas and gain from each other as much as possible from technology. In As We May Think, Engelbart discusses how there is such a vast amount of information to discover. His desire is that people share their wealth of information with one another so we can help each other advance. He never became a rich and wealthy man, but that was never what he desired, as stated in the previous article. He wanted others to build on his ideas. He sees no need to hide information, but believes that it should be accessible to all in a medium that is easy to use so that we do not have to waste our time storing it in our minds.