Monday, September 8, 2008

Past, Present and Future

I didn't realize until re-reading just now how much the tone of this essay is inspired by the hopeful, call-to-action nature of Bush's "As We May Think." I hope it isn't too Pollyana for you all.

In reading Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think," I was reminded of the experience that I had this summer while visiting Epcot Center at DisneyWorld for the first time. Though I enjoyed the many rides and attractions that I’d spent my life dreaming of experiencing, my favorite turned out to be, surprisingly, Spaceship Earth.

For those who haven’t had the opportunity to go to Epcot, Spaceship Earth is the giant golf ball-looking structure that is often used in promotional materials for Disney. Inside runs a slow-moving ride featuring animatronics that is, essentially, a tribute to the history of human communication and the technical innovations that have propelled our cultural evolution, from our ancestors who first developed language to facilitate hunting mammoth, to cave paintings, to illuminated manuscripts, to newspapers and radio, to an animatronic young Steve Wozniak (I think it was Steve) tinkering with a computer in his garage.

I wound up riding Spaceship Earth three times (while others in my party ran off to the more exciting attractions), because I enjoyed seeing the emphasis that was placed on the relationship between cultural development and communication (also because I’d developed a sincere fascination for animatronics). Moreso, I think, than other areas of advancement -- transportation, weaponry, medicine -- improving means of communication allows us to traverse cultural boundaries, to impart information to both our peers and our progeny, and to work together to dream up the innovations that will enable our next giant leap into the future.

Bush writes his essay as his generation prepares for such a leap. Some things he writes of in his essay -- such as the availability of specific records to professionals working in fields such as law, medicine and chemistry -- have become an important part of modern society, while others -- the potential for microphotography in saving and transmitting large documents -- have been made a quaint antiquity by the emergence of ubiquitous digital technologies. How could Bush have predicted that, for instance, our data storage devices would go from this (first IBM hard drive, 5 megabytes):

First IBM Hard Drive

To this (Sandisk USB Drive, 4 gigabytes):

Sandisk USB Drive the span of only 60 years?

Another interesting question arises when we consider the impetus for this essay: Bush is writing at the end of the Second World War, to encourage scientists to continue to work together in peace as they have in wartime. What part have wars played in the advancement of communication technologies? Is it worth considering, in a time when many are pushing to limit the military-industrial complex, that significant cultural shifts have occured because of war?

This question is reinforced by the fact D.C. Engelbart is writing for the United States Air Force when citing Bush's essay in "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework." For Engelbart, the most noteworthy part of Bush's work was the concept of the Memex, which seems a precursor to our current notions of hypertext. Engelbart suggests that Bush's notion of a linear trail of study could be augmented with ideas of associative linking and trail sharing that make the Memex seem even more like our modern internet system. For these two men, writing twenty years apart, the potential vision was limited by available technology -- the concepts are grand, but when the reader reaches sections on implementation and lengthy descriptions of punch cards, the ideas seem to lose a little of their luster.

Six years later, Licklider and Taylor start their "The Computer as a Communication Device" with what they call a, "Rather startling thing to say": "In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face" (21). In 40 years, I would contend that their predictions have come true. With the omni-presence of terms like, "social networking," and the addition of email (and it seems, text-messaging) to our list of basic necessities, we are becoming more and more fixed on technological buffers even when it comes to just making social connections with others. In our classroom on Tuesday night, our peers will have their laptops on and opened, augmenting the lecture with their own additional real-time research, just as Licklider and Taylor predicted:
A future version of this system will make it possible for each participant, on his own TV screen, to thumb through the speaker's files as the speaker talks -- and thus check out incidental questions without interrupting the presentation for substantiation. (25)

In Brad Myers' "A Brief History of Human-Computer Interaction Technology," we're reminded that the interactions taking place aren't just triggered by mice (mouses?) and keyboards -- we must also consider pens and tablets, joysticks, gesture tools and virtual reality inputs. And this was just the list in 1998. Since then, we have also added the stylus, the phone-based keyboard, a number of adaptive technologies, and who knows what our future holds for us?

...Ah, the interesting concept. Though this collection of essays were assigned under the topic, "History in Perspective," the perspective chosen by many of these writers was to look forward. In a time before many of our parents were born, Bush was issuing a call to his fellow scientists to utilize the computer, still in early stages of development and use, to organize information in ways that would impact the daily lives of average people. His ideas created the framework for the world we now inhabit.

All of the authors were also careful to emphasize the "human" aspect of human-computer interaction. Computers should improve our methods of communication, not supplant them completely. Though Licklider and Taylor predict a world in which we use computer technologies to assist communication, the emphasis is on facilitation.

Pink Floyd, on the other hand, predicted a world in which our dependence on technology makes us merely cogs in the mechanized system: "Welcome to the machine." Though some might say we're already on our way, I would hope that as theorists and designers of our future, that we too can emphasize the human aspects of HCI. Because...really, who wants to live in a future predicted by Pink Floyd? I'd rather live in one envisaged by Bush: "There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things" (7).

We will always have work to do. We will always have new futures to look forward to creating. We will always find new ways of facilitating the ability of people to communicate with other people. And someday, when Spaceship Earth is overhauled to include a new century's worth of technological advancement, perhaps it will be our work that is featured there in the narrative of humanity. Isn't that an encouraging thought?

1 comment:

Matt Rolph said...

I wish I'd been to this Epcot Center Spaceship Earth. Sounds very interesting.