Engelbartism

Meet Hortensia. She’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. She has not stopped working since she was ten years old. In her sixties, she wakes up at 3 AM to prepare the tamales for her restaurant, one of the best in the city.

Hortensia moved to the United States thirty years ago and has had the opposite of an easy life. In her native country, she couldn’t afford school so she started traveling to sell pans across the country. Her family was so poor that they slept on street benches. Eventually, they worked hard to buy a house and an establishment for their business.

But then thieves and robbery came and left them bankrupt, again on the streets. This made Hortensia and her husband moved to the U.S. Again, with decades of hard work and determination, she opened up her restaurant making the famous tamales with her grandma’s recipe. I don’t like tamales but I like Hortensia’s. That’s how good they are.

You’d expect Hortensia would be well-off with a growing business and perhaps starting to work less. Not quite.

Something obscure is holding her back and I have finally figured it out.

Daylight Blind

Hortensia is blind.

But not visually. She’s blind because she doesn’t know how to read or write and she doesn’t know a lot of math.

Hortensia never went to school. That hasn’t stopped her from being a kind person, working hard, and creating a successful business. However, it does prevent her from moving forward in simple, subtle ways that turn out to affect everything, even hurting her.

There was an important moment. One day I realize she could not differentiate between Uber and Amazon. To many people, this would be easy to differentiate. Uber is for ridesharing, and Amazon is for online shopping. Different colors, names, fonts, and use cases. It would be hard to get them confused because of how different they are.

Yet Hortensia could not distinguish them. I was sure it had nothing to do with her intelligence or her brain. It had everything to do with symbol manipulation.

Forget Darwinism, the idea that species evolve from natural selection.

Let me introduce you to Engelbartism, the idea that species [1] evolve with advancements in symbol manipulation.

Just as Darwinism is named after biologist Charles Darwin.

Engelbartism is named after engineer Douglas Engelbart, who had a mission of augmenting human intellect and gave inspiration [2] to the creation of the computer mouse, video-conferencing, hypertext, and shared screen among others.

Engelbartism: Augmenting The Human Intellect

“Manipulating words seemed like the obvious place to start because it was a way to manipulate your ideas. That’s the very essence of your knowledge and thinking: the concepts in your mind that you’re converting to words and symbols. And since the computer should be able to manipulate symbols for you, it was ‘Well, of course.’ It could just help you in so many ways.”

Doug Engelbart from The Dream Machine

Engelbart believed that computers could give rise to a new era in human evolution.

We wouldn't be able to think without words. A thought process is a chain of words. A chain of words is a thought. A thought is the basis of communication.

But really all this is, it's the progress of manipulation of ideas and thought. Doug Engelbart thought deeply about the stages of such manipulation, and I will explore the four stages, he explained.

First, we owe it to early humans when they developed the ability for concept manipulation. If I say, "the hungry elephant stepped on the keeper's foot." You will immediately think of an angry elephant looking for food and you will visualize a solution to avoid getting your foot stepped on.

Symbol manipulation was next. Our ancestors evolved to represent concepts in terms of words and numbers. This allowed the shepherd to keep track of his twenty sheep by counting instead of remembering what each sheep looked like.

What followed was manual external symbol manipulation which, with the help of a stick or pencil, allowed us to extend our memory and improve our ability to visualize concepts and quantities.

The fourth stage is automated external symbol manipulation. With the help of computers, symbols and concepts, manipulated by the human mind, can be represented, arranged, recalled, switched, stored, and operated in front of our eyes, which allows us to communicate and think faster and better than ever before.

For the most part, we’ve reached the fourth stage. Advances in Artificial Intelligence are giving rise to a fifth stage. A stage that will advance human evolution like never before and conceivably bridge a symbiosis between humans and computers.

Hortensia is not alone

Why was Hortensia unable to differentiate between Uber and Amazon? She didn’t know how to read or write, so she had to rely on her memory about what she’d heard the companies do.

Hortensia has not learned symbol manipulation to represent concepts in terms of words and numbers. Just as the shepherd who had to memorize what each sheep looked like, Hortensia needs to memorize what everything looks like, a process that gets confusing in a modern world as big and diverse as ours.

Because of that, Hortensia just has a tougher life. It’s almost as if she’s not as evolved as modern humans. But that’s not just her. It’s all of us too.

We are missing out on our reality quite literally. There are things we don’t understand nor see because we don’t have the language to describe or the tools to make sense of it.

We need new language enhanced by the creation of new tools. I’ve already thought deeply about the language question. Now, let’s think about tools.

Tools

“First we build the tools, then they build us.” - Marshall McLuhan

Arthur Schopenhauer said, “the task is not so much to see what nobody has yet seen, as to think what nobody has yet thought about that which everybody sees.”

The creation of new tools will make what Schopenhauer said trivial. Just as the shepherd who could not grow his sheep business because he could not have more sheep than what his memory allowed him to remember. Using a pencil and numbers, he could have as many sheep as he wanted.

Mathematics would be a first good step in this direction. How would you visualize √-2? With our current understanding of math concepts and symbol manipulation, this is unimaginable.

Can you visualize 2 Apples? How about √4 apples? Ok, simple.

But how about √-2 Apples? We should still be able to at least know how to think about this question yet we can’t.

Another example is someone who thinks they are not good at something. Let’s say things like literature, science, engineering, history, or even things like writing and reading or not being good at names.

Why is this? It can’t just because we’re different. Sure, we’re different but we’re 99.9% identical to each other. It has to do with the different stages of the development of concept and symbol manipulation.

Reading disability is an example. If you can’t read, you can’t function within our society. Yet this is a problem that affects about 20% of grade-school students. Most children learn to read at around age 6 but some children never learn to read, which results in dropping out of school, inability to communicate, a hard time finding jobs, and overall a harder life. This isn’t due to a low IQ or dysfunctional brain but rather a speech perception problem [3] that affects the development of the manipulation of concept and symbol manipulation.

Examples are infinite but it’s not the number that matters. It’s the scary thought of how primitive we are.

We Need New Tools

How do we create new tools?

Powerful tools that will allow us to augment our intellect and reach a man-computer symbiosis.

Tools that will help us see more of the world. We can start with that which is hard to see or understand for many people, mathematics. Then we move forward with things such as remembering people’s names.

This would be a world where computers get us ready to make decisions. Computers will prepare the work and give us enough context [4]. Learning is seeing where things come from (context) and developing your opinion on them (judgment). In the future, humans will be doing the latter.

There are millions of people like Hortensia and billions of people like us. Augmenting the human intellect isn’t just an extravagant luxury but a crude necessity.

In 1996, Doug Engelbart remarked that “The complexity of the problems facing mankind is growing faster than our ability to solve them.”

Decades later, complexity has only increased and so must our efforts to augment the human intellect.

The 21st Century must be the era known for Engelbartism.

 

 

Notes

[1] I was going to say, humans. But then I remembered the Neuralink monkey.

[2] I say inspiration because saying he invented those things it’s not accurate and would be disrespectful because he had a far greater vision of augmenting the human intellect. Once we say, he created the computer mouse, for instance. We interpret it using today’s meaning, but we forget the intended design goal, which is far more important.

From A few words on Doug Engelbart, Brett Victor writes:

Engelbart had an intent, a goal, a mission. He stated it clearly and in depth. He intended to augment human intellect. He intended to boost collective intelligence and enable knowledge workers to think in powerful new ways, to collectively solve urgent global problems.

The problem with saying that Engelbart "invented hypertext", or "invented video conferencing", is that you are attempting to make sense of the past using references to the present. "Hypertext" is a word that has a particular meaning for us today. By saying that Engelbart invented hypertext, you ascribe that meaning to Engelbart's work.

Almost any time you interpret the past as "the present, but cruder", you end up missing the point. But in the case of Engelbart, you miss the point in spectacular fashion.

Our hypertext is not the same as Engelbart's hypertext, because it does not serve the same purpose. Our video conferencing is not the same as Engelbart's video conferencing, because it does not serve the same purpose. They may look similar superficially, but they have different meanings. They are homophones, if you will.

[3] Jont Allen, a brilliant professor and mentor of mine, has deeply thought about this question yet his findings are not as well known due to the tyranny of peer review. However, Dr. Allen and his students have published some like this one or this one.

[4] “Give me enough context and a neural net on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

 

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