Rheingold's Rants

March 1998

1998 archives:

31 March

A computer is a hierarchy of abstractions. At the bottom of the hierarchy is the electrical microcircuitry. As Claude Shannon demonstrated, on-and off switches can be arranged in circuits that emulate the functions of boolean algebra. Those arrangements of switches that can be thought of as "and,""or," and "not" logical gates, constitute the first level of abstraction. The "machine language" of any computer is composed of these abstractions. And machine languages are clumped and processed through compilers and interpreters and other virtual machines to become higher-level languages. And those higher-level languages write the text display and windowing and mousing behaviors that make up the graphical user interface -- the level of abstraction where personal computer users spend our time. Fat Bits zoomed in to an even higher level of abstraction, and today's state of the art image manipulation software, PhotoShop, is a toolkit of graphical abstractions, orders of magnitude more complex than 1984's Macpaint.

27 March

Over the past fifteen years, personal computer hardware, software, and ways of doing intellectual work have evolved far beyond the Alto. In 1984, I got my hands on a Macintosh and started playing with Macpaint. In Macpaint is a tool that enables you to zoom in on a graphic and turn on and off the individual pixels that make up the details of a bit-mapped image. "Fat Bits" was the name of the pixel-twiddling tool in Macpaint. I think I sat down for three hours without getting up, as soon as I started playing with Macpaint and discovered Fat Bits.

Fat Bits was a kind of trance. Hours would go by, and I could keep my consciousness focused at the pixel level. It was a variety of abstraction exercise. My consciousness began to change. The Gutenberg trance begain to change into another one. In some ways, the changes were instantaneous; in other ways, the changes took years. Yes, the screen became a kind of reality, an extension of my mind. I started spending most of the day there. And as I learned to use it, I learned to exercise my cognitive faculties in ways that took advantage of the screen-mind trance. Abstraction requires a certain amount of somnambulism: forget about all the detailed underpinnings, once you've clumped them into an abstraction; continually strive to change your focus to the next level of abstraction, where you can clump abstractions together to create the even higher levels. it's a breathtaking game, but you have to remember you're playing it, or you run the risk of forfeiting part of your humanity.

21 March

Like falling in love, my involvement with personal computer technology has been both a long slide and a series of abrupt, memorable, life-changing epiphanies. The first time I used Wordstar to move a block of text, after ten years of retyping the entire page to switch two paragraphs, I was hooked. Then I saw the Alto, with its mice, and windows, and point-and-click interface. What I saw on that computer screen was not just the words I typed on my keyboard, but the ideas in my mind. It was like taking all those temporary holding areas in my brain where I marshal ideas and words until their point in the sequence comes along, and externalizing my mental whiteboards on the computer screen. A short passage in a technical publication about the design of the Alto interface jumped out at me the first time I read it. The italicised phrases in the quote were also italicised in the original publication:

...When everything being dealt with in a computer system is visible, the display screen relieves the load on the short-term memory by acting as a sort of "visual cache." Thinking becomes easier and more productive. A well-designed computer system can actually improve the quality of your thinking.

A subtle thing happens when everything is visible: the display becomes reality. The user model becomes identical with what is on the screen. Objects can be understood purely in terms of their visible characteristics.

One way to get consistency into a system is to adhere to paradigms for operations. By applying a successful way of working in one area to other areas, a system acquires a unity that is both apparent and real....These paradigns change the very way you think. They lead to new habits and models of behavior that are more powerful and productive. They can lead to a human-machine synergism.

17 March

Doug Engelbart's personal charisma is a quiet kind. You have to lean close when he's talking, even when he uses a microphone. His voice is soft, but he's like a tuning fork when he speaks; he seems to be vibrating at the frequency of his vision for the world whenever he begins to talk about it. Being around him affected me. It became clear to me that the world didn't know that personal computers were invented by stubborn visionaries like Engelbart, and not by the computer industry or computer science orthodoxy. After talking to Engelbart, Alan Kay, JCR Licklider, Bob Taylor, and others who had been involved in "interactive computing" since the 1960s, I understood that this tool was the work of people who deliberately sought to extend the powers of intellect and communication. In contrast to the priesthood of the mainframe era, the ARPA programmers were revolutionary. They knew that access to computing resources could empower entire populations to think and communicate in new ways. So I wrote Tools For Thought to tell that story.

10 March

In 1962, Engelbart published his epochal paper, Augmenting Human Intellect, about a tool-using tool that would involve more than just hardware and software: new ways of thinking, working, communicating, and new languages to represent these new mind-tools would be required, as well as new training methods and organizational systems to manage their use as part of scientific, educational, industrial enterprises. He saw that new electronic tools with symbol-manipulating capacity furnished great opportunities for intellectual leverage, but above all he understood that these tools would necessarily be part of a profound systemic change. Read Engelbart's conclusion, then remind yourself he wrote this in 1962.

9 March

"...A crucial turning point comes when one is able to acknowledge that modern technics, much more than politics as conventionally understood, now legislates the conditions of human existence. New technologies are institutionalized structures within an existing constitution that gives shape to a new polity, the technopolis in which we do increasingly live. For the most part, this constitution still evolves with little public scrutiny or debate. Shielded by the conviction that technology is neutral and tool-like, a whole new order is built -- piecemeal, step by step, with the parts and pieces linked together in novel ways, without the slightest public awareness or opportunity to dispute the character of the changes underway. It is somnambulism (rather than determinism) that characterizes technological politics -- on the left, right, and center equally."

Autonomous Technology by Langdon Winner

5 March

Doug Engelbart, a twenty five year old veteran, had been a radar operator in WWII. He realized that the post-war world would be dominated by technologies and by complex global problems. Why not use technologies to help people solve those problems together? Engelbart's quest was a humanist project from the beginning. While driving through the fruit orchards of the Santa Clara Valley on his way to work as an electrical engineer at Ames Aviation, Engelbart began to think about ways how he could use his life to help the human race survive the explosive growth of technology he was helping create.

Immediately after the end of the war, while waiting for his ship home from the Phillipines, Engelbart read Vannevar Bush's visionary article in the May, 1945, Atlantic, As We May Think. When he started thinking about how people could solve complex intellectual problems together, Engelbart began envisioning a version of Bush's memex that was more of a communication device than just an information-finding tool.

3 March

In 1950, when there were only a few digital computers in the world, and television was a brand-new medium, Doug Engelbart conceived of a mind-amplifying device that would help the human race navigate the complexities of the future by representing information on TV screens and storing that information in a hypertext network. When I met him in 1983, Engelbart had been pursuing that idea for more than three decades.

I first met him at the office of Tymshare (a company that no longer exists), which had bought his Augment system from SRI. Ironically, that office in Cupertino was surrounded by the then-expanding Apple campus. Like a cross between the Ancient Mariner and an Old Testament prophet, he has been compelled to tell his entire story thousands of times. It took decades before anyone else in the world could perceive the future he had foreseen.

rheingold's brainstorms