Computers are extensions of our nervous systems, not the other way around


In my previous post here I wrote about outliner tools and thinking. The article by Paul Ford I refrences talks about internet pioneer (also creator of the computer mouse, among other inventions) Doug Engelbart, who – as well as inventing the computer mouse – developed one of the first outlining tools, NLS or oNLine System in about 1968.

After Engelbart died in July this year, his friend Ted Nelson wrote about his outliner software and draws our attention to an insight of huge significance to anyone who thinks for a living and uses the web and other machines to help them do it:

“If you attempt to make sense of Engelbart’s design by drawing correspondences to our present-day systems, you will miss the point,” [Nelson] wrote in his own remembrance, “because our present-day systems do not embody Engelbart’s intent. Engelbart hated our present-day systems.” The mouse was only a means to an end: a tool for navigating the two-dimensional space of NLS, which offered the world then-barely–fathomable concepts such as teleconferencing, hypertext, and real-time collaboration—all in order to “augment human intellect,” or make it possible for human beings to think new kinds of thoughts.

Engelbart’s demonstration of the early outliner software in 1968 was part of “the Mother of all Demos“. It was filmed by Stewart Brand, who, Paul Ford tells us

…went on to found the Whole Earth Catalog. In the 1984 Whole Earth Software Catalog, Brand wrote as clear an explication of the power of software as ever has been offered: “Software, when it is used at all intensely, comes to feel like an extension of your nervous system. Its habits become your habits. The reason the term ‘personal’ got stuck to these machines is, they become part of your person.”

Then, almost as a postscript, he added: “Buyer beware.”

It’s another – and more immediate – way of articulating that Marshall McLuhan axiom “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” When we think in slides, or spreadsheets, or on a whiteboard, or with Artefect cards, or in a mind map, or in an outliner – we think differently – the possibilities, the ideas, the shape of our thoughts is affected by the tools we are using to to explore and express them.

When I see people who think for a living uncritically using whatever tools are put in front of them to do their work I think it is a kind of tragedy. It’s as if a team of athletes were just using standard issue mid-range kit and gear – or if all artists were only allowed to work with HB pencils and A4 printer paper.

Organisations should not expect their people to use the same black box and standard issue “productivity suite” tools to work with. They need to encourage people to seek out, customise and even build or duct tape together their own software, the “extensions of their nervous systems”.

We all need to think about, challenge and play with the tools around us – there are so many – to get our work done. Then we will be able to think further and faster, think new thoughts in new ways.

Buyer beware, indeed…


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