Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why is it important to understand the way we think and the way we process information? Why must we perform these actions with clearheadedness and surety? Why do we want many of the best minds and talents to interact on any particular topic?

According to the author in question, doing all of this is desirable “for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there.” Even more important, such engagement is primarily for the maintenance of our health, which “unquestionably is the first good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life.”

In other words, we must utilize our analytic skills to ensure practical outcomes - to add value to the complex world we inhabit. The best way to do this, moreover, is by “joining together the lives and labors of many,” so that “we might all advance together much further than a single individual could do on his own.”

Douglas Englebart, with his desire to augment human intellect in order to increase the “capability of man to approach a complex problem situation” (p. 95) in order to solve it, would have loved this week’s reading for Encounters. For, in the Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences (or, Discourse on Method, if you’re tired), Rene Descartes seems to anticipate by more than three centuries many of Englebart’s preoccupations  - the striving toward broad-based social improvements, the confidence in understanding information processing, the occasional playful optimism about the future. It is a delight to read them together and to imagine a dinner party with both men as guests around a table full of wine and candles and computer terminals.

My favorite point of comparison between the two radical thinkers is their hopeful sense of what intellectuals and scholars can accomplish when connected to one another. Descartes asserts that when this linking occurs it is possible to arrive at knowledge “that would be very useful in life and that, in place of the speculative philosophy taught in the schools, it is possible to find a practical philosophy” to render ourselves masters and possessors of nature,” while Engelbart describes the potential of our collective IQ  
– our ability to, together, amass and harness our intelligence to deal with the steadily increasing “complexity of the human situation.” (p. 93).

To be clear, however, Engelbart is far from Panglossian. For, if we don’t recognize and deliberately take steps to create and then benefit from these connections, the possible implications are more than merely troubling…

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Weiner’s lecture articulating his thoughts about cybernetics fascinated me for several reasons – his explanations of the role of negative feedback, the analysis of similar processing methods between humans and automatic computing machines, and his skepticism of man’s intellectual functioning during moments of crisis, among others.

However, the most powerful, and also the most unexpected, elements of his piece were the moral and religious implications of his predictions – the worried reference to Exodus (“There is a very real danger in this country in bowing down before the brass calf, the idol, which is the gadget” p. 71), the fear of an ignorance  - or perhaps even an active shunning - of the communal responsibilities when we use the new rapid computational power, the clear-eyed ethical challenge that “while we may make the machines our gods and sacrifice men to machines, we do not have to do so.”  (p. 72)

Despite the near ubiquity of machines in our daily lives, it seems easy to ignore a question which is at least as relevant as it was half a century ago – just because we can use all of this great new technology for a particular – perhaps economically useful  – end, should we? 

Somehow, the fact that Licklider’s essay doesn’t engage with those questions even heightens their importance.

Finally, I wonder whether this flyer for an upcoming workshop - with its images of human and  machine interaction (fighting or caring, depending on the picture) embodies this ethical ambivalence?  

And then there's the actual substance of the workshop, about how our visible interconnectedness can both help and hurt us as we go out into the world, depending on the decisions we make about how we interact with the machines.

I didn't design this poster, or even come up with the concept for the session (the two presenters wanted to draw on the Real Steel concept) but I've found myself staring at this as I've been reflecting on this week's readings.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

first blog post

As a self-proclaimed link to the old media,  I’ve realized that I’m going to have a ridiculously steep learning curve in our seminar. So be it. 

What has struck me, as I’ve been procrastinating actually getting this up and running, is how many different moments over the last several days have been about incorporating new media elements into my professional life:

- Some of my Encounters students asked me if we’re going to have another Facebook-based final project this term

- I’m nudging several students to develop blog posts about their experiences in our new civil rights teaching initiative (I neglected to ask if any of them had actually done this before…)

- The SEC team has adopted a set of goals about significantly increasing our use of social media to engage students with our programming

- I’m developing a new position in our office that will allow us to dedicate staff time to focus on new media enhancements to our communications strategies

And, the big one…

I just told the board of trustees that our office knows that we’re behind the curve when it comes to all of this and that we’re going to be at a very different place in a year or so, technology-wise.

So, the take away lesson for me is that I need to exploit our time together this semester to learn and practice and understand as much as I can because if I don’t ... I’m doomed.

And, from a teaching standpoint, if I can’t learn this new material/philosophy/skill set/mind set/approach to reality, how can I ask (or tell) anyone else to?

Finally, since I’m likely to be worrying about these questions all day while everyone else is watching football, here’s my attempt to pull together the old media, the new media, the Super Bowl, and my gratuitous effort to learn how to add a web link into this pioneer post–