Circling ’round to the Inquiry Project

For well over a decade (more like two or three) I’ve been studying and learning about various computer-based tools which were designed and intended to help humans think and communicate. Over the last several years I’ve been reading sporadically about Dr Douglas Engelbart’s NLS/Augment (see my Concept Exercise #2 post for links to more details), and various efforts to rehost or re-implement key components.  I’m particularly interested in exploring how the key concepts from Dr Engelbart and others have or can be implemented effectively. Most importantly, I currently believe that many important and valuable concepts have not made it into current-day software available for our (my!) use, and I would like to identify those, and both ponder and discuss how that can be corrected.

So an initial concept for my Inquiry Project is to investigate the concepts Dr Engelbart developed, and then examine how (and which of) these were implemented in NLS/Augment and other software since. Also worthy of examination is the reverse: what were the features and capabilities of NLS/Augment, how do these relate to Dr Engelbart’s concepts, and how have these features and capabilities informed or migrated to current-day software systems?

Related and worthwhile is to widen the scope of the study to include concepts from Drs Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Theodor (Ted) Nelson, Alan Kay, and others who have investigated aspects of computer-assisted human productivity, especially in the realm of assisted thought and knowledge work. Covering that scope well is years of work, not weeks, so a much more limited problem-statement will be required for this summer’s Inquiry Project.

One approach to narrowing the study would be to focus on identifying and describing the key concepts from the various authors we are studying during the UNIV 200 course. It could be narrowed even further to the particular papers we are reading, but I’d prefer to explore a bit more widely, especially among other papers by Dr Engelbart and his team.

Another approach is to focus on NLS/Augment itself, identify the features and capabilities it provided, and map those to current-day software to identify which are available through new combinations of tools, and which are either not available or are particularly difficult to replicate. This idea has significant promise, because I’m currently very interested in the question of “what’s missing?” from the current set of tools available to me. However, given that it currently appears that there is no existing operational version of NLS/Augment available for me to study, the source material would have to be Dr Engelbart’s written materials, perhaps some artifacts of the efforts to preserve and re-implement NLS/Augment (OpenAugment, Hyperscope, the Open Hyperdocument System, and perhaps others), and perhaps the source code of NLS/Augment itself if it is or can be made available.

Yet another approach is to identify a particular subset of concepts or features from either Dr Engelbart’s writings or the NLS/Augment implementation, and discuss how these could be implemented more effectively in today’s environment. Perhaps some key ideas from Theodor Nelson can also be worked in: transclusion, intertwingling, and so forth. This could also be approached from the direction of “what’s missing?” from today’s environment, and what did Dr Engelbart or others recommend to fill those gaps?

A very likely major problem with all of the above ideas is that the UNIV 200 course is more of a “writing” course than a “deep study” course, and that it appears to me at the moment that few of the participants have deep interest in computer science topics. Therefore it’s likely that my Inquiry Project would be a solo effort for the most part, which is mostly fine with me, but fails to accommodate course goals of interaction and cross-collaboration among course participants. So I should likely try to define an “Inquiry Project” which others in the course have some interest in, such that I will benefit from their inquiry and explorations, and such that they can also benefit from mine.

This week I read in a couple locations that the course is supposed to have a “New Media” focus. So perhaps investigating something concerning media types, both new and old, and the capabilities of current tools to create and manipulate these media to capture and present ideas would be of interest. My knowledge of hypertext and markup languages and various drawing and image manipulation and text processing formats and tools could be of interest and use in a project relating to multimedia authoring and collaboration. But I’m not really excited about digging deeply into that. I’d really rather study what Engelbart and others wrote and figure out how that applies today.

From a writing, authoring, composition, and argumentation perspective, I think perhaps the act of authoring an effective multimedia presentation is a key part of the goals of the course. I know I’m not very good at visual design or graphic arts; practicing use of media other than the written word will be good for me (but difficult and time-consuming!) It currently appears to me that the “Inquiry Project” is more-or-less a directed exercise in preparing an effective multimedia presentation. The benefit of having a topic I’m interested and passionate about is that it makes it much easier to spend the time and effort to create and refine the presentation.

My primary current interest is in learning what Engelbart, Bush, Nelson, Kay, and others have said, digging deep into their concepts, pondering how these are manifested or not in current software, and identifying what “missing pieces” are needed to enable more effective computer-augmentation of human thought and collaboration. The “Inquiry Project” would help force me to DOCUMENT what I learn along the way, in a manner which could be extended and built upon in the future.

I think my next steps are to read Dr Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” thoroughly, and along the way be watching for particular aspects or subtopics which both interest me highly, and are likely to interest others in the course as well.

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