The nature of intelligence on the Internet: Collaboration vs Augmentation

Written by: Michael Glassman


Is collaboration the right word or even the right concept when discussing the ways we imagine the Internet to change human thinking and problem solving?

Collaboration through Internet tools has become a dominant meme over the last few decades.  At the same time the concept of augmentation of the human intellect seems to have been mostly lost in current discussions.  Are we missing an essential element of what internetworking technologies bring us, an idea that was at the core of the Internet’s creation, replacing it with the more generic, and perhaps more easily manipulated idea?

Augmentation was one of the founding principles of the Internet and its applications as we know them today.  Vannevar Bush in introducing the idea that new technologies might not only amplify our physical capabilities but our capacities for thinking through complex problem sets spoke of the phenomenon as augmentation of human thinking.   Bush was one of the first to recognize the coming information revolution – of which the Internet was as much a product as a cause – and believed it would naturally bring with it new technologies that would extend the workings of the human mind out into rich, complex information landscapes.  The same internal connections of the mind driving original human thought would extend out to engage a larger, more varied information ecology.  A new space where researchers/problem solvers would be able to find addendums, new trajectories and critiques of their current thinking once beyond their individual reach, left for them by others traveling the same or similar trails of thinking.  Individuals would come upon ideas and information left by others, take what they needed, in exchange leaving their own discoveries and perspectives for the next traveler before continuing on their intellectual journey.  The thinking of individuals is enhanced, augmented by continuous access to dynamic, interconnected sources that can point the researcher in new, unforeseen directions.  This idea of a continuous flow of ever changing information sources became the basis for Ted Nelson’s concept of hypertext.  Douglas Engelbart, the most important person nobody ever seems to have heard of, took Bush’s ideas as a starting point for the appropriately named Augmentation Research Center for the Human Intellect at Stanford Research International (SRI).  His goal was the creation of concrete tools that would make Bush’s vision of connected human thinking a reality.  Engelbart’s work at the Augmentation Research Center led to the invention of the mouse, windows, hyperlinks and a host of other tools we use almost without thought in our everyday online activities.  But perhaps the most important of Engelbart’s inventions for augmentation, which we are still struggling to understand and implement, was the online journal.

When Bob Taylor and Larry Roberts of ARPA were first trying to convince research centers and universities across the country to connect their time sharing computers the first two to agree were Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA and Douglas Engelbrart at SRI.  Kleinrock wanted to observe and study how these new interconnections between computers might work, tied to Paul Baran’s ideas of distributed networks.  Engelbart had bigger augmentation fish to fry.  He wanted to establish an online library (based on his concept of an online journal) for what he was sure would be a growing cohort of connected researchers.  He was looking to “scale up” the ideas he and his colleagues were working on at the Augmentation Research Center.  Among the first to use the online library was a ramshackle group of graduate students and laboratory workers trying to figure out a way to connect qualitatively different computers without taxing the workings of the machines themselves – something that would be necessary if others were going to agree to connecting to the network.  The Network Working Group placed their ideas in fits and starts on the online library calling them Requests for Comments (a signifier that I think is sometime misinterpreted today).  Requests for Comments was basically an attempt to create an online web of trails – very similar to what Bush envisioned.  Members of the Network Working Group, and really any person with access to the admittedly small network (it has just expanded to four nodes) posted their ideas to be commented on, used, expanded and/or critiqued by any individual following the same problem.  The original Request for Comments resulted in perhaps the most important conceptual marker of the late twentieth century, the Network Control Protocol (the forerunner of the Transmission Control Protocol).  The Network Control Protocol was an extraordinary invention pulled from almost nothing, by researchers who had little prior experience in their task (because it was completely new and nobody had experience), and came together more quickly than a simple product roll out.

Can the activities of the Network Working Group truly be called collaboration?  They all worked in laboratories and engaged in collaborative processes almost on a daily basis.  Can the model of Request for Comments be called the same thing?  More important would they have come up with the Network Control Protocol in such a short time, or even at all, if they were simply collaborating on the idea, if the participants had not been able to augment their thinking in a continuous web of trails?  There is an interesting story about the Network Working Group.  As they were pulling the Network Control Protocol together primarily through the processes of augmented thinking and exploration they were convinced they didn’t really know what they were doing and eventually the experts would show up – decorated professors or high priced consultants – to tell them so and set them on the right path.  No experts ever did show up to correct the Network Working Group and the result is the Internet.

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About the Author: Michael Glassman

Michael Glassman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the Ohio State University. He has published widely on Internet-related issues in education....

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