Discover more from Subconscious
Many of the foundational computing projects started with a provocation…
“Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960)
J.C.R. Licklider’s provocation transforms our vision of computers from calculators to extensions of the self.
“Augmenting human intellect” (1962)
Doug Engelbart frames up a vision of computers as tools for thought. Engelbart’s SRI group invents the mouse, windowing, word processing, hypertext, video chat, version control, and collaborative real-time editing.
“Memorandum to: Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network” (1963)
Licklider’s memo kicks off ARPANET, which becomes the internet. The internet is seen as a project with cosmic scale—to connect all of humanity, our solar system, and beyond.
“The destiny of computers is to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for everyone in the world pervasively networked worldwide” (1970)
Alan Kay, channeling Licklider, as he describes Xerox PARC’s expansive vision. At PARC, Metcalfe, Boggs, Thacker, and Lampson invent Ethernet. Alan Kay invents SmallTalk and object-oriented programming.
“An architecture of information” (1970)
PARC’s founding mission. What is an architecture of information? Does information have an architecture? PARC’s answer is the desktop metaphor, the first graphical user interface, and the Alto, the first desktop computer. Steve Jobs visits PARC, the Alto goes on to inspire the Macintosh.
“A personal computer for children of all ages.” (1972)
Alan Kay’s Dynabook imagines computers as a revolutionary unschooling tool. Kay invents tablet computing, ultimately inspiring the iPad.
“Everything is deeply intertwingled” (1972)
Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project imagines a decentralized knowledge commons of interconnected hypertext that would enable us to explore all angles of ideas at once, coming into closer understanding together.
In an important sense there are no "subjects" at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly. Hypertext at last offers the possibility of representing and exploring it all without carving it up destructively.
(Ted Nelson, 1974, “Computer Lib/Dream Machines”)
I love these provocations. They are intriguing, expansive. They don’t provide answers. Not really. Instead, they pose questions that want to be answered. An architecture for information? An Intergalactic Computer Network? What does this mean?
Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question—you have to want to know—in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.
To answer the provocation is itself an act of creation. The provocation acts like a seed crystal, around which interesting answers may grow. Questions as tools for thinking.
Something else: these provocations aren’t goal statements. I don’t think they can ever be fully realized. An architecture for information? An Intergalactic Computer Network? Are we there yet?
Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or "scenes" can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: "Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius."
Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.
(Kevin Kelly, 2008. Scenius, or Communal Genius.)
ARPA, PARC, Bell Labs were a kind of scenius. Dig around on Wikipedia, and you’ll see everything was intertwingled. We find the same cast of characters posing the riddles and responding to them—Licklider, Engelbart, Kay. It almost feels like they were exploring a jazz standard together. The threads weave through two or three generations of apprentices before unraveling.
A burning question is a bonfire. A community will gather around it.
We might say that we join the communitas when the questions being asked there become our questions.
(Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief)
Communities are living conversations surrounding a deep provocation. We wrestle with the central burning questions, respond, and our responses provoke more responses, in an ongoing chain of conversation. We’re constructing meaning together.
The deepest questions provoke conversations spanning years, centuries, millennia. Religion and art. Infinite games.
There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase.
(Norbert Wiener, 1950. The Human Use of Human Beings)
A provocation for Noosphere? Hmm... Here’s an attempt:
“A worldwide decentralized mind.”