Pace Vannevar Bush, JCR Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Ivan Sutherland, Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and the rest of you visionaries
Imagine having your own self-contained knowledge manipulator in a portable package the size and shape of an ordinary notebook. Suppose it had enough power to outrace your senses of sight and hearing, enough capacity to store for later retrieval thousands of page-equivalents of reference materials, poems, letters, recipes, records, drawing, animations, musical scores, waveforms, dynamic simulations, and anything else you would like to remember and change. — Kay & Goldberg, 1977
They saw it coming, yes they did. Portable knowledge systems. Hypertext stories. Electronic books. Mouses. (Mice, whatever.) Touch screens. Talking refrigerators. They saw it all, freakin’ witches, fortunetellers, and sorcerers that they were.
And yet we still refer to “new media” and “new technology” as if it were something that we birthed just yesterday. A bauble we now hold in our oh-so-modern hands, this bright shiny object, this thing that makes us go ‘Wow’ at every new dawn, grateful to live on this very earth at this very time. Aren’t we special? Aren’t we the ones who took these old fairy tales of personal jet packs and made them real? Those old prognosticators might have thought it, but it was we, übertechie-socially-networked-hominids, who turned calligraphy into fonts, symphonies into mp3s, farming into Farmville.
Deceased Creatures on the Screen
The student of anatomy may use his light-pen as a scalpel for a deceased creature on the screen. As he cuts, the tissue parts. — Nelson, 1974
To play the fiddle better.
To cook like Thomas Keller.
To butcher a hog expertly.
To grow tomatoes in the fog.
To sing like Renee Fleming. Or Gillian Welch.
To walk without my left foot aching.
To find my wallet, lost in New Orleans. Or the other wallet, lost in Palm Springs.
To get rid of the ants in my kitchen.
To make me like bicycling.
I predict: someday, in some bright and shiny future, we will have apps for all that.
Oh yea, and there will be jet packs.
It seems likely that the contributions of human operators and equipment will blend together so completely in many operations that it will be difficult to separate them neatly in analysis. — JCR “Lick” Licklider1
Scene 1. Dinner Party ’60
Scene: Around a finely appointed dinner table.
Scooter: Binky, darling, what was the name of that fabulous actress we saw on Broadway last month?
Shawna: Like, who was that guy in Transformers? I totally forget. He’s got like, a girl’s name?
[Sarah, Sophia, Brandon, and Mark all grab iPhones from bags and backpacks, click and scroll hurriedly, and then say in unison]: Shia LaBeouf!
[They return their iPhones to their bags and eat egg rolls in silence.]
Act II. The Bionic Arm
As a concept, man-computer symbiosis is different in an important way from what North2 has called “mechanically extended man.” In the man-machine systems of the past, the human operator supplied the initiative, the direction, the integration, and the criterion. The mechanical parts of the systems were mere extensions, first of the human arm, then of the human eye. These systems certainly did not consist of “dissimilar organisms living together…” There was only one kind of organism-man-and the rest was there only to help him. — JCR Licklider
Watch the fingers grab. The thumb comes up. Wrist. This weighs 6.9 pounds. Going to scratch his nose. It’s got 14 active degrees of freedom. Now he’s going to pick up a pen with his opposed thumb and index finger. Now he’s going to put that down, pick up a piece of paper, rotate all the degrees of freedom in his hand and wrist, and read it. –Dean Kamen
Act III. Jeopardy!
Poincaré … said, “The question is not, ‘What is the answer?’ The question is, ‘What is the question?’ – JCR Licklider
The IBM supercomputer “Watson” defeated Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, after a three-night tournament, in spite of some answers that rivaled those of some of Jeopardy’s dumbest contestants in history.
Alex Trebek: The category is US Cities. The answer is: Its largest airport was named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle.
Ken Jennings: What is Chicago?
Alex Trebek: That is correct.
Brad Rutter: What is Chicago?
Alex Trebek: That is also correct.
Watson: What is Toronto?
Alex Trebek: Sorry, that is incorrect.
[Watson turns orange with embarrassment.]
NB: Toronto’s two largest airports are Pearson and Billy Bishop. Pearson was a Canadian Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate. Billy Bishop was a World War I fighting ace.
A few times a year, I receive an e-mail that begins, “You probably don’t remember me, I was your student in…”. Often, the writer has made a fair assumption. After more than twenty years of university teaching, hundreds, if not thousands of students have shared their undergraduate or graduate experience with me. Some memories fade. But occasionally, I do remember.
The most recent version of this email arrived a few months ago from a student of a former iteration of a course I’m teaching this term, College Writing 108: New Media. Back when this course was young (1994? 1997? Some things I don’t remember.), I assigned readings like Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” and Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths.” We played with Hypercard stacks. Students learned HTML so that they could create personal websites, since blogs were still a twinkle in someone’s eye. (Modern lament: Do students learn HTML these days? Or has it gone the way of penmanship and typewriters?)
Back to the email inquiry. The former student wanted to know if I had copies of his old HTML files. He had created a beautiful website–a tribute to his then 8-year-old daughter, sharing the hopes and dreams he had for her future. In his message, he went on to explain that she would be soon finishing high school, and he wanted to share the website with her as a graduation gift. He had lost track of his files in his many moves after Berkeley, since he hadn’t kept the site active. Yes, sometimes the Internet does forget.
My happy reply: “Of course I remember you, and yes, I have your files.”
Why did I remember him? Given the grand scope of things, he wasn’t extraordinarily different from any of his classmates. But, I remember his classmates, too, and other students from the various years of teaching this course.
The student who was hit by a car, and wrote about her eventual recovery through the aid of a Mission S&M artist’s “interesting” equipment
A woman who gave up her Vietnamese name in favor of a more “American-sounding” one, only to change her name every year in search of an elusive identity
The Sikh student who explained why he would never cut his hair
The Korean student who struggled to find his place in a new community, and found it through student organizations
Another who did a brilliant video interpretation of an urban legend, and went on to bigger things
I do not have an exceptional memory. I have exceptional students in all my classes, not just 108.
I’m forced to think of how I approach the work of students in my “regular” writing classes–I use vocabulary akin to that of a farmhand. I have stacks of papers to plow through; I need to clear my desk of the current crop of homework. Don’t get me wrong: I respect their writing. I read it carefully, I grade it fairly. But when an email arrives, “You probably don’t remember me…”, I have to sigh and dig through my records (more farmhand talk).
What is going on?
Simple. If I haven’t led you to this conclusion, I’ll say it outright. Student writing created through “new” media (I hesitate to call it this, but compared to the Gutenberg Bible, I guess we can still call it new) is more memorable. <insert usual caveats about overgeneralizing, exceptions to the rule, etc., here> To clarify: I’m not saying it is better, just more memorable.
To wit: my blog roll contains links to current students’ writing. It’s insightful. It’s interesting. It’s memorable. Have a look if you’re at all curious how today’s university students see the digital world they’re living in.
Filmed in Wheeler 25, UC Berkeley campus, by former CW 108 student Ian Kibbey: