Engelbart: Bootstrapping and Symbiosis

Okay, for anyone reading these series of posts on Engelbart, here is where I begin to turn this huge ship towards pedagogy and ed tech. As I read through Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework for the Annotating Engelbart project, I am struck by what a different kind of thinker Engelbart is. He is very optimistic, for instance, about our ability to learn and more importantly, work together, and believing in our capacity to solve problems. It may not be just idealism or optimism. Coincidentally enough, I ran across an interesting article that points to humans being hard-wired for cooperation.

Jonathan Birch wrote an article for the philosophy department’s blog at The London School called “How do we know how to act together?” In it he begins with asking us to think of a simple act of cooperation: “two people pick up a sofa together, carry it into a room, and put it down on the floor. Simple though it is, this is an amazing thing: it’s something that sets us apart from all other primates.” He discusses what he calls “joint know-how” and looks at where he thinks it comes from and how it works. Other species may have moments of cooperation, but we seem to have perfected it as a species through what he calls “Active Mutual Enablement.” This is our innate ability to monitor, predict, adjust our behavior to match the movement of others, and most importantly, our ability actively enable this behavior in others. What about the other primates? Monkey typing ShakespeareOther animals are able to work together but not to the degree that we have. I personally don’t believe that a million monkeys typing for a million years will write Shakespeare (although they might make improvements on the Adjunct Faculty Handbook).

It is a fascinating article because the ideas in it connect with Engelbart’s bootstrapping ideas as well as Howard Rheingold’s discussions of cooperation. We are fortunate enough to have Howard as a featured annotator in the Annotating Engelbart project. The whole point as I see it in Engelbart is that we have a largely untapped capacity to cooperate intellectually and solve problems that naturally emerges from intellectual augmentation. Part of the bootstrapping idea is that we would create new processes and ways of cooperating to solve those problems. It is not just about creating the artifacts, or tools, but about how we collaborate using those tools. Engelbart took it for granted that we would use the tools to help individuals cooperate with others. Howard has done a lot of interesting work on cooperation about which he says “I see a new story emerging about how humans get things done together. The outlines of this new narrative can be seen in recent evidence that contradicts old assumptions about human selfishness versus altruism, self-interest versus collective action. What could be more important than understanding how people cooperate and fail to cooperate?

And so this is where I am taking this into pedagogy. What happens when we ask ourselves questions about teaching and learning like:

  • How does my curriculum enable the students to continuously work towards the augmentation of their own intellect?
  • Am I providing my students with opportunities to cooperate and work together?
  • Does my curriculum stress the importance of cooperation?
  • How do my students understand the process of working together?

This goes beyond the idea of “group work” or a semester project: I would like students to understand the power and usefulness of collective, collaborative work. I am sure there are other questions I will be formulating as I continue with this project. If you have some suggestions or ideas, please comment below or post them to Twitter via the hashtag #augmentintellect.

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