This is a paper I wrote for my Multimedia Survey class looking at the process that the world has taken in technological innovation. Read ahead and enjoy, I’ve added links where they didn’t exist in the paper version so you can see some of the stuff I’m talking about.
From Imagination to Realization
The process of creating the systems by which we organize the world today are unknown to many. The structure of computer systems and the ways that we interact with them are the result of the ingenuity of countless individuals. Despite the numerous minds involved they have followed (consciously or otherwise) the roadmap set out by the imagination of a relative few. Vannevar Bush’s dream of an organizational system for the leaps and bounds in research breakthroughs seems very familiar to those of us who use computers and the internet today. After engineers began creating the computers that would implement Bush’s ideas the problem arose of how to interact with the vast databases that would result. Douglas Engelbart’s invention of the mouse allowed interaction with the earliest GUIs (Graphical User Interface) and set in motion the way that we control the computers we have today. This process of imagination followed by realization through the efforts of large groups of excited people continues today and will shape the way we interact with the information around us well into the future.
Vannevar Bush was a major force in the scientific community during World War II, where he acted as science advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt and supervised the development of the Atomic Bomb. In 1945 he wrote the landmark essay “As We May Think” as a way to unite scientists who had worked in tandem in the war effort under a peaceful, unifying banner (Packer 142). It was apparent that scientific discoveries were being published much faster than the community’s ability to absorb and expand on them. Bush proposed the “memex” system, which was short for “memory extender”. Using this system all new knowledge would be stored centrally and accessible to all. By organizing data, and filtering it we would be able to see the forest for the trees in subjects that are important to us. In 1945 microfilm, photography, paper, and telephones were the tools Bush planned to use to organize the vast body of data (142–159). As modern observers it is clear to see that his vision was not realized until decades later with digital computing and the internet. Despite the differences in technology Bush’s vision for the future was a guiding force in the way that we organize the data that is increasingly important in our world. In “As We May Think” we read the motivation and overall vision of the “memex” system whose time has come in our lives.
“Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.” (141)
Once all this data began to be compiled an effective way of interacting with it became glaringly necessary. Douglas Engelbart broke past punch cards and cumbersome manipulation of massive computers and introduced the beginnings of a Graphical User Interface and the means to manipulate it. Engelbart created the mouse, email, and the window (used in every major computer operating system from Windows, to Mac, to Linux). With these visual tools everyone down to a consumer could, with minimal training, directly interact with the networks of data available. More than any other Engelbart visualized interactivity and what it would mean for the future. While reading his description of the future’s architect at work in his essay “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”, it is impossible to not think how very similar it is to the way a modern architect does his work in a CAD program (65–90). As with Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart’s vision for the future proved to be the road map that engineers and technological pioneers followed, giving us the modern tools that we enjoy today.
These two men, Bush and Engelbart, imagined scenarios that are common place today and those who came after them made their vision into a reality. This gives us a clue as to where to look for what innovations are coming down the road. In the film Minority Report, and more recently in Quantum of Solace, we watch a new type of interface where the user interacts directly with the computer’s data through touch and not through any intermediary such as a mouse or stylus. Since the movie come out research in the areas of touch interaction has skyrocketed. Imagination is becoming reality. The way we interact with the iPhone, through touch and gestures, is evidence of this new research. Making the body of the user the interactive force is the impetus of new and upcoming work by Nintendo, and Microsoft, new ways of making and performing music (such as in the concerts of Björk), and in mystifying installation art by Stefan Sagmeister. Through observation of this process it is obvious that once imagined, anything can and will be achieved as long as it promises the utility necessary to justify its development. The progression of technology does not rely on random discovery but on the imagination and the will to seek out its fruition.
- Packer, Randall and Jordan, Ken. Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. New York: Norton & Company, Inc. 2002.