Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Demo Skepticism

There is no doubting that Doug Engelbart is one of the most important pioneers of the computer age in which we live today; but I like to live by the premise that this is no accomplishment, however great, that cannot benefit from being viewed through skeptical lenses. Thus, when there is a flood of adulation, I take it as a cue to rev up my skeptical engines. I recent example of such adulation can be found over at confused at calcutta:

You know, I never thought of looking for The Mother Of All Demos on the web.

Then, last week, I had the opportunity of attending a Doug Engelbart seminar at MIT, and the incredible privilege of having a private dinner with him, courtesy Tom Malone and the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. [My thanks to all concerned.] Naturally, I looked for the video soon after, and there it was.

If you haven’t seen it already, do look at it: link. I’ve also shown it in my VodPod in the sidebar to this blog. It’s an hour and 15 minutes long; do not adjust your set when watching it, there is no sound for the first few minutes. I think everyone who has any interest in computing should watch it and hear from the man who, along with his team, gave us the mouse, hypertext, and the precursor to today’s GUI.

Make of this what you will. A comment by Lars Ploughmann made the following (which I shall reproduce in its entirety):

Barely a minute into his presentation, just after having described how people might work with information using a computer, Engelbart airs the question: How much value could you derive from that? (His smile suggests that he suspects ‘a lot’ of value could be derived from it.)

The question is a sound guide in research and business. Are too few people asking it too infrequently today?

I can react to this because it reminds me why I still have this irresistible urge to be the "kitchen cynic" every time Engelbart struts his stuff (without denying him credit for his many accomplishments, I should add). JP Rangaswamy, who runs confused of calcutta, recently wrote about words "whose sound reminds me of fresh chalk squeaking on a glass-fronted blackboard." The word that inspired this invective was "content;" and I expressed my sympathy in a comment. However, the word that really does it to me is "value!" Given the hash that philosophers have made of it, one would think that we knew enough to leave it alone;" but, sometime in the last decade or so ago, our language became contaminated by the phrase "value proposition." The hash has been crammed down our throats ever since.

I prefer to live by words that Robert Solow wrote last September in The New York Review: "Modern economics dispenses with the notion of 'value' altogether, and deals only with ordinary, observable market price." In my previous blog I chose to paraphrase this as "In other words 'value' is too abstract a concept to mess with the nuts-and-bolts practices of economics; so stick to the concrete phenomena you can observe." There is no denying the need for "a sound guide in research and business." A good start is to follow Solow's path and begin with the question "How much would you pay for it?" The rub comes when "it" doesn't have a concrete antecedent, which is the case when "it" is a vague construct like "how people might work with information using a computer!" Yes, we would all benefit from "augmentation" (or facilitation or what have you) of our workplace skills but at what price? Sound business demands that the price be made explicit and justified!

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