In 1986 we hosted a conference titled Interactive Multimedia at Apple Computer (where I was then a Senior Engineer in the Education Research Group and the Human Interface Group). We established a collaboration with the National Geographic Society and Lucasfilm to explore how multimedia capabilities might bring image and sound-rich experiences to education. This conference brought together a small number of innovators from publishing, television and education to establish the basis for new and continuing collaborations around the development of interactive multimedia learning products and concepts.
I worked closely with Doug in writing a chapter, “The Augmentation System Framework,” for the book Interactive Multimedia: Visions of Multimedia for Developers, Educators and Information Providers [1988 with Sueann Ambron and Hooper (Editors)] that documented the conference. In our discussions, I came to understand the depth of Doug’s commitment to “augmenting the human intellect” and “evolving collective intelligence.” I learned about “community handbooks” and “bootstrapping between human and tool systems.” And I described these concepts and Doug’s examples in a chapter that was distributed widely, documenting ideas that were, at that time, rather obscure to most, except for those close to Doug’s work.
Looking back, I recall Doug’s being so far ahead of his time. (Remember, in 1986 the mouse was still an object of much scorn, the Macintosh computer was still considered a curiosity, Microsoft had not yet adopted the desktop interface, the World Wide Web as we know it was not yet developed, and Doug was working on his own out of an obscure office at McDonnell Douglas.)
In 1987, Apple introduced HyperCard to the world, created by Bill Atkinson. It was a new kind of computer application that was very difficult to explain to people who were looking for the next “killer app,” the next “VisiCalc” that would compel people to buy computers. (Again, remember that, in 1987, techies dominated the world of computer users; they were not yet integrated into the social fabric in ways that both Apple or Doug were predicting.) Of course, Doug (and Ted Nelson) had envisioned hyperlinking years before HyperCard was released. They were pioneers in understanding the power of this networked topology to create a rich fabric of both information display and personal experience.
HyperCard provided a tool for linking content elements. It also let one connect to videodiscs—analog devices that let you randomly access movies. And, it provided an accessible tool (arguably more powerful than any tool available today, though the media were primitive) where users could create their own interlinked content—combinations of text and images and sounds, not formulas and programs.
Many educators were enthralled with this new product. It gave them the ability to create new kinds of materials for their students. And it provided students with direct hands-on experience in the creation of media-rich interlinked compositions. However, most people were completely uninterested and confused. Why would you ever want to link things randomly? Why deal with non-linear narratives? Why move films from entertainment venues into education or business or other serious communications domains? Why should individuals create their own content online when publishers could do this?
The digital revolution was right in front of people’s eyes, in a product that was available for free on a personal computer. And yet HyperCard was not taken seriously. It was not solid technology. It did not fit into the business models of the computer industry or the publishing industry. It was a curiosity. A toy. A passing fancy.
Doug had also been very clear that media was an important part of the general communication and community framework for online experiences; his classic 1968 demonstration of video conferencing with shared screens made quite clear that live dynamic visual displays could play a very important role in everyday exchanges. Doug’s analyses and visions then became a very important framework which we could ground our HyperCard activities within, and which we could use in articulating our visions of hyperlinked media in the support of a wide range of learners, many of whom were not co-located.
My conversations with Doug, which were frequent in those days, became a constant source of inspiration. They provided the activities with both a solid grounding in past research, and a vector to consider the future of digital technologies, which were rapidly evolving to support the kinds of collaborative learning environments that just might prepare youth and adults to organize their collective knowledge to address the world’s problems. For, as Doug noted in his earliest writings, and as many are becoming aware of today, these problems are too complex and interrelated to be solved by local, provincial, isolated analysis that might have worked in the past.
The “augmentation of the human intellect” continues to be the major challenge of the era; Doug has left a trail of devices, like mice and user experiences including hyperlinked media-rich elements. The challenge for all of us is to continue to keep our eye on the major conceptual challenges, even as each of these devices and capabilities try to capture our complete attention. Doug has not been tempted to shift his glance from the biggest of problems. We can all benefit from this focus of his.
Kristina Woolsey is a cognitive scientist who focuses on the intersection of real and virtual learning spaces. She has been on the faculties at University of California at Santa Cruz and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She directed both the Atari Research Lab and the Apple Multimedia Lab, and was a Distinguished Scientist at Apple Computer. She is currently leading a major learning space design project at the San Francisco Exploratorium.