As I made a right turn across traffic into a blind alley on my bicycle today, I thought about Douglas Englebart, who I met in Thierry Bardini’s book Bootstrapping: Douglas Englebart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing . Englebart is best-known for building the first on-line computer system and for heading the lab where the first computer mouse was designed. But his more interesting contribution to cybernetics and computing studies was his concept of co-evolution – where engaging with a system changes the way that you think, while simultaneously changing the system itself. This principle suggests that tools don’t just serve useful purpose, they actually enhance human intelligence through the way that they are used.

Englebart wanted computers to demand an engagement from the people who used them, so that both would co-evolve, as Bardini says, “to enable new modes of creative thought, communication, and collaboration” (p. 143). But his caveat was that computers were not meant to be easy to use – otherwise the people using them wouldn’t really evolve – and neither would the system. He was inspired by an early cybernetic thinker, J.R. Licklider, who wrote:

“it is worth pausing to ponder how few well-developed skills there are that are both complex and widespread. Almost everyone can get about in three-dimensional space. Almost everyone can speak and understand one of the natural languages – perhaps not grammatically, but fluently. But relatively few people can do anything else that is even remotely comparable in informational complexity and degree of perfection.” (cited in Bardini, p.216)

Englebart hoped to make computing into one of these complex, widespread skills. But his co-evolution project never took off – instead, computers are “user friendly” with purportedly transparent forms of navigation. But on my ride today, as I made a turn that was logically correct but intuitively wrong, I thought about the complexities of navigation as a cognitive activity.

Navigating in a new place requires not just the capacity to move in three-dimensional space, but the acceptance and mastery of a new geography – understood through street signs and direction abstracted from a two-dimensional map, as well as memorized physical landmarks. Because I don’t yet know the circuitous route across London well enough to calmly pedal like a distracted academic thinking about cybernetics, I have to pay attention so I don’t turn intuitively and find myself in the horrific triangular limbo between Marylebone Road, Old Marylebone Road, Marylebone High Street and Old Marylebone High Street.

But according to Englebart, my navigation confusion could be making me smarter. Once I can get across the city without thinking about it, I will have mastered another complex everyday skill – following a route featuring roundabouts, bad signage, and braintwistingly similar corners while not falling off a small metal contraption barging through traffic at 20 km an hour. It’s just that the city won’t be getting any smarter from me riding across it.

Then again, neither will my computer interface. In fact, compared to the process of learning to navigate the city, I have learned almost nothing from navigating the WYSIWYG interface of my Mac. Of course, I am not expecting to be challenged – I have accepted that my computer is meant to be easy to use rather than interesting to use. Even worse, using my computer provides me with very few of the brilliant moments where it, as a tool, becomes “ready at hand” (that’s Heidegger) – where it falls away and leaves me only with the experience of what it makes possible. A ready at hand bicycle lets me look up and marvel at the brilliant winter sunlight on mansions, chimney pots, and medieval churches. In comparison, a tool that is present at hand (still Heidegger) forces me to acknowledge its role as a tool. A bicycle does this when it has a flat tire. The Mac interface does this when it expects me to search through hierarchical files and folders for a document that I know is related to what I am writing, makes me scroll down to read through documents, highlight to cut and paste.

Can Englebart’s vision of co-evolution ever return to the complex everyday use of computer tools? Could we connect to our computers using only our minds, and then shape and learn from the systems we created? Bardini thinks we could, but warns us with the words of Jeff Raskin, an interface designer:

“I suspect most of us would prefer to use a direct mind to machine (MTM) interface, rather than type and shove a mouse around, but if the interface in which MTM is embedded is full of modal traps, complex navigational puzzles, and a multitude of details to be memorized, the improvement will be marginal and the interface as frustrating as anything now available” (cited in Bardini p. 226).

Faced with the complex navigational puzzle of the four Marylebones I ride past, I’m wondering if we underestimate the extent of the cognitive challenge of just getting where we are going!