Man-Computer Symbiosis.

Three quotes, many years apart, that I want to draw together:

Man-computer symbiosis is an expected development in cooperative interaction between men and electronic computers. It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership. The main aims are 1) to let computers facilitate formulative thinking as they now facilitate the solution of formulated problems, and 2) to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs. In the anticipated symbiotic partnership, men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking.

J. C. R. Licklider, Man-Computer Symbiosis [1960]

In place of motor skills, today's digital designer must develop an awareness of the many capabilities and sequences of interactions in the continuously growing set of pre-packaged digital tools. In other words, skill in the digital sense is nothing more than knowledge, and the reality is that we implicity glorify rote memorization as the basis of skill for a digital designer.

The true skill of a digital designer is the practiced art of computer programming, or computation.

John Maeda, Design By Numbers [1999]

We’ve found two effective ways of bridging the communication gap between us, squishy biological organisms with a talent for social and spatial reasoning, and computers, unfeeling manipulators of meaningless data. The first is to appeal to our sense of the physical world and build interfaces that mimic that world and allow us to manipulate shapes on a screen with our fingers. This works very well for casual machine interaction.

But we have not yet found a good way to use the point-and-click approach to communicate things to the computer that the designer of the interface did not anticipate. For open-ended interfaces, such as instructing the computer to perform arbitrary tasks, we’ve had more luck with an approach that makes use of our talent for language: teaching the machine a language.

Marijn Haverbeke, Eloquent JavaScript [2014]

All of these thoughts recognize the power that comes with an intimate empathetic relationship between a human and a computer. Licklider pre-empted the value in augmenting intellect and capabilities, the others – coming much later – take views on existing creative computation. For Maeda, familiarity and skill as a user is not enough, to really create we must understand our materials. We would say this of a sculptor, so why not of someone whose material is pixels? For Haverbeke a distinction is drawn between graphical user experience and the unlimited potential of written programming (a distinction that would make Bret Victor weep).

What fascinates me, and led me to draw these quotes together, is that they all insightfully conceive computers as tools yet think only about what we see and read / write. When we think about tools, almost everything we think of is held with or manipulated by hand, yet computing exists abstractly and almost post-physically or post-spacially.

Not to belittle this great thinking of course, simply an observation about something the industry and culture has consistently tended towards – as true in 1960 as it is in 2015.