Software Engelbart Could Love

Quinn WarnickNew Media Seminar

Douglas Engelbart’s plans for the future, as outlined in Augmenting Human Intellect, are incredibly ambitious, but as I read this selection I couldn’t stop my mind from returning to something much more mundane: my ongoing quest for the perfect software program.

I don’t rely on anything as complex as Engelbart’s “hand-operated, edge-notched card system” (p. 99), but I’d like to think that my attempts to organize my research notes, academic articles, to-do lists, etc., follow in his footsteps. Here’s Engelbart explaining the motivation behind his DIY system:

“If my mental processes were more powerful, I could dispense with the cards, and hold all of the card-sized concept structures in my memory, where also would be held the categorization linkages that evolved as I worked (with my feet up on the artifacts and my eyes closed). As it is, and as it probably always will be no matter how we develop or train our mental capabilities, I want to work in problem areas where the number and interrelationship complexity of the individual factors involved are too much for me to hold and manipulate within my mind.” (p. 100, emphasis mine)

Do I flatter myself by comparing my intellectual endeavors to Engelbart’s? Definitely. But don’t most of us feel like the problems we are trying to solve are often beyond the reach of our mental capabilities? (And if they aren’t, then what’s the point?) And for those of us who are digital packrats, each passing year produces more stuff we need to sort, tag, and archive. All of which is to say that I spend an inordinate amount of time looking for the perfect tool(s) to augment my human intellect.

An abbreviated list of the programs I have tested in the past few years, in no particular order:

That list doesn’t include academic reference managers like EndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley, and I won’t even mention the endless stream of iPhone and iPad apps I’ve tried. These days, I’m fond of Dropbox (for keeping files in sync on several devices), nvALT (for jotting down quick notes), Pinboard (for collecting and sharing bookmarks), and Papers (for storing academic articles). After watching my wife use Evernote for a year, I’m about to give it a try, too.

Here’s the worst part: None of these applications does exactly what I want, which means that (like Engelbart) I end up devoting a lot of time to building and maintaining my personal human augmentation system and not enough time to using the system.

Perhaps what I really need is a good set of edge-notched cards.