The third section of Douglas Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect is another entry in a long history of science fiction’s contemporary relevance. Enlightenment thinker Voltaire used his 1752 story “Micromegas” to provoke Western ideas that had been accepted carte blanche. Not an uncommon motif during the French Enlightenment, visitors from outer space (for Voltaire, the visitor was from Sirius, and his companion was from Saturn) visit Earth and offer critique of Western ideas. Commonly, the primary target was religious belief in God, though French writers could not publish atheist tracts without government condemnation. By couching atheism in a fantastical story of other-worldly visitors, writers could circumvent French imprimatur, dispersing defenses of atheism across Europe.
This is not the way that Engelbart uses fiction. Instead, his characters, Joe, tells the reader the benefits of using the computer-based augmentation system. The use of second person makes the description welcoming, and perhaps it better explains the technologies.
“Let’s actually work some examples. You help me.” And you become involved in a truly fascinating game. Joe tells you that you are to develop an argument leading to statements summarizing the augmentation means so far revealed to you for doing the kind of straight-text work usually done with a pencil and eraser on a single sheet of paper. You unconciously look for a scratch pad before you realize that you are going to do this the “augmented way” by using him and his system–with artful coaching from him.
By forcing the reader into the story, Engelbart embraces the reader’s discomforts while at the same time dissolving them. In this way, he augments the human experiences in his story.
Imagination is the augmentation of human intellect. Science fiction shows this repeatedly, and often to great effect. Many technologies imagined in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe are today a reality: the flip phone, videophones, mobile touchscreen devices, the forehead-scanning medical reader. Without the imaginative fiction of Star Trek, these technologies may have still come into existence, or they may still be ahead of us.
When Engelbart and others imagine a future or other world, they provide a great service to humanity. They are subversive to the status quo, insisting that there is a better world to be had. And while that world may be as far off as Sirius or a federation of planets, it’s important that we try to live in it, being the “you” that Joe addresses.