Once or twice a week I’m in a meeting, someone blurts out their fantastic new idea, and I have to bite my tongue instead of saying “hey, we thought of that years ago!”
If you’re over 30 you’re probably beginning to have that thought yourself once in a while. My favorite is when someone pops up in a meeting and says “Hey, I had this great new idea that we should use the web [or phones, or whatever] for online learning.”
When I tell them that someone first did this in 1954, why do they get so bent out of shape? (And then ignore the comment and go right back to claiming the idea as their own…)
Illustration #1: Jerry Michalski (who I think agrees with me) points us at a 1992 paper by John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid entitled Stolen Knowledge. In it they describe a number of dichotomies that are worth a few moments of thought. They’re talking about them in the context of situated learning, which takes place in the real world at just the right time [aha! you mean on phones? you mean this is not a new idea?], and they address topics like “instruction vs learning,” “explicit vs implicit,” and “individual vs social.” The title Stolen Knowledge comes from the fact that we so frequently learn in spite of our teachers – we “steal” knowledge from around the sides of the teacher‘s trajectory, rather than learning from direct transmission [my terms, not theirs].
Oh, but I should’t lose track of my point — ideas are being bandied about today (2009) as if they were newly-discovered. And in fact, JSB and Paul (and others who they were responding to) were talking about them almost 20 years ago. Does a concept first exist only when it pops into our mind? Is there no credit to be given to people who came up with these concepts years ago?
This is the whole premise of academic publication, of course — that credit is given to the people who came up with the concepts we are building upon. When writing an academic paper, you must always thoroughly research, and then cite those who came before you.
But in today’s non-academic world, and especially in business, this process just doesn’t happen very often. I don’t think that it’s necessarily malicious, just negligent and a byproduct of the ways humans think. We frequently synthesize ideas without going back and cataloging all of the ideas that contributed to their generation.
Illustration #2: Ohboy, I was an offender too… In 1973, writing my doctoral dissertation, I made the same mistake. I was about 25 years old (as I said above, not yet 30) and I was involved in making computers communicate and enable computer-based learning. And on my dissertation committee was Gustave Rath (whom I count as a mentor of mine, along with 3 or 4 others), who it turns out had worked with B. F. Skinner in 1954 on a project to use an IBM 650 computer (leading to work on the IBM 1500) as a programmed instruction teaching machine. I made the mistakes of not discovering this fact and also not citing it in my dissertation. I think I missed it because the research paper was rather obscure, but of course I hadn’t really given much weight to the possibility that others had been working on the problem so much earlier than I had.
Illustration #3: And finally, Doug Engelbart and his crew of merry collaborators, developed so many new ideas in the 1960s that it’s hard to even count them. The mouse, the chording keyboard, overlaying text and motion video, hypertext, and the list continues. There are many, many references to Doug’s work, but I prefer to point you at a video of his 1968 demonstration which illustrates many of these in prototype form. The “Mother of All Demos.” How few times we see Doug recognized for these contributions to objects and forms we use hundreds of times every day.
Here’s the actual 1968 demo, preserved on Google video. The first few minutes are silent, then the demo begins with full video and audio. If you have time, watch the whole presentation. You’re seeing word process, split screens, overlays of text on video, and lots of things that you use every day on your computer today. And this was 40 years ago. (Or check out the demo at the Stanford “Mouse site”.)
 Jerry’s Twitter message was: “@jerrymichalski think of Twitter as you read this 1992 paper by JSB and Paul Duguid: http://www2.parc.com/ops/members/brown/papers/stolenknow.html”
 Gustave J. Rath Development of computer-based instruction in the 1950s IEEE reference. The IBM 1500-based instructional system. And the 1954 work on the IBM 650 is mentioned in this timeline overview in Wikipedia, which isn’t bad at all.