Futures Past – Design and the Machine

November 21-23, 2013, MIT

MIT, November 21-23, 2013


In 1960, the readers of the IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics encountered J.C.R. Licklider speculating on the future. “The hope,” he contended, “is that, in not too many years, human brains and computer machines would be coupled together very tightly and the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought.” He called this new cooperative interaction between the human and the computer a “symbiosis.” At that moment, computers were conceptualized either as compliant instruments extending the capabilities of the human subject, or intelligent replacements, automating operations previously performed by the human mind and hand. Positioning himself between the distant prospect of artificial intelligence and the use of machines as mechanical extensions, Licklider declared “symbiosis” a productive way to engage with the changing technological environment.

This manifesto-like proposition coincided with the changing role of technology in design. Faced with the difference between the “symbionts” – the “man” and the “computer” – new research agendas raised questions of method, representation, interaction, and imagination. As computational media pervade design pedagogy and practice, the model of interaction between humans and computers in relation to the creative process persists as a research question, even though consistently obscured by the
exigencies of practice. A new encounter with Licklider’s proposition fifty years later will help us rethink and contextualize the relationship between the human, the machine, and design.

Posted: September 13, 2013