The map room is a physical room-size wiki for collaboration from the 1950s

19.22, Friday 20 Jan 2023

There’s an idea from the 1950s about physical rooms and index cards for shared context and collaboration.

And thinking about how to make a modern version gets me thinking about room-scale group use computers, and what kind of interfaces we’ll need.

No conclusions today, but thinking out loud…

The map room is a physical multiplayer learning machine

Consider a room!

It’s 1954 (or 1955) and a group of disciplines are working together on a complicated decade-long regional development plan for the Hacienda Vicos community in Peru. Represented: anthropology, economics, political science, and psychology.

How do they find a common vocabulary? How do they share data and ideas? How do they plan action?

Enter the map room.

whose walls contained a large matrix with the time (in years) on the ordinate and with the “variables” the group was interested in along the abscissa.

Here’s the paper: Administration of Research in a Research Corporation by Kennedy & Putt, RAND Corporation Report No. P-847, April 20, 1956.

(It’s an important paper, and I’ll say why later.)

Variables, and index cards:

130 variables, grouped under “government,” “economics,” “social relations,” “education and mass media,” “health and welfare,” and “attitudes.” There were spaces for three-by-five cards for each of ten years under each variable. The entire matrix thus could hold 1,300 cards that summarized the value of the variable in the past or described its desired value for the future. At the top of each column was a description of the value of the variable “in the best of all possible worlds” and a statement of the value anticipated or desired at the end of the ten-year experimental period (1951-1961).

Data and planning:

The contextual map records past decisions and actions as well as predictions and anticipated reactions for the future.

The room is architected for discussions and decisions, not just visits:

The map room contained a conference table and chairs so that decision-making and planning conferences could be held there. Thus the group was continually confronted with the developing map and the members were constantly aware of gaps in the information and suggested priorities for items to be considered.


The map was a large, living memory for the group.

Other observations about the map room:

  • Briefing is simply a matter of taking new people into the map room for a briefing and allowing them to wander
  • The map room is, in one sense, a “learning machine” – comprising two parts. The planners: thinking and adapting And the display: making the complete context of the decisions readily available.
  • The physical room should be reconfigurable. Ideally, many decision-making groups should be able to use a number of maps simultaneously in the same general area.

It’s a compelling concept for collaborative, open-ended work!

That was 1955. What could we do in the 2020s, with hybrid environments, networked computers, and embodied interaction?

I’ve glossed over the origin of the map room because it was, uh, not great

First, a digression.

So the project for which the map room was created was the “development” of Hacienda Vicos, a 2,500 person, 22,000 acre community on the slopes of the Andes in Peru.

It’s described as a complex interacting cultural system – long-standing custom involved households dedicating some portion of time and labour to the community, with them subsisting on land held in common. I don’t doubt that life would be hard, but none-the-less it sounds like rich and meaningful mutualism.

Yet, the paper says without further discussion, it is “recognised” that the hacienda is an “anachronism” and has to go in the face of modern technology like hydroelectrics, trucks, schools, and communications.

Worse, it looks like the map room itself was physically located not in Peru but in Stanford Cornell, and the copies of the contextual map were made to be used? imposed? in the field in the hacienda itself.

It’s horrific colonialism.

The opportunity to ask the hacienda community how and if it wanted to change was right there. New technology could have been added to the community matrix – or not!

The map room would have been the perfect forum for the decisions.

And I’m pleased to discover, on some light googling, that the Hacienda Vicos “project” is regarded as “controversial.”


With that giant looming caveat, back to map rooms.

The map room paper was Engelbart’s first citation

The map room holds a contextual map: the matrix of index cards.

The contextual map is put forward as a technique for a multidisciplinary group to find a conceptual framework.

What is a conceptual framework and why does it matter?

Let’s look at one: Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework by Douglas Engelbart, 1962.

This is the paper that unlocked ARPA funding when JCR Licklider read it, and set out the research programme that led to the invention and demo of the personal computer, the mouse etc in 1968 in The Mother of All Demos

To my mind, the 1962 paper hinges on two meta-principles.

The first is that Engelbart adopts the framing of a conceptual framework at all.

Kennedy & Putt, for the RAND Corporation in 1956, set out to summarise how to build an effective research organisation.

They identify that different disciplines will tend to follow their own groove: Research specialists, like all other living organisms, will go to great lengths to maintain a comfortable position.

And therefore answers will remain “unintegrated.” True cooperation will not occur.

The requirement, they say, is for a framework

  • that within which research administrators and research specialists may interact and make decisions about what research should be performed, and
  • provides for effective communication with persons engaged in development

Something that can cut across disciplines; that all feel like they are contributing to.

Engelbart reads this paper! It unlocks something for him.

From Engelbart’s own oral history of his work (which is worth read in its entirety)…

Then I discovered a great little RAND report written by Kennedy and Putt that described my situation marvellously and recommended a solution. Their thesis was that when launching a project of [a new discipline] the researcher would encounter consistent problems in approaching people in established disciplines. They wouldn’t perceive your formulations and goals as relevant, and they would become disputative on the apparent basis that your positions were contrary to ‘’accepted” knowledge or methods. The trouble, said these authors, was that each established discipline has its own ‘’conceptual framework.” The enculturation of young professionals with their discipline’s framework begins in their first year of professional school. Without such a framework, tailored for the goals, values, and general environment of the respective discipline, there could be no effective, collaborative work. Furthermore, if such a conceptual framework did not already exist for a new type of research, then before effective research should be attempted, an appropriate, unique framework needs to be created. They called this framework creation process the ‘’Search Phase.’‘

So, I realized that I had to develop an appropriate conceptual framework for the augmentation pursuit that I was hooked on. That search phase was not only very sweaty, but very lonely.

The result is his 1962 paper. Kennedy & Putt is number 1 in the references.

What was Engelbart’s eventual framework?

Well it’s fully about augmented human intellect, and read his paper for that, but here is the second of the two meta-principles: he followed JCR Licklider in atomising knowledge-worker activity. (Yes, Licklider who went on to fund Engelbart. What else could he do?)

I talked about this before: Licklider had analysed his own thinking process, and discovered that 85% of the work was searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, and so on… bureaucratically “preparing the way”.

As Engelbart put it: Every process of thought or action is made up of sub-processes – and that bureaucratic work is tractable to computed-aided support.

Licklider published his work in Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960) and that’s Engelbart’s reference #15 – to my mind, it is this approach that uniquely leads to the functionality in the demo and eventually “tools for thought” generally, and is the heart of the “augmenting” conceptual framework, unlocking the required multidisciplinary work of engineers and psychologists.

Engelbart’s “very sweaty, very lonely” slog to his framework is what the map room concept was intended to short-circuit – why make that journey alone when you can do it together?

And that’s why I’d like to find ways to reinvent the map room today, because we do need new multidisciplinary conceptual frameworks, and it would be cool to have new tools to help us to get there.

Other map rooms in fact and fiction

Let me rattle through a few other immersive information rooms so we have some references!

SAGE (1958)

Here’s my history of SAGE: the massive computing project (3x the size of the Manhattan Project) that preceded the PC, brought in the interactive computer, and gave us a glimpse of group computing which is so far unrealised.

On the third floor at each of the 24 Direction Center buildings, The Pit:

Each of the men (yes all men) has their own computer console at their desk. But they’re working together around the PDU. One of the men is holding what is either a light gun or a laser pointer/equivalent. They’re assessing potential threats and ordering missiles and bombers. Together.


This isn’t a setup for presentations and discussions. It’s for collaboration and action. The whole room is an environment for the team to work.

Group use. Shared context.

And from there we can go Nasa’s flight control centers, or NORAD in the movie WarGames – but I’m more interested in the individual/small group rooms.

The Knowledge Box (1962)

In 1962, experimental designer Ken Isaacs imagined and constructed a ‘knowledge box’, a compressed environment for experiencing ‘culture’: a cube of wood, masonite and steel equipped with twenty-four slide projectors and audio-suppliers.

Life Magazine is quoted:

Inside the knowledge box, alone and quiet, the student would see a rapid procession of thoughts and ideas projected on walls, ceilings and floor in a panoply of pictures, words and light patterns, leaving the mind to conclude for itself. It is a machine of visual impact that could depict, for example, a history of the Civil War in a single session, or just as easily give a waiting astronaut a lesson in celestial navigation.

The photos at the above link are ASTOUNDING.

Just for individual use but so immersive!

It reminds me of the brainwashing machine in The Ipcress File from 1965.

I want to have a go.

Project Cybersyn (1970)

The Operations Room:

It was a hexagonal space, thirty-three feet in diameter, accommodating seven white fibreglass swivel chairs with orange cushions and, on the walls, futuristic screens.

… Four screens could show hundreds of pictures and figures at the touch of a button, delivering historical and statistical information about production-the Datafeed-but the screen displays had to be drawn (and redrawn) by hand, a job performed by four young female graphic designers.

Same belief in human collaboration, same belief in context. Same mid-20th century, uh, awkward politics.

btw the architectural aesthetic: The room was designed by Gui Bonsiepe, an innovative German designer who studied and taught at the famed Ulm School of Design, in Germany, and industrial design associated with the Ulm School inspired Steve Jobs and the Apple designer Jonathan Ive.

But before any of these, even before the original map room…

…there was the Prime Radiant of Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation.

Published as a novel in 1952, and based on the novellas in Astounding magazine in 1948-1950, this was Asimov’s science-fictional user interface for Seldon’s Plan, the map of the present and the future of the galaxy according to the science of psychohistory.

[the Plan] is projected on the wall as a network of dense, interlocking equations by a device named the “Prime Radiant,” and manipulated using a combination of gestural interface and thought control.

I pulled out relevant passages here.

The Prime Radiant isn’t just a device – Consider a room! Asimov begins. It’s a forum for the “guardians” of the Plan to discuss together and make decisions together. Shared context and interactivity! Collaboration!

And I wonder how much influence in the imagination this “technology” had? Did RAND researchers read Astounding?

Ephemeral vs accretive tools and why there’s still room for map rooms

I can’t remember if I’ve shared this before but my mental model of modern collaboration tools is that they fall into two camps.

Ephemeral tools are about the conversation. Slack is one. Zoom is another. Google Docs, weirdly, is another, even though it’s all about files. There’s no shared “front page” to Google Drive and no Schelling Points for team members to gather around, so all documents are temporary working documents (and doing otherwise is pushing water uphill).

Accretive tools build over time. Developer tools tend to work like this: platform-as-code. Wikis are the main one: Notion is accretive. (I love Notion.) Pipeline-based tools like Trello fall on the accretive end, for me – memory resides in the tool, not the users. Accretive tools need gardening because they don’t forget by default.

I’m not sure these are the right terms. Maybe: stock and flow?

Maybe: oral and literate? I also feel like you get two cultures of organisations. Oral orgs believe that knowledge resides in individuals, and they are forever emailing each other and having meetings and making custom decks. It allows for expertise. Literate orgs treat people as interchangeable parts and scurry over shared edifices – but they build cathedrals.


Map rooms, in my terminology, are an accretive tool.

They are shared living memory – external from individual skulls.

Which is what, say, Notion does.

But the map room also provides the overview. (As does the Prime Radiant!)

I was playing with this idea recently, in a tiny way, when I was mapping my posts about the multiplayer web.

My learnings were that (a) maps should be authored not generated automatically; and (b) the map is a separate and just as valuable artefact as the territory that it maps.

So, imagine something like Notion, but

  • it has authored maps for overviews – vast overviews
  • you build and interact with maps together with your team, with shared and individual views side-by-siude
  • with fluid movement between the macro and the molecular.

That’s not just “whiteboard” view, for me. There’s more.

Could you build a map room today? Maybe embodiment matters

Yes I know agencies have “war rooms” with post-its for project management and concepts for #brands all over the walls. But that’s a technique out of the 1950s it turns out – I mean, could we bring the technology of map rooms into the 2020s?

Something software-enabled, something multiplayer, something that embraces “hybrid” so we don’t have to be either all in one geographic location or all at home.

I think embodiment matters here?

It matters, in the map room, where you’re standing. It matters, in the map room and in the palace of memory simultaneously, that you can focus on some details and discard others because they’re in peripheral vision or behind you, or remember where you spotted something. It matters, in the map room, who you’re near. It matters if you see somebody lingering near an index card that you happen to know something about, and you can walk over and talk to them about it. All of that!

So in my imagination Map Room 2.0 looks something like this…

Consider a room with a projector that shows an overview of your whole “map”. Maybe, just like the original map room, it’s a matrix of variables and time.

We all have that projector: me in my home office, and you in yours, and the others in the office meeting room. We navigate the map with gestures. It shows the same view for everyone. We don’t all need the identical physical setup – the projector can be large or small or point at any wall.

For looking closer, we use our phones and tablets. Those are individual.

But there’s some kind of equivalent to embodiment (and presence and proxemics): the system has gaze detection… it knows where you’re looking. And it also knows what index card you’re examining on your personal device.

Gaze and individual browsing are shown as icons on the shared map, like seeing coloured cursors in a Google Doc. Maybe the icon, or cursor, gets bigger if the viewer is standing closer to their projection.

More hardware peripherals: everyone wears earbuds + mic. There’s proximity audio so, if you’re in the main shared space, you can hear remote people who have their cursors near where you’re looking. There’s a “shout” button that speaks to the whole room.

So it’s wiki-like software, with multiplayer cursors and a virtual spatial metaphor, plus overview maps, and there’s hardware to make a hybrid tele-environment for everyone participating.

Something like that.

A new map room.

A new conceptual framework for new conceptual frameworks

It’s useful talking through the above because it’s hard for me to do so – it feels difficult to reason about a new map room because I can’t (yet) imagine what a physical computing environment should be. Not with much resolution.

What are the primitives, like the equivalents to the windows, icons, menus, and pointers? How would people use it together? How would the various input/output modes braid together? What’s the conceptual framework for that?

And this is a topic I’ve circled before:

WHAT IF, instead of the Personal Computer, the dividend of SAGE had been the Team Computer?

A computer that wasn’t used individually but as a group, together in a room or perhaps remotely. Not desktops but environments. An alternate history of computing that doesn’t involve user IDs or ownership as primary concepts but is instead oriented around collaborative, co-created artefacts, spaces that are jointly inhabited.

As useful as a 20XXs map room would be, it feels like first I need to spend some time exploring computing environments in general.

Another time.

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