Douglas Engelbart: The Real Deal

So what happens to visionaries in technology?

These are the people who imagined and defined what Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would do with computing technology. Their passing is misrepresented and shunted or butted aside. Perhaps they see too far ahead, or they focus their energies and intellect on doing good rather than doing well. In computing, Douglas Engelbart was both prophetic and prolific, but until his death July 2, 2013, very few using what he envisioned and helped to build knew his name. His inspired research in computing was, according to a Stanford Research Institute post-mortem, “the very foundation of personal computing and the Internet.” For example, he and his colleague Bill English invented and patented the computer mouse (along with SRI) in 1970.

Much more important, in a 1968 presentation known as “The Mother of All Demos,” Engelbart detailed how computing could be used for “conceptualizing, visualizing, and organizing working material, and…procedures and methods for working individually and cooperatively.”* In translation, this is a formulation of both networked and personal computing. He thought of everything, from a “meta language” (hypertext) to “the user [having] a description of the service functions”—in other words, Help.

Some in the audience thought the presentation was an elaborate hoax. Thirty years later at a Stanford commemorative event, Paul Saffo characterized the presentation as being “like a UFO landing on the White House lawn.” According to a biographical sketch by his wife, Christiana, Engelbart envisioned “people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, ‘flying around’ in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts.”

In the best of all worlds, the Internet and other communications technologies might have been just that. In 1983, Engelbart and the SRI licensed the patent for the mouse to Apple for about $40,000. What drove this man to devise computing systems that provided both individual control and networking was the desire to share knowledge so that “one’s concepts exist in a ‘network’ of relationships as opposed to the essentially linear form of actual printed records.” His aim was encapsulated in the name of his SRI research group, A Research Center For Augmenting Human Intellect. He believed that connecting people through technology would make us all better able to solve complex problems through the sharing of ideas.

Today, everybody and everything is networked through the use of personal “devices.” BYOB has become BYOD. And we’ve learned that this powerful concept of networking facilitates knowledge-sharing, commerce, the invasion of privacy, crime, war, hate, love and all seven of the deadly sins instantly (plus “following” Kim Kardashian). It’s my sense that Engelbart was in his later years thought to be something of a crank. His vision of what computing could do was too “soft” to survive the pressures of cupidity, aggression and narcissism. His death should serve as a reminder that any tool is only as good the person who uses or invents it.

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*If you would like to read this landmark presentation (though the video conference is not included!), go here: http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3954.html

Posted in Communicate, Will's "Writing Life"

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