Doug Engelbart: More Than the Inventor of the Mouse

Written By

Clark Quinn

May 11, 2016

“We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.”

Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,
Douglas Engelbart

 

I had the privilege of meeting Douglas Engelbart during the later years of his life. If you aren’t already aware of him, it’s important to note that his contributions have provided much more of the basis of the world we live in than is commonly known. His frameworks continue to provide a powerful opportunity to improve our human capability.

Early in his career, Doug had seen Vannevar Bush’s July 1945 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “As We May Think,” and simultaneously was working with early computers. Doug was inspired to reflect on what he was doing and on what could be his life’s work. He realized that there were complex problems facing humanity, and he believed that our individual minds alone could not address the issues. Doug believed that we needed to find ways to work together to address these problems. Further, he saw us augmented by computational devices that “could help people work, and not just with numbers, but with the kind of thinking symbology that we employ now,” as he told authors Valerie Landau and Eileen Clegg (see References). This led to an inspired stream of work that has presaged much of what has subsequently come to pass. It can easily be said that his work foresaw the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The “Mother of All Demos” in 1968, where Doug demonstrated a computer system that captured most of what we now take for granted in computer systems (mouse, hyperlinks, video conferencing, teleconferencing, word processing, and more), wasn’t the culmination of his genius. (Video of the demonstration is available here.) The system he designed, NLS (“oN-Line System”), was the first operational hypertext system. Even so, NLS itself was merely a tool to manifest the grander concepts that would provide us with the ability to raise what Doug termed the “collective IQ.” He was simply building the minimal infrastructure that was necessary to realize his vision.

Why was (and is) this significant?

Doug saw that we needed ways to represent complex concepts that we could collaboratively explore and use as the basis for understanding and solving. He recognized that the world was more complex than most of the linear models then extant were capable of handling. He recognized that linear prose was not sufficient and that richer representations were key.

People needed ways to capture the complexity of knowledge through links that expressed the nature of relationships between concepts, and they needed the ability to communicate as they built and revised these models. Doug proposed “dynamic knowledge repositories” composed of networked computer systems as a general-purpose symbol-manipulating environment that could support this collaborative sense-making. He included the ability to converse via video while simultaneously editing these representations. His goal was “augmenting human intellect” (see References), recognizing how computation is a complement to our own cognition. We are still developing capabilities to achieve what he had foreseen.

However, in Doug’s mind, augmentation was always a complete system, not just a box. He saw that the creation of these repositories would take the continuing commitment of a collection of people working together to develop and apply this knowledge to address the world’s issues. He called for “networked improvement communities” (NIC), “cooperative alliances of organizations … to develop and apply new collective knowledge,” as he told Landau and Clegg. Thus he anticipated the concept of what are now called “communities of practice.”

Doug’s explicit focus was on improving not just the knowledge, but also the practices, of the communities themselves as a meta-level endeavor—improving not only the work, but the way the work was done. He saw the “co-evolution” of humans and technology as a facilitated process that continued to develop the computational capability, the human processes, and the way they worked together. This finds expression today in the concepts of intelligence amplification and distributed cognition, the fundamentals behind technology-supported collaborative, social learning.

Unfortunately, Doug was not as skilled at expressing his vision in ways that got support. Insightful leaders would provide him resources to continue, but then changes in management and ownership would create impediments to the continued development of his work. As a consequence, his work remained somewhat obscure, though influential amongst a small cadre. He was a supremely kind and gentle man, with a quiet persistence that may have been as much a barrier as anything.

Yet Doug Engelbart’s foresight has provided us with a “bootstrap” (what he called the Bootstrap Alliance, now named the Doug Engelbart Institute) that he created to carry forward his vision and that pulls up our own ability to address the problems we face. He saw technology going far beyond just presenting information or learning, and serving as a complement to our own cognition in ways that could help us get smarter faster. As the mission statement of the Doug Engelbart Institute puts it so simply, his goal in life was to find out how to “dramatically boost our collective ability to solve complex, urgent problems on a global scale.” He told a reporter in 2001, “That’s been my pursuit all these years.” A noble pursuit, and a valuable endeavor, it was and is.

References

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Monthly. July 1945. Accessed 5 May 2016.
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/

Engelbart, Douglas C. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Stanford Research Institute. October 1962.
http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3906.html

Landau, Valerie, and Eileen Clegg. The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart (2008 edition: Evolving Collective Intelligence). Berkeley, CA: Next Press, 2009.
https://engelbartbookdialogues.wordpress.com 

Markoff, John. What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005.

Softky, Marion. “Douglas Engelbart: Computer visionary seeks to boost people’s collective ability to confront complex problems coming at a faster pace.” The Almanac. 21 February 2001. Accessed 9 May 2016.
http://www.dougengelbart.org/press/archives/010221/2001_02_21.cover21.html

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