Douglas Engelbart and the Means to an End

by Karen McGrane

5 Reader Comments

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  1. Magnificent obituary, Karen.

    It had never occurred to me that Engelbart was on the unpopular pole of the AI debate, because I had always considered his work to be orthogonal—why wouldn’t you want a tool that made you (and especially your collaborative efforts between your colleagues) smarter? But I suppose the prevailing narrative at the time was that humanity was automating its way into perpetual leisure, not to mention the hubris of a nascent technology that assumed artificial intelligence was achievable. (Although, there were some AI experiments from the 60s and 70s that would be impressive even today.)

    I also agree with you (and Bret Victor) that Engelbart’s most significant ideas were brushed aside for ubiquitous knick-knacks like the mouse. His 1962 paper is an inspiration. His embrace of idiom—the idea that, nope, this thing is its own damn thing and you can’t use it if you don’t learn it—is central to my philosophy, and arguably surfacing in functional languages like Haskell. Likewise, his popularization of the concept of bootstrapping (via Baron Munchhausen), evokes achieving the impossible through a process of self-reinforcing feedback, a concept we didn’t even have a formal language for until Mandelbrot (also, lamentably, recently deceased).

    You are perfectly correct in underscoring the Gutenbergian significance of Douglas Engelbart and his work. Thank you for sharing this piece.

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  2. Geez, I had been so heads down I missed Engelbart’s obituary and didn’t know he had passed. Thank you so much for writing this.

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  3. I just finished reading his, Bootstrapping Our Collective IQ and openness ALA :) there are excellent links to some of his writing through his Wikipedia bio. <>

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  4. You state a statistic, “ENIAC, the world’s first programmable digital computer, was completed in 1944. Today, more people have access to mobile phones than have access to toilets. There are more mobile internet users in the developing world than in the developed world.” It sounds right but where is there a study for this? When we look at your source a journalist says it is so. It is fairly easy to cite reports from other sources, but this particular one is lazy and gives an uncited statistic that is probably going around the world as I write. So, if I say, in my local paper, that orangutans are noted for expressing gratitude to their human sponsors for whatever reason, I can guarantee that my comment will be cited. I could say anything.
    I have some scary examples if you are interested.
    Point made. Find the study and cite it.

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  5. It’s a common claim that ENIAC was the first digital electronic programmable computer. It is, however, not true. Colossus was operational in 1943. There’s an interesting Wikipedia article about early digital computers that’s also worth a read.

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