Douglas Engelbart and the Means to an End

Seventy years.

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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 took just seventy years to get from a device the size of a two-story building to a device that fits in your pocket. Seventy years to build a browsable, searchable archive of information, accessible globally. Seventy years between a time when research and data was locked up in books, available to only a privileged few, and a time when information and communication could be obtained by everyone, everywhere.

I am awestruck by this human accomplishment. It’s no secret that I am a huge nerd for computing history. I’m inspired both professionally and personally by the fact that this transition happened within my lifetime—that I, in a sense, was at the revolution, and I got to witness and participate in these societal changes. I try to share my enthusiasm for the recent history of technology because I want the names of the men and women who made this happen to be remembered. I hope 500 years from now, people talk about Douglas Engelbart the same way we talk about Johannes Gutenberg.

The bootstrapping strategy#section1

Engelbart passed away this month, and his obituaries cover the facts: his research was the precursor to many of the innovations that led to the rise of personal computing. If you want to reduce his work to easily understood “features,” you can point to hypertext, to multi-window displays, to video conferencing and shared screen collaboration, or yes, the mouse. Bret Victor summed up this facile interpretation, saying:

This is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil.

We don’t always have a good way to summarize the impact of new technology based on its desired effect. What was the goal of movable type? What was the point of the steam engine? What was the intended societal outcome of electricity? Fortunately, Engelbart tells us what his intent was in developing these technologies—they were a means to an end.

His point wasn’t to build a pointing device. His goal was to help humankind expand its capacity to solve problems:

The complexity and urgency of the problems faced by us earth-bound humans are increasing much faster than are our aggregate capabilities for understanding and coping with them. This is a very serious problem; and there are strategic actions we can take, collectively. Consider a community’s “Collective IQ” to represent its capability for dealing with complex, urgent problems—i.e., to understand them adequately, to unearth the best candidate solutions, to assess resources and operational capabilities and select appropriate solution commitments, to be effective in organizing and executing the selected approach, to monitor the progress and be able to adjust rapidly and appropriately to unforeseen complications, etc. I contend that a strategy for “facilitating the evolution” of our organizations’ Collective IQs will be the optimum approach, aka a bootstrapping strategy.

Each generation has its own vision for the purpose of new technology. A wartime ambition of machines calculating ballistics trajectories gave way to Vannevar Bush’s Memex and J.C.R. Licklider’s Man-Computer Symbiosis, which in turn gave way to more recent perspectives on what personal computing, the internet, and mobile are good for. You can’t understand Engelbart’s vision without understanding it in relation to other schools of thought—and your understanding of our current point of view might be enhanced by seeing his perspective.

AI vs. HCI#section2

In the 1960s it was assumed that we would one day welcome our new artificial intelligence overlords. The mainstream of computer science believed that robots would soon do our thinking for us; the interim period where we might partner up with the machines and use them to do our bidding was seen as a mere blip in the history of technology.

Engelbart’s view of the future of computing in the sixties ran directly counter to the precepts of the mainstream of the computing business. The era was dominated by a belief that artificial intelligence was at hand and would soon create a world populated by thinking machines. Engelbart’s notion of creating work groups where human intelligence was instead “augmented” by computers was thought of as quaint and beside the point.… Indeed, Engelbart’s augmentation philosophy was in many ways the polar opposite of artificial intelligence, which sought to replace humans with machines.

John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said

Humanity’s role at the center of this equation wasn’t a given—in fact, it was a crackpot theory, at best only useful for the interim 15 or 50 years we needed to make artificial intelligence a reality. But because Engelbart insisted on viewing computers as a tool to make us smarter (and not on using us as tools to make smarter robots) we have a field that is, at its core, focused on the user’s experience. If I had to give him credit for something, I’d pick that over the mouse.

Ease vs. power#section3

No one talks about the chord keyboard.

Engelbart’s vision of computing technology included many features familiar to us today—and also included a three-button mouse and a five-button chorded keyboard, both intended to be used in concert with a traditional QWERTY keyboard.

That’s a lot of buttons to learn. Engelbart was okay with that.

Today, the highest praise you can give an app is that it’s “intuitive.” We aspire to develop touchscreen interfaces so simple, a two-year-old could figure them out.

The pendulum has swung about as far as it can toward the consumerization of computing technology, in which everything should be immediately intuitive and nothing should require learning, training, or practice. Engelbart’s vision was on the opposite end of that pendulum swing—he believed that the power of these tools came with inherent complexity.

We benefit from ease of use, but we also benefit from the power that comes from learning complex interactions. If I had to pick one philosophy of Engelbart’s I’d love to see make a comeback, it would be a focus on developing learnable tools aimed at expert users (but maybe not the chorded keyboard.)

Augmenting human intellect#section4

Each generation takes existing technology as its due and uses it to achieve some further aim. We’re not beholden to Engelbart’s goals any more than we’re limited by a vision of computers used solely as calculating machines.

I once taught a course in computing history in which I asked the students whether they thought we had achieved Engelbart’s vision of “augmenting human intellect” through the personal computer, the internet, and now mobile. Opinions were mixed, citing:

  • The completeness and incompleteness of Google search in returning results that span the whole scope of publishing
  • The effectiveness and ineffectiveness of the internet in helping us form more well-reasoned arguments
  • The upside and the downside of using computing technology for social, gaming, and other entertainment pursuits

It’s easy to feel paternalistic about the mobile internet, the promise of education and research in the hands of people who have never had easy access to information. And it’s easy to be disappointed by statements like “In a lot of foreign markets, people think that the Internet is Facebook.”

Engelbart recounts reading Vannevar Bush’s article As We May Think in a Red Cross library in the Philippines during World War II, and how this article inspired him decades later. Decades after Engelbart’s work, we can be inspired by his vision of “augmenting human intellect,” but also see it from a new vantage point, as the mobile internet makes information available to billions more people. Engelbart used technology to “bootstrap” the problem-solving capacity of his research lab, connecting people to enable them to do collaborative work. Today, the problem-solving capacity of humanity has exponentially expanded by connecting people globally through the mobile web.

We also might see the next Engelbart emerge from somewhere in the the developing world, browsing the mobile web from a $30 phone. I hope, in my lifetime, I also get to see this next great innovator, informed by access to the internet, enabled by the mobile web, inspired to create the next new vision for what technology can do for humankind.

5 Reader Comments

  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.

  2. 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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