Celebrating Doug Engelbart's Vision
I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the seminal "Engelbart Demo" at Stanford University on December 9th, 2008. (If you've never seen it, here's a link to annotated sections of the video). Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium was packed. Doug, now 83 years old, received two standing ovations from an audience ranging in age from 14 to 90 year olds. Although Doug didn't say much to the crowd other than to say "Thank you. Thank you," he was overwhelmed by the accolades. Many of us chatted with him at the break and at the reception where he was in good spirits and a joy to speak to as always.
WHO WAS IN THE AUDIENCE for the 40th Anniversary Celebration?
Computing Pioneers. There were a number of
"old-timers" at the 40th anniversary – pioneers like my husband, Tom
Hagan, who had been in the audience for Engelbart's original 1968 Demo at the
Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) in San
Baby Boomers. There were also many baby boomers at the anniversary celebration. People like me who came of age in the late sixties and grew up with the computer industry – from punched cards and mainframes, through time-sharing, ARPAnet, minicomputers, the Internet, PCs, distributed object computing, the Web, e-commerce, service-oriented architecture, Web 2.0. Among the more notable among us were Alan Kay, Tim O'Reilly, and yours truly. Alan Kay closed the afternoon's program by reminiscing about being in the audience at the 1968 conference as a young computer science student. He said he was sick and running a 104-degree temperature and shivering with chills as he watched both Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad presentation and Doug Engelbart's Demo. Both presentations shaped his view of the world.
Many of us are "Engelbart groupies" – people who have believed in Doug's vision and have long recognized the power of the principles that he has tirelessly promulgated for more than four decades. What we all have in common is an optimistic view that humans can tackle complex challenges by harnessing and evolving computing and networking to create collective intelligence and knowledge.
The Younger Set. The audience also included a good number of younger entrepreneurs and geeks as well as students—many of whom had come out of curiosity to witness the replaying of an important seminal turning point in the history of computing and human society. Many of them came to see the world's first demonstration of a personal computer, mouse, and windows. I suspect they witnessed something even more seminal: a new way to think about accelerating innovation.
The half-day program was titled: "Douglas Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing," but, as several speakers pointed out, Doug's vision of interactive computing was only half of the story. The second half of the story was the Dawn of Harnessing Collective Intelligence.
THE "DEMO" Highlighted the First Half of Doug's Vision: Personal Interactive Computing and Collaborative Knowledge Work
As Bob Sproull said in his introductory comments, Doug's real innovation is that he predicted the future by demonstrating it. He could have delivered a paper, or given a compelling speech describing the future of collaborative computing and collective intelligence. Instead, he chose to provide living proof of what was possible and conceivable: a new way of working, using interactive, distributed computing and knowledge creation and sharing tools that he and his small band at SRI had invented.
In 1968, Doug presented his Demo live from San Francisco, his face and computer screen projected on a large video screen (another computer industry first!). Only those who have witnessed firsthand the rudimentary state of computing in the 60's (see below) could really appreciate how advanced and how risky this real-time demonstration was. My husband, Tom, commented that he sat in the audience with his heart in his mouth waiting for something to go wrong and was amazed that the original Demo was carried off without a hitch. Later in the 40th anniversary program, Bob English, one of Engelbart's original team of programmers, reminisced that the system had crashed during the original live Demo, but that he had anticipated the likelihood of that happening and had jury-rigged a work around so that the glitch was limited to 1/24th of a second and wasn't visible to the audience or noticed by Doug at the time (pretty impressive engineering—if only MS/Windows were that well-behaved!).
Doug was using an interactive video graphics terminal that was connected via a video (TV)-wide band link to a then state-of-the art SDS 940 minicomputer with 96 kilobytes of memory. The minicomputer was 40 miles away in Menlo Park, driving a stroke-drawing vector display at which a TV camera was aimed to create the video signal.
The software that he was demonstrating was a homegrown package called, NLS (for oNLine System), which was designed to support collaborative knowledge work, including interactive real-time editing of text and graphics, screen and cursor-sharing across a network, the use of multiple windows to show different perspectives, real-time video conferencing, and real-time audio conferencing. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.
Doug played the terminal like an organ using three sets of controls:
2) A Qwerty keyboard with some special command keys.
3) A five-finger keyset that he used to type command strings with his left hand, using "chords" of different key configurations to generate all the characters in the alphabet.
Doug's workstation also used foot pedals and a knee bar. He believed in engaging all of the senses and harnessing as many human talents as possible simultaneously.
All Photos Courteousy of the Douglas Engelbart Institute
Doug walked through a tour de force demonstration of creating, editing, and navigating a structured document with different open and collapsed views. He provided a humorous example of interactively editing and reorganizing a shopping list, including the ability to create and rearrange items into categories and attach them to a graphical map of the neighborhood, with each set of shopping items pinpointed on the map. He collaborated in discussing and editing a document with Bill Paxton in Menlo Park sharing the screen, his face visible in a video window on the screen, and engaging in a "fight" over who gets to control the cursor in a shared collaborative editing environment.
Understanding the Context of the Demo
In his introduction to the Demo video, Stanford's Chuck House reminded the audience about the times of the late '60s. This was a time of civil rights activism followed by flower children and Vietnam War protests. It was a time when psychedelic music and marijuana and protests permeated college campuses.
In 1968 computing for all but a few pioneers meant using punch cards, mainframes, and batch processing, or using teletype terminals in time-sharing mode communicating to a shared computer. The only interactive computers were the analog computers used for simulation and some pioneering high-end interactive graphics systems. Only a few shared the vision of personal interactive computers, or of multiple people using networked computers—able to edit or draw interactively on the screen in real time and share access to files, with integrated video and teleconferencing.
Berkeley students demonstrated carrying signs saying "Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate," meaning stop treating me like a punched card, reflecting the popular view of what computers were all about.
Computing History: A Personal Aside. As to the state of computing in the mid to late 1960s, like Doug's daughter, Christina Engelbart, I was privileged to grow up under the influence of a pioneering visionary father. At the close of the anniversary presentation, Christina Englebart told the story of visiting a newspaper newsroom at the age of 13 and being the only person who actually knew what a teletype was because her father used one at home to telecommute using timeshared access to his computer lab at Menlo Park.
In the mid '60s, my Dad, John Seybold, had leased an RCA 301 mainframe computer and had a bevy of women using similar terminals to type text and commands onto paper tape to run a batch typesetting page make up program that my Dad's team had developed using a generic mark up language that he had invented so that the formatting of the text could be changed easily and iteratively. It wasn't until 1972 that my father rolled interactive editing terminals into the newsroom at U.S. News and World Report, where, as a consultant to another visionary, John Touhey, the two John's had co-designed the Atex interactive publishing system with Atex co-founders, Richard and Charlie Ying. The Atex system used a minicomputer with "smart" terminals, so that writers and editors could enter, edit, compose, and fit their stories interactively. That editorial system came to dominate electronic newsrooms in newspapers around the world.
Doug's Work Shows the Second Half of the Vision: Accelerating Innovation by Harnessing Our Collective IQ
How Will Knowledge Workers Use Computers to Accomplish NEW Things Together?
On December 9th, 2008, following the video of the original DEMO, the rest of the Anniversary program focused more on Doug's underlying vision for human knowledge work than on the artifacts we now use—the mouse, windows, interactive editing, video and computer conferencing, etc.
The panel discussions, interviews, and presentations that followed, focused on Englebart's driving principles and mode of working.
Teams Design, Use, Observe, Improve, Innovate
For Doug, the purpose of the tools was to get them just good enough to use. Then he and his team of knowledge workers (programmers, hardware designers, documenters, and co-visionaries) would both use the tools and observe and improve their use of the tools. The people developing the tools were using the tools next to the people who just used the tools.
Doug believed fiercely in humans' ability to learn by doing, to do, to observe while doing, to discuss and recommend improvements, and to implement those improvements all in an iterative fashion. This is how true breakthroughs occur. Doug's team members talked about all the times that they had to shift their work to a new computing platform and redesign everything because one of them had envisioned something new, or something new was now possible.
Christina Engelbart, Executive Director of the Douglas Engelbart Institute, outlined many of the fundamental principles of her Dad's work. She is committed to continuing this work (under the watchful eye of her grateful, and mostly retired, Dad).
The purpose of Doug's work, she reminded us, is about people working together—"harnessing the collective intellect of all the people working on important problems." Doug believed that by working in this reflective, continuous improvement way, and by co-evolving humans and technology, we can accelerate our ability as a human species to solve complex problems. "The problems we're facing as a species are complex and urgent," Christina said. "We need to speed up innovation—to accelerate our ability to work together to solve complex global problems."
Raising Our Collective IQ
Co-Evolution of Tools and Work. The first accelerator is co-evolution of humans and the tools they use. This is the "bootstrapping" approach that Doug's team described and that they used so successfully. Build new tools, try them out, adapt our practices to the tools, adapt the tools to the new practices we can invent. Use what you're building, learn, and improve. The end-user is the developer.
Disclose and Change the Architecture. Part of the structure that Doug put into place for this continuous improvement work was full disclosure of all the code, the interfaces, the metadata, and the structure. If you wanted to propose a change, you did it by changing the structure and the metadata. He always worked from the architecture and structure, not just tweaking lines of code. We need to make structure both manifest and malleable. We've spent decades building systems in which the structure is the least important aspect, not the most important and most visible aspect.
Track all Assumptions, Changes and All Actors. Doug also believed in keeping logs and journals and in knowing who did what. Not to assign blame, but to understand the thinking and assumptions behind the things that people did. The tracking of who did what was one reason that, when Doug's sponsor, Robert Taylor at ARPA, convened a group of his research project leads to ask them to become nodes in the ARPAnet he envisioned, Doug immediately volunteered to run the first Network Information Center (NIC). SRI will be the NIC with all the info about the ARPAnet. We'll provide identifiers for everyone in the system; you need to get a unique identifier to be registered. We'll keep a record of how we're using the network as we co-design it, Doug promised.
Use Networked Improvement Communities. Doug was constantly experimenting with better ways to support continuous improvement. He would convene meetings for two hours a week, asking everyone to reflect on the question: how can we improve this process? He called this process CODIAK: Concurrently/Continuously Developing, Integrating, and Applying Knowledge. Doug believed in applying both vertical (domain-specific) and horizontal (domain-agnostic) process-improvement capabilities. He and Christina developed knowledge workshops and techniques to empower network improvement communities. As she said in her challenge to the audience, "We need bootstrapping 'black belts' in augmenting human intellect and accelerating innovation. That's what the Doug Engelbart Institute is here to do."
Develop Knowledge Collections. Doug believed in codifying and structuring knowledge. He believed in the magic of structure. When you create text in a structured way, as Doug did, for example, by always using a hierarchical outline, by freely re-classifying and re-categorizing things as you see new interrelationships, you make it easy for others to navigate and create new views of the knowledge you've codified. Today, with our ability to search and grovel through huge amounts of information, we've lost an important drive to create, codify and classify, and organize human knowledge so that we can more easily share, view, and build upon each others' learnings and applied knowledge.
Contribute to the Global Community. At the core of Doug's work was the idea that human beings can co-evolve technology to contribute together to solve the world's problems. We have only just scratched the surface. The tools we use to share information—video, blogs, email, instant messaging—are ubiquitous, but primitive. We have yet to really apply our considerable talents to really co-evolving tools that will help us address real issues. As Alan Kay said in his closing remarks, quoting Thoreau, "I'm afraid that I'll find out that a European princess has bought a new hat." That's how we're applying our use of interconnected communication technologies today. We're not really changing our tools to change the world. In fact, the tools we make reshape us. Alan pointed out that if you put a prosthetic on a healthy limb, the limb withers. That's what we're doing today with technology. We aren't truly co-evolving with it; we're getting dumber from the flood of news and information that besieges us every day. As Alan Kay pointed out, we focus on the news, not on creating the NEW. "News is just news; it leverages things we already know. The NEW is something that isn't explainable in what we already know."
Innovate How We Work Collectively. The real gauntlet that Doug Engelbart threw down on the table 40 years ago is for us to create the "Innovation superhighway," not just the information superhighway. Alan Kay wants to use Doug's principles to redesign education, re-invent the way that science and engineering are taught around the world. Christina Engelbart wants to use these principles to redesign the ways in which people work together within and across organizations. We need to be able to raise our collective IQ every five years, at least!
See Additional photos and coverage: