The Incredible History of Doug Engelbart

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Having told this story multiple times, we found several ways to begin it. One of them—which we used to launch the "Leadership of Systemic Innovation" PhD program at the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, and the "Doug Engelbart´s Unfinished Revolution - The Program for the Future" PhD seminar at the University of Oslo —was to frame it as a puzzle: The inventor whose inventions marked the computer era, whom the Silicon Valley recognized as its giant in residence, died in 2013 feeling that he had failed (we offer this fifteen-minute recording, and apologize for the echo). In 2010, Engelbart answered the question "How much of your ideas, Doug, have been implemented?" half-jokingly, by "3.6%".

What is the remaining "96.4%"? What Engelbart's game-changing ideas do we still ignore?

Another way was to tell the story chronologically: In December 1950, a 25-year old engineer was looking at his future career: He had excellent education; he was employed by (what later became) NASA; he was engaged to be married... He saw his future as a straight path to retirement. And he didn't like what he saw. "A man must have a purpose!" Engelbart observed. So right there and then he decided that he would give his career a purpose that would maximize its benefits to mankind.

Engelbart spent three month thinking about the best way to do that. Then he had an epiphany.

Engelbart's thinking, which led to his epiphany, was manifestly systemic.

Did Engelbart really find the best way to improve the human condition?

The title slide of Engelbart's presentation at Google (inserted into Knowledge Federation's template).

The third way was to begin at the end—and tell about Engelbart's "A Call to Action" panel presentation at Google, in 2007; as we did in this blog report. Doug was then at the end of his career, ready to give his last message to the world. But somehow—and no doubt incredibly—the title slide and with it his "call to action"; and the first four slides, which provided the necessary context for understanding the rest—were not even shown! The Youtube page with the recording of this event bears the title "Inventing the Computer Mouse". Is that the achievement by which Doug Engelbart should be remembered?

What Engelbart contributed was the elephant, not (just) the mouse!

The Incredible History of Doug is the story of a contemporary Galilei—who is kept 'in house arrest' by the narrowness of our vision.

Its incredible side mirrors the rest of us—as a generation of people who have become so admirably technology-savvy; and so incredibly idea-blind!

Wikipedia illustrates this vividly, by writing (in its article about "The Mother of All Demos"): "Prior to the demonstration, a significant portion of the computer science community thought Engelbart was "a crackpot"." Yes, the demonstration was an impressive feat of technology; the ideas that were behind it are still ignored.

What were Engelbart's important ideas?

One of them we have seen: The collective mind paradigm. To give our systems the faculty of vision—and make them, and us, capable of following a sane course. That idea we offered as the solution to our "puzzle" (hear this recording).

But there was an even larger one.

In 1962, six years before Jantsch and others would convene in Bellatgio, Italy, Engelbart contributed an original method for systemic innovation. That was that very "evolutionary guidance"—an approach to innovation, a way to direct and use our creative capabilities, which we need to adopt to be able to keep our civilization on a good course.

Let us illustrate Engelbart's systemic innovation method by applying it to explain Engelbart's "call to action".

Engelbart used this slide to explain his systemic innovation method.

Engelbart's method, which he called "augmentation", was based on what he called "capability hierarchy". You'll understand it if you imagine a human being with no technology or culture—and all the rest comprising various ways to "augment" his innate capabilities, individual and collective. The capability hierarchy has two sides or aspects, the "human system" and the "tool system". The capability to communicate in writing, for example, requires certain tool system components such as the clay tablets or the printing press; and certain human system components such as literacy and education.

A good way to innovate, Engelbart observed, is by identifying a capability that has become necessary; and the human system and tool system components that would make it possible.

It was in this way that Engelbart identified the capability "to cope with the complexity and urgency of problems" as the one which must be given priority.

And the network-interconnected interactive digital media technology as the enabling tool.

What was still missing—and what his call to action was about—was the capability to "bootstrap" the corresponding "human system" change.

But isn't that what we've been talking about all along?

These were, however, Engelbart's largest and most basic ideas—in the context of which his numerous technical inventions must be understood. We mention two of them as examples.

The idea of the "open hyperdocument system" can be comprehended if we think about document processing as it is today: Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop... Those are tools that

  • create and process traditional document types (books, articles, photographs...)
  • by using proprietary document formats
The open hyperdocument system is a collection of interoperable media tools, which can be combined together as one would combine Lego blocks, to create any multimedia document format and workflow one might be able to imagine.

The open hyperdocument system is what is needed to enable the knowledge work media and processes to evolve—and to enable us to substitute 'the lightbulb' for 'the candle'.

Engelbart experimented extensively with hierarchical and flexible information representation—which is, as we have seen, what 'the lightbulb' needs to be like.

The second example we want to mention is a collection of keywords and templates for knowledge-work infrastructures that may compose a collective mind. Examples are the "networked improvement community" and the "A, B and C levels" of creative activity. Any human activity has the hands-on "A-level", where people for instance make shoes, and the "B-level" where they improve the shoes and the shoe making. The goal of the "C-level" activity is to improve the improvers. Engelbart observed that while B-level activities tend to be task-specific and hence different from one other, the C-level activities tend to be uniform across applications; and that this commonality of structure offered an uncommonly fertile ground for creative action. Engelbart envisioned that the B-level work would be organized in terms of "networked improvement communities" or "NICs"; and that the C-level work would be structured as a "NIC of NICs".

Knowledge Federation prototypes this idea.