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Engelbart quote (from Dreaming in code)

Long quote from the book Dreaming in Code. Quoted according to the Right to quote with full source at the end.


The dream of using the computer as a tool to master tides of information is as old as computing itself. In a 1945 essay titled “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush, who oversaw the U.S. government’s World War II research program, unveiled his blueprint for the Memex, a desk console with tape recorders in its guts that would give a researcher ready access to a personal trove of knowledge. Bush’s Memex provided the nascent field of computing with its very own grail. For decades it would inspire visionary inventors to devise balky new technologies in an effort to deliver an upgrade to the human brain.

By far the most ambitious and influential acolyte of the Memex dream was Douglas Engelbart, best known today as the father of the computer mouse. Engelbart, a former radar technician and student of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, woke up one day in 1950 with an epiphany: The world had so many problems, of such accelerating complexity, that humankind’s only hope of mastering them was to find ways to get smarter faster. He vowed to devote his life to developing a “Framework for the Augmentation of Human Intellect.” Beginning in the early 1960s under the aegis of the Stanford Research Institute, he gathered a band of researchers and began breaking conceptual and technical ground. The work culminated in a legendary public demonstration in 1968 at the San Francisco Convention Center. A video of that event is still available online, which means that today anyone can, by following some Web links and clicking a mouse, watch Engelbart introduce the world to the very idea of a link, and the mouse, and many other elements of personal computing we now take for granted.

If you watch those videos, you’ll learn that Engelbart’s “oNLine System,” or NLS, was, among other things, a PIM. Its goal was to allow users to “store ideas, study them, relate them structurally, and cross-reference them.” It provided what a computer user today would call an outliner—a program with expandable and collapsible nodes of hierarchically structured lines of information. But this outliner could be shared across a network—not only within a single office but remotely, between the downtown San Francisco auditorium and the SRI office in Menlo Park, thirty miles away, as Engelbart showed his suitably impressed 1968 crowd. Today the NLS’s flickery monochrome screens and blurry typography look antediluvian, but its capabilities and design remain a benchmark for collaboration that modern systems have a tough time matching.Engelbart showed the 1968 audience how easy it was to use NLS to make and store and share a grocery list. But the real purpose of NLS was to help Engelbart’s programmers program better. In the 1962 essay that laid out his plan of research into the augmentation of human intelligence, Engelbart explained why computer programmers were the most promising initial target group. He listed nine different reasons, including the programmers’ familiarity with computers and the intellectual challenge of the problems they confronted. But he also noted that “successful achievements can be utilized within the augmentation-research program itself, to improve the effectiveness of the computer programming activity involved in studying and developing augmentation systems. The capability of designing, implementing, and modifying computer programs will be very important to the rate of research progress.” In other words, if NLS could help his programmers program better, they’d be able to improve NLS faster. You’d have a positive feedback loop. You’d be, in the term Engelbart favored, bootstrapping.

To Engelbart, bootstrapping meant “an improving of the improvement process.” Today the term may dimly remind us that each time we turn on our computers we’re “booting up.” The builders of early computer systems had borrowed the term from the concept of pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps to describe the paradox of getting a computer up and running. When you first turn a computer on, its memory is blank. That sets up a sort of chicken-and-egg paradox: The computer’s hardware needs operating system software of some kind in order to load any program—including the operating system itself. Computer system inventors escaped this dilemma by using a small program called a “bootstrap loader” that gave the machine just enough capabilities to load the big operating system into memory and begin normal functioning. In early generations of computing, human operators would enter the bootstrap loader manually via console switches or from punch cards; modern computers store it on fixed memory chips.

For Engelbart, bootstrapping was less an engineering problem than an abstract and sometimes abstruse way of talking about the goals of his “augmentation” program. Boostrapping involved “the feeding back of positive research results to improve the means by which the researchers themselves can pursue their work.” A “third-order phenomenon,” it wasn’t about improving a process—like, say, getting people to solve problems faster. It was about improving the rate of improving a process—like figuring out how you could speed up ways of teaching people to solve problems faster.

This is not a simple distinction to fathom, and that may be one reason Engelbart’s project, unlike his mouse, never caught fire. Another reason, perhaps, was his determination to stick to a pure version of his “augmentation” plan. Unlike later computer innovators who elevated the term “usability” to a mantra, Engelbart didn’t place a lot of faith in making tools simple to learn. The computer was to be a sort of prosthesis for human reason, and Engelbart wanted it to be powerful and versatile; he didn’t want to cripple it just to ease the user’s first few days or weeks in the harness. The typical office worker might be comfortable with the familiar typewriter keyboard, but Engelbart believed that the “chord keyset” he had built, which looked like five piano keys and allowed a skilled user to input text with one hand, gave users so much more power that it was worth the effort required to adapt to it. His vision was of “coevolution” between man and machine: The machine would change its human user, improving his ability to work, even as the human user was constantly improving the machine. And, indeed, as the band of researchers clustered around his Stanford lab wove the NLS into their lives, something like that could be observed. According to Engelbart biographer Thierry Bardini, “Some astonished visitors reported that [Engelbart’s team had developed] strange codes or habits, such as being able to communicate in a ‘weird’ sign language. Some staff members occasionally communicated across the distance of the room by showing the fingers position of a specific chord entry on the keyset.”

You can glean a little of that sense of weirdness today in the picture of Engelbart we encounter in the 1968 video: With a headset over his ear, one hand moving the mouse, and the other tickling the chord keyset, he looks like an earth-bound astronaut leading a tour of inner space, confident that he is showing us a better future. From the apogee of the 1968 demo, though, his project fell into disarray. He wanted to keep improving the existing NLS, whereas many of his young engineers wanted to throw it away and start afresh with the newer, more powerful hardware that each new year offered. Over time, his organization lost its sense of mission and, in the mid-seventies, foundered on the shoals of the human potential movement and Werner Erhard’s est.

Engelbart’s demand that users adapt to the machine found few followers in subsequent decades. As computing pioneer Alan Kay later put it, “Engelbart, for better or worse, was trying to make a violin”—but “most people don’t want to learn the violin.” This tension between ease and power, convenience and subtlety, marks every stage of the subsequent history of software. Most of us are likely to start with an understandable bias toward the principle of usability: Computers are supposed to make certain kinds of work easier for us; why shouldn’t they do the heavy lifting? But it would be unfair to dismiss Engelbart’s program as “user-hostile” when its whole purpose was to figure out how technology could help make exponential improvements in how people think.

Computer scientist Jaron Lanier tells a story about an encounter between the young Engelbart and MIT’s Marvin Minsky, a founding father of the field of artificial intelligence. After Minsky waxed prophetic about the prodigious powers of reason that his research project would endow computers with, Engelbart responded, “You’re gonna do all that for the computers. What are you going to do for the people?”

ROSENBERG, Scott. Dreaming in code [online]. Three Rivers Press, 2008, CHAPTER 2: THE SOUL OF AGENDA [cit. 2014-05-18]. ISBN 978-0-307-38144-6.

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