Friday, July 5, 2013

Douglas Engelbart, America, and Great Things

The loss of a computing icon gives us the opportunity to reconsider America.

On July 3rd, Silicon Valley lost one of its greatest icons. If you are reading this at a computer, as the vast majority of you are (ubiquitous mobile devices notwithstanding), you are at this moment using many of the technologies conceived by Douglas Engelbart and his colleagues at the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center (AHIRC) at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International). It probably doesn’t surprise you that some techno-geniuses long ago invented things we now take for granted like the hyperlink that brought you to this blog or the mouse you used to click that link. But what might surprise you is that all of these concepts—along with more basic ideas like organizing digital information into folders and files, viewing graphic representations of information on a screen, and even interacting with friends and colleagues through computers—were all created many years before companies like Apple, Microsoft, and IBM ever took advantage of them. And what might surprise you even more is that the objectives set out by Engelbart and his team back in the 1950s actually never mentioned a computer at all, and were in fact solely focused on humans and the effectiveness of their intellectual work.

I personally was a 9-year-old Catholic school boy (and those of you who know me know that must have been a very, very long time ago) when Engelbart and his team, and most notably his primary research partner Bill English, delivered what is now known as “the Mother of All Demos” at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on December 8, 1968. If you’re geeky enough, as I was, to make it well into the YouTube posting of this video, you just might learn some valuable historical lessons about our country, what we once were, and what we’ve become.

The video shows what was projected on a large screen before a 2000-seat arena, and Engelbart introduces it by saying, “If in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display that was backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?” Forty-five years ago, he literally describes the work environment of hundreds of millions of people on the planet today.

Engelbart sits below and to the right of the screen, which shows both his face and a number of other images superimposed on the view of his “computer-display work station.” Behind the scenes, Bill English commands a team of six people located both in San Francisco and at SRI’s headquarters in Menlo Park, who make the demonstration real and capture it on film by manning “cameras, switches, mixers, special-effects controllers, etc.” In noir black and white, Engelbart starts his presentation by showing capabilities and “user features” of one of the first timeshare computer systems. The computer feeds back, robotlike, with beeps and buzzing at various pitches. About 5 minutes into the demo, the video shows Engelbart’s hands and keyboard, and you realize he is using a mouse. Even the microphone headset Engelbart wears looks as if it belongs in 2013 and not 1968.

Ultimately, however, like all good presenters, Engelbart starts to give us stories. The first is the story of his wife calling and asking him to do some shopping, giving him the chance to show us how he constructed not just one but a series of shopping lists for various stores he would visit on his way home, and not just the lists, but also a map of his trip home showing the various stops, each with a hyperlink to the shopping list associated with that particular stop.

Then, 18 minutes into the demo, Engelbart declares that he will be “shifting from the illustrative material to the real working stuff, in case you wouldn’t recognize it.” And this is where he gets to the more interesting story: that of his team at SRI, its history, its objectives, and its funding sources.

His team had had the system he was demonstrating up and running for about 6 months, going from one timeshare terminal to 6, with plans to add another 6 in the coming months after that, and here he explains that “... the next step when you’re faced with having this in your office all day, as I now do (it’s been very exciting since), how do you put that to work for yourself?”

At the time, the AHIRC was staffed by 17 people working in a specialized computer lab. Staffing over the years from 1950 onwards had grown in fits and starts, and had in fact been only 1 from 1950 to about 1962, rising to 17 by 1968. Through that time, it functioned as what Engelbart calls a “goal-oriented pursuit” of the following primary objective:
Improve the effectiveness with which individuals and organizations work at intellectual tasks.
Notable to me in that objective was its broad sweep. Engelbart wasn’t trying to win a war, he wasn’t trying to defeat terrorists, and he certainly wasn’t trying to make any money for anyone. Nonetheless, in all that time, he tells us, AHIRC was “sponsored by government agencies. Currently, ARPA, NASA, and RADC. Also, in the past, AFOSR and ESD. These are the people that first grubstaked us many years ago.”

Now many of you will recognize those acronyms but many won’t, so I’ll help: Engelbart and his team were supported in their sweeping research objectives by the U.S. Government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, and the U.S. Air Force’s Rome Air Development Center. In addition, they had gotten initial funding from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. And of course that’s a good thing, because it’s highly unlikely that the iconic computing enterprises of the day, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild, or any of the rest, would have spent a dime on a small research team whose objectives had no direct line to their bottom line.

Even more remarkable, Engelbart goes on to explain his team’s research approach, which he describes as an empirical approach of build and try, or “bootstrapping in a new sense.”
We needed a research subject group to give them these tools, put them to work with them, study them, and improve them. We’ll do that by making ourselves be the subject group and studying ourselves and making the tools so that they improve our ability to develop and study these kinds of systems and produce in the end this kind of system discipline.
Now as I heard Engelbart saying this on the video, I was listening from my 2013 frame of reference, and from that frame of reference I found myself channeling the likes of a Paul Ryan or an Eric Cantor, and hearing what they would hear, and what I came up with was something like, “These guys want our government to give them money so they can build a bunch of high-tech toys that they themselves will go play with, all in the guise of a serious research project!?” Well, that’s exactly what they wanted, in a sense, and that’s exactly what they got, and that’s exactly what they did, and in the end, hundreds of millions of citizens of the world got new, more effective, more efficient ways of executing their daily work. And of course there were “toys” at AHIRC and there was “play,” but what there was, mostly, was intense, groundbreaking, intellectual work, the cost of which had been justified and explained in exacting detail in research proposals submitted to government agencies dating back to 1950. And we can all be thankful that there were intelligent people at those agencies applying both critical and creative thinking to the reviews of those proposals, because otherwise we never would have gotten the very tangible results that we are now, by the thousands, looking back on in the Mother of All Demos.

In Engelbart’s day, the roles of Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor were played by people like Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon, and I struggle, frankly, to imagine any of those elected leaders applying the kind of critical and creative thinking the Defense Department, the Air Force, and NASA did when they approved Douglas Engelbart’s research proposals. I will, however, continue with that struggle, because that’s my only way of remaining connected and hopeful in our hyper-partisan 2013 America.

I was surprised to find in his writings that Engelbart was aware, at some level, of what he was asking of the world as he embarked on his quest for a better world. Seeing ever-increasing complexity in daily life, and increasingly complex problems facing humanity, Engelbart realized that his effort to tame that complexity would amount to something like a “crusade.” And as he wrote in his 1986 paper Workstation History and the Augmented KnowledgeWorkshop:
Crusades have many strikes against them at the outset. E.g.: they don't connect to a normal source of government or business revenue; they don't have nice organizational frameworks—you can't go out on the streets and expect to find financial, production, or marketing vice presidents; even if you accomplished the sweeping change that was the ultimate objective, chances are that in this very complex world, the side effects might be bad enough to make you wish you hadn't.
We can only be glad and appreciative that despite those misgivings Engelbart resolved to press on, and despite the forces arrayed against him, our government decided to support him in the end.

Barney Frank has said, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” We should all be pleased and encouraged that so often those things turn out to be the truly great things that change the world.