Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Doug Engelbart, Of Mice and Men

From a variety of sources, but mainly from Rheingold's online book. Must read his Smart Mobs: The next social revolution. Has a nice breezy writing style.

December 9, 1968 a couple of months after I was born, Doug Engelbart and a small team stunned the computing world with a demo. They debuted: the computer mouse, graphical user interface, display editing and integrated text and graphics, hyper-documents, and two-way video-conferencing with shared workspaces

His goal ? "How to help mankind get collectively better able to cope with complex, urgent problems.

" I didn't know about computers in detail, but this radar used a cathode ray tube display, and its electronics make the display images. So, if a computer can punch cards and print, then it certainly could drive the electronics that would put what you want to see on the screen.

And if the radar could sense the operator turning a crank and pushing buttons, then computers could certainly do that, too. Then you could sit there and interact with the computer. And you could get all kinds of new portrayals, and really very different ways in which you could get your knowledge there to see. Other workers could sit and connect to the same computer complex, and you could be working together in really radical new ways. Oh boy! Okay!"

"..look, we can make machines smarter and smarter, but their value will be in how much smarter they make people"

"...The AI guys, for instance, they claimed that, hey, our smart computer will sit there and interact with the user, analyze what the user knows, and adapt so the user won't have to learn anything new. And they pointed over to my stuff, where we had links and structure and all kinds of new functions going on, and of course the interface looked strange, because how do you manage those things without different verbs and nouns? And they all started pointing to our stuff as the example of hard-to-learn bad stuff. Our backing just caved in. DARPA finally notified me, in 1977 I think, we're cancelling your funding.

"The interactive stuff was so wild that the people who knew about computers didn't want to hear about it. Back then, you didn't interact with a computer, even if you were a programmer. You gave it your question, in the form of a box of punched cards, and if you had worked very hard at stating the question correctly, you got your answer. Computers weren't meant for direct interaction. And this idea of using them to help people learn was downright blasphemy.

Doug told him about his ideas of getting computers to interact with people, in order to augment their intellect.

"How many people have you already told about that?" he asked Doug.

"None, you're the first one I've told," said Doug.

"Good. Now don't tell anybody else. It will sound too crazy. It will prejudice people against you."

"Suppose you had a new writing machine, a high-speed electric typewriter with some very special features."( The first word processor being described)

This hypothetical writing machine permits you to use a new process for composing text. For instance, trial drafts can rapidly be composed from rearranged excerpts of old drafts, together with new words or passages which you insert by hand typing. Your first draft may represent a free outpouring of thoughts in any order, with the inspection of foregoing thoughts continuously stimulating new considerations and ideas to be entered. If the tangle of thoughts represented by the draft becomes too complex, you can compile a reordered draft quickly. It would be practical for you to accommodate more complexity in the trails of thought you might build in search of the path that suits your needs.
You can integrate new ideas more easily, and thus harness your creativity more continuously, if you can quickly and flexibly change your working record. If it is easier to update any part of your working record to accommodate new developments in thought or circumstance, you will find it easier to incorporate more complex procedures in your way of doing things. . . .

It took 15 years more for Word processing to catch on.

. During the original presentation, an advanced electronic projection system provided a sharply focused image, twenty times life sized, on a large screen. Doug was alone on the stage, the screen looming above and behind him as he sat in front of his CRT display, wearing the kind of earphone-microphone headsets that radar operators and jet pilots use, his hands resting on an unusual-looking control console connected to his chair.

The specially designed input console swiveled so he could pull it onto his lap. A standard typewriter keyboard was in the center, and two small platforms projected about six inches on either side. On the platform to his left was a five-key device he used for entering commands, and on the platform to the right was the famous "mouse" that is only now beginning to penetrate the personal computing market -- a device the size of a pack of cigarettes, with buttons on the top, attached to the console with a wire. Doug moved it around with his right hand.

In front of him was the display screen. The large screen behind him could alternate, or share, multiple views of Doug's hands, his face, the information on the display screen, and images of his colleagues and their display screens at Menlo Park. The screen could be divided into a number of "windows," each of which could display either text or image. The changing information displayed on the large screen, activated by his fingertip commands on the five-key device and his motions of the mouse, began to animate under Doug's control. Everyone in the room had attended hundreds of slide presentations before this, but from the moment Doug first imparted movement to the views on the screen, it became evident that this was like no audiovisual presentation anyone had attempted before.

Engelbart was the very image of a test pilot for a new kind of vehicle that doesn't fly over geographical territory but through what was heretofore an abstraction that computer scientists call "information space." He not only looked the part, but acted it: The Chuck Yeager of the computer cosmos, calmly putting the new system through its paces and reporting back to his astonished earthbound audience in a calm, quiet voice.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Engelbart was inspired by a book, just as he had been enthused by magazine articles by Bush and Licklider in years past. This time, it was the theory proposed by business management expert Peter Drucker in the late 1960s. Knowledge, by Drucker's definition, is the systematic organization of information; a knowledge worker is a person who creates and applies knowledge to productive ends. The rapid emergence of an economy based primarily on knowledge, Drucker predicted, would be the most significant social transformation of the last quarter of the twentieth century.


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