Personal tools

What if we had integrated Douglas Engelbart's insights into the modern Net?

By Andy Oram -- October 31, 2005. Reposted with permission from the author.
Douglas Engelbart, pioneer of the GUI and of computer-supported cooperative work, has received a couple awards of late. About 35 years late, in fact. But he hasn't let neglect (and perhaps worse, empty lip service to his accomplishments) curb his spontaneous love of exploration. Spending a few minutes with him--at a ceremony celebrating an award given last Saturday by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility--convinced me that he remains an American original with a vast scope of interests, a bit like Edison or Feynman. I wonder what the modern netof sensors and cameras and GPS devices and wireless networks would be like if we had integrated his 1960s-era insights from the start.

I had a chance to tell Engelbart how I had first come across his reputation and ground-breaking work; it was at a conference about human communication that I attended in the early 1980s. A keynoter managed to get his hands on a film of Engelbart's famous 1968 demonstration of computers as augmentations of human intellect, and showed us five or ten minutes I will never forget.

The part of the demonstration we viewed started with some voice conversation. Then a piece of paper came up on the screen and some marks appeared as someone drew on it. More marks appeared as the other person drew comments on the first one's marks. Then a small video opened up in one corner and the head of an assistant, looking very much like a Californian grad student of the 1960s, popped up and started talking. The merger of voice, video, and whiteboarding was a creative implementation of the kind of teleconferencing I suggested recently in my article A googol of teleconferences.

This demonstration, as I saw it in the early 1980s, blew my mind. That the demonstration actually took place in 1968 was almost beyond ken. But that was how ahead of us Engelbart was, and remains,

The 1968 demo reportedly cost $100,000 (which in 1968 dollars is also nearly beyond ken). The computing world of 2005 has much more of the infrastructure that could make Engelbart's vision a common experience.

But suppose we had listened to Engelbart back when he began? I can imagine what would the modern network be like if we had integrated his humanistic approach to augmenting intellect into technology each step of the way:

The dignity and capacity of humans would remain central.

Modern sensor systems, such as smart dust and MIT's Project Oxygen, scoop up data somewhat indiscriminately, while the projected uses of this new "Internet of things" suggest computers switching each other to new tasks without human intervention. It's all kind of scary, suggesting a world out of our control, a kind of science-fiction Terminator reign of the machine. (To be fair, the designers of Project Oxygen claim their mission is to be human-centered.) If we already had a highly interactive network centered on human interaction, with people tied closely by wire, we could build the new capabilities asking at every turn, "How are we enabling people to do more of what they are best at doing?"

Protocols might be in place for the integration of new instruments.

Click around your computer system--or the web sites of many organizations, including the internal ones they establish perportedly to increase the productivity of their employees--and you'll come across a lot of information with no apparent use. Even the experts will admit that some of it is pointless. Sensors and other participants in the Internet of things are likely to suffer from the same problem. If we had established a human-centered network over the years, we might know more about what knowledge we need and provide frameworks for incorporating valuable new devices.

User interfaces would be richer and more subtle.

Right now we're stuck with the legacy of the Bell telephone system and that of the typewriter, a nineteenth-century mechanical device with a bias toward the characters of the English language. Had we stressed communication and the contributions of individuals to each other's endeavors, we might have a plethora of different ways to react with the computer by now.

Perhaps we might even have adaptive interfaces, which watch what users do and change over time to present each user with the functions he or she is more likely to want. I'd be very reluctant to use an adaptive interface in our current state of computing, because our knowledge of human-computer interaction hasn't achieved the sophistication an adaptive system needs to be productive rather than annoying.

We might have new solutions to the storage and retrieval of massive amounts of data.

For a long time, the focus of the computer field was on providing applications. Now we've shifted toward a focus on services, which are more fine-grained and can be combined in innovative ways by the users. I tracked this evolution in an article titled Applications, User Interfaces, and Servers in the Soup.

Each shift in the use of data--as well as the amount collected and searched--has brought with it sophisticated research into databases and storage. We're seeing another leap in size and search requirements as people become used to storing images and videos. The Internet of sensors will lead perhaps the biggest scaling problem we've ever had. But a network based on communication might have given us a head start in understanding and adapting to the onslaught of data.

I think Engelbart's vision involves a move beyond applications and services to a new focus: support for the most distinctive features of human intellect, including communication with other people and devices. Engelbart's vision has remained a beacon for us over the decades, and I am hopeful that a future decade will instantiate it.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is

Created by hdihuyen
Last modified November 21, 2005 03:03 PM

Sign up for CPSR announcements emails


International Chapters -

> Canada
> Japan
> Peru
> Spain

USA Chapters -

> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

To network and volunteer to support initiatives.