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CPSR's 2005 Norbert Wiener Award to Douglas Engelbart

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility honors Douglas Engelbart, pioneer of human-computer interface technology, inventor of the mouse, and social-impact visionary, with its 2005 Norbert Wiener Award, October 29, 2005, in Palo Alto, CA, USA
CPSR's Vice President, Todd Davies, notes: "Doug Engelbart's work helped to transform computers into usable tools that extend our social capabilities.  He and his lab team at SRI invented much of the interface technology that we now take for granted in our desktop computers.  Still, it is amazing that many of his ideas, concerning desktop object manipulation, for example, have never really been adopted.  There is much that we can learn from even his early work.   Throughout his career, Doug has never stopped thinking about and creating new ways that computers and software can be designed for, in his famous phrase, 'augmenting human intellect', as well as helping organizations to function better and solving the world's problems.  He will always be an inspiration for computer professionals who want their work to have a pro-social impact."

About receiving the award, Engelbart said: "I am really pleased because `social responsibility' emphasizes the part of my pursuit that I think is most important."

Douglas Engelbart studied electrical engineering at Oregon State University and then at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D.  in 1955. He remembers setting a goal of choosing a career path that would have maximal benefit to humanity.  As a student, he thought about using cathode ray tubes, like the ones he had used as an electronic technician in the U.S. Navy, to navigate through information.  He was finally given a chance to develop these ideas into both a theory and an implementation, beginning around 1960, when he won a grant that eventually led to the formation of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International).  In December 1968, Engelbart and his co-workers in the ARC presented their work on the oNLine System (NLS), in what has been called the "mother of all demos".   This 90-minute presentation at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco introduced the 1000 computer professionals in attendance to many of the elements that are now essential to personal computing, including the mouse, graphical display editing, hypertext, multiple windows with view control, and video teleconferencing.

Many of Engelbart's intellectual contributions are represented in his 1962 research report, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework".  Engelbart encouraged computer engineers, designers, and programmers to see the potential of the tools they create to change the quality of people's thinking.  His special emphasis on the use of computers as communication and problem solving tools makes him a father of the field known as "computer supported cooperative work".  He also pioneered the idea that the development of computer tools could itself be an element in the development of still more advanced tools, changing what is possible and altering the ability of people to think in a process known as "bootstrapping".  The idea that computers can be designed to augment human intellect, together with the idea that groups of people -- being thus empowered through well-designed technology -- can create even better tools and group processes, amount to a co-evolutionary view of human abilities, technology, knowledge, and organizations.   More recently, Engelbart has been a leader in developing the concept of "collective intelligence", which aims to transcend the limitations and biases of individuals and to allow us to address problems, such as large-scale ecological destruction and violent conflict, that have hitherto resisted solutions.  Among those who promote this idea, Engelbart notably focuses on the use of augmenting technologies for raising what he calls our "collective IQ".   But his emphasis on computers as tools for human thinking generally contrasts with artificial intelligence approaches that attempt to automate thinking.   Engelbart's work, in fact, helped to set the stage for studies of human-computer interaction within the field of computer science.

Engelbart's vision has often been ahead of its time. He remembers trying to land a job teaching about computers at Stanford in the 1950s, only to be told at that time that computers were not regarded as serious objects of academic study.  His user interface ideas were largely unappreciated and misunderstood when they were introduced in the 1960s, and even his best-known invention -- the mouse -- did not come to fruition in a widely-used consumer product until the Apple MacIntosh was introduced in 1984.  He has always shown much greater interest in creating useful technology than in making money from it, even though his inventions have made billions for others.  Since the founding (with his daughter, Christina) of the Bootstrap Institute in 1988 and the Bootstrap Alliance in the 1990s, Engelbart has been working to bring organizations together to foster the use of the Internet as a medium for cooperation within and across groups.  His vision, which takes a more comprehensive and strategic approach to social software than has been produced by the forces of the market, was partially outlined in 1992 in a paper titled, "Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware".  Engelbart was a guest of honor and featured lecturer earlier this year at the latest of CPSR's Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing (DIAC) conferences: "Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice", held at Stanford University.  The conference brought together academics, software designers, and users of social software, to discuss how all of them can work together to bootstrap the use of online tools for fostering deliberative democracy and collective problem solving.  Another of Engelbart's visions may be about to be realized.

A great deal has been written about Engelbart, and he has won many awards, including computing's highest prize, the Turing Award, and the Lemelson-MIT Prize, both in 1997, the Assoication for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction's Lifetime Achievement Award (as the first recipient) in 1998, and the National Medal of Technology in 2000.   For more information on Douglas Engelbart and his work, see the MouseSite hosted at Stanford University (, the website for the Bootstrap Institute (, and (in a tribute to his vision of collectively-produced knowledge) his Wikipedia entry (

In honoring Engelbart, CPSR celebrates 24 years of advocacy by its members to address social issues in computing. CPSR's mission is to share the knowledge of technology professionals to assist society in understanding the power, promise, and limitations of that technology. The Norbert Wiener Award was established in 1987 by CPSR in memory of the originator of the field of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), whose pioneering work was one of the pillars on which modern computing technology was created. Wiener was among the first to examine the social and political consequences of computing technology. He devoted much of his energy to writing articles and books that would make the technology understandable to a wide audience. His books, The Human Use of Human Beings and God and Golem, Inc., were among the earliest works that opened a public discussion of computers and what they could do.

The Norbert Wiener Award for Professional and Social Responsibility will be presented to Douglas Engelbart in Palo Alto, CA on Saturday, October 29, 2005 from 5:30-7:00 p.m, after the Annual CPSR Members Meeting.  To register to attend, use

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CPSR-- -- is an international public-interest alliance of computer scientists and others interested in the impact of information technology on society. CPSR attempts to direct public attention to difficult choices concerning the applications of computing and how those choices affect society. CPSR was founded in 1981 by computer professionals in the Silicon Valley concerned about the use of computers in nuclear weapons systems. CPSR has working groups and chapters throughout the world and is based in Palo Alto, CA.
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
Contact: Susan Evoy
Telephone: 650-322-3778

Created by sevoy
Last modified November 21, 2005 03:31 PM

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