Doug Engelbart and the Information Age

Having arrived to the SRI a half hour early, I was sitting in the lobby and reading their 50th anniversary report. An article was attempting to explain why Doug Engelbart received such an unsteady support and so little understanding while he worked there early in his career.

I met Doug in June 2004 when he gave an invited talk at ECOOP 2004 conference in Oslo. After his lecture, which was about  ‘augmenting our collective IQ,’ the audience left the room with no questions asked. So I walked up to him and we shared a long conversation.

The 40th anniversary of “The Mother of All Demos,” which was held at the Stanford University’s Memorial Hall on December 9, 2008, was indeed a celebration of Doug Engelbart. On December 9, 1968, at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco,  Doug demonstrated the use of computers as we know it, including interactive hypermedia, multiple windows, the mouse, cooperative document editing, the Internet and quite a bit more. In 1968 the computers were still programmed by punching cards. Alan Kay later summarized the extent of Doug’s contribution by saying “I don’t know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug’s ideas.”

And yet I could feel again during our second meeting,  this time in Doug’s office at SRI, that he doesn’t consider himself understood. Doug feels he has become famous for wrong reasons. While  celebrated for his contributions to information technology, his real interest was to contribute to our collective ability to think and solve problems. Already in 1951 Doug saw that the complexity of our problems was growing much faster than our ability to solve them, and he dedicated his career to producing a remedy. His technical inventions were developed as pieces in this much larger puzzle that he endeavored to put together.

This main side of Doug Engelbart’s work has recently been acquiring public resonance.  Doug and his wife Karen were surprised that I already knew so many members of their circle of friends, the people in Silicon Valley who share and promote Doug’s vision – Mei Lin Fung, Jack Park, Valerie Landau, Rob Stephenson, Alexandra Carmichael, Sam Hahn, Darla Hewett, Chuck House, Eileen Clegg… I explained that Jack was doing a great job as my sabbatical host. They offered to introduce me to David Nordfors.

To complement the large commemoration I just mentioned, this  group staged a smaller  two-day conference called “The Program for the Future,”  at Stanford University and at the San Jose Tech Museum.  Doug’s well-known technical inventions were deliberately left out, and this conference focused on Doug’s ideas that were not yet widely understood and practiced.

An example of such an idea is ‘bootstrapping.’ The idea of bootstrapping is to apply our (collective) intelligence and problem solving skills to the task of improving our (collective) intelligence and problem solving. And to have the team working on this task implement and use its solutions in its own work. In this way, Doug observed, accelerated improvement of our collective creative ability can be achieved. Bootstrapping was used in Doug’s laboratory where the developments shown in the 1968 demo took place. This concept is so central to Doug’s work that for a while the institutions he created were called ‘Bootstrap Institute’ and ‘Bootstrap Alliance.’

As I became better acquainted with Doug’s ideas, I realized that knowledge federation, as it has been profiled through the dialog of our small community during the past couple of years, is a direct continuation of his work and vision. I also realized that the strategy I have proposed  for its development is a direct implementation of bootstrapping. I recognized in Doug Engelbart a creative forerunner and an academic role model. The night before our meeting at SRI I finished revising my knowledge federation strategy article and I attributed it to him. At the beginning of our meeting I gave Doug a copy. And I gave Doug and Karen a bag of fragrant, locally grown tangerines.

Already  84 years old, his memory betraying him, Doug was sitting in his armchair and reading my article, listening to the conversation Karen and I were having about knowledge federation, and nodding his head. We were eating tangerines. I was pleased to hear Karen say: “You see, Doug, you don’t need to worry. There are other people who can continue your work. You can now rest.” I told them that I let my students be inspired not only by Doug’s technical work, but also by his ethical stance. I showed Doug, Karen and Mary, Doug’s life-long secretary, this three-minute  Youtube video, which I sometimes show to my students, where Doug tells how, at the beginning of his career, he thought how best to contribute to the world. He subsequently did a doctorate in computer science at UC Berkeley, where this new discipline was just begining to take shape, to be able to pursue his vision.

On December 9, 2009, the 41st anniversary of The Mother of All Demos, the party in Mei Lin’s house in Palo Alto was not a celebration but an occasion to get together. There I had a few other conversations I will remember, including the one with Bill English, the man behind the scene, the author of key technical solutions.

There I also got my personal signed copy of “The Engelbart Hypothesis.” This small paperback with a homemade touch and feel, edited by Valerie and Eileen, is published and sold privately. The chapters, typically three pages long and colloquially written, are excerpts from their conversations with Doug Engelbart. The conversations are about such themes as networked improvement community, improvement infrastructure, dynamic knowledge repositories, structured argumentABC level activities and bootstrapping. This little book is a plan for developing the knowledge creation of the future.

This was about Doug Engelbart. But what about the Information Age?

I believe that the story of Doug Engelbart needs to be understood in the larger context of our cultural becoming of age, which is now just beginning.

Although we are calling our era ‘Information Age’ and distinguishing it from ‘Industrial Age,’ I don’t think that this change of age has really quite happened yet. An age change has to be a change of values and way of thinking, as it has always been the case in the past (just think about the Renaissance, or the Englightenment, or about the onset of the Industrial Revolution). We, however, are still focused on developing technology and products according to market needs, with profit as motive. We are applying those characteristically Industrial Age values even to—information! Even there we are developing the technology, and information itself, to efficiently produce what the market wants.

Having become a commodity, information has been depreciating in value.

Even in academia—we use our time-tested disciplinary routines as a sort of conveyor belt, to mass produce high-quality information.

We have all been socialized to accept the market value as the value.

But what else can we do? What is the alternative?

We can see the alternative by re-visiting the Doug Engelbart history.

As it has been the case in the past, now too the change of age is happening to some people earlier than to others. Certain deviant memes occur here and there more or less at random, and by virtue of their adaptive value begin to spread.  To Doug Engelbart this sort of change happened a half-century earlier than to the rest of us.

As we have seen, Doug did not have profit as motive. He began his career by asking ‘What can I contribute?’ He examined this question by thinking in systemic terms, and asking ‘What does the world most urgently need?” The answer he found he pursued in spite of the prevailing market values.  (Doug left his post-Ph.D. post at UC Berkeley when he was told by his colleagues that he would remain an acting assistant professor forever, unless he stopped pursuing his “crazy” ideas and  started producing peer-reviewed publications.)

So what is it that our global system most urgently needs? Doug’s answer was ‘proper understanding and solutions.’ Doug realized that the complexity of a typical contemporary issue demands completely different engagement and answers than what we are accustomed to. He saw that we are presently only explaining away things, as when we explain a policy that has multiple systemic consequences with some simplistic goal like ‘saving money.’  Or in Doug’s words (I am quoting from Valerie and Eileen’s book):

Every problem facing humanity on a global scale is complex, and so, the solutions to those problems are also complex. Solutions themselves often bring on new unforeseen problems. Models for problem-solving do not address the needed complexity. The solutions are too big for any one individual or any one discipline.

To be able to create solutions, Doug concluded, our social organisms need a new component:

What if, suddenly, in an evolutinary sense, we evolved a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms?

Such evolution is not likely to happen through a spontaneous play of market forces:

Networked computing has the potential to increase the human’s capability to share and manipulate ideas leading to phenomenal change for knowledge work. But market forces driven by an invisible hand, as described by Adam Smith, are unlkely to invest in strategies that evolve new ways of working, managing work, and knowledge. Organizations must strategically change their approach to harnes the power of this´new medium rather than adapt the medium to mimic other media.

Instead of perceiving information, information technology and information making as separate, we need to treat them as a single key component in the  social organism, on which everything else depends. And we need to develop this component strategically, by adapting its multiple facets to one other, and all of them to its purpose:

The capability of a society is determined by the complexity of its infrastructure. All societies have an infrastructure that is made up of tools. (…) It is, in fact, the infrastructure that defines what that society is capable of. (…) The capability infrastructure is the way all of those innate abilities, acquired skills, cultral assumptions, and tools work together. (…) In order to create powerful tools to augment human thinking, we have to change many aspects of the infrastructure, and examine how the tools will be used.

The consequences may be sweeping:

The potential for change with the introduction of augmentation technology can create fundamental shifts in the world.

But if the key to the age change is the change from reliance on market values to systemic thinking, why not call the emerging age ‘Systems Age,’ as Joe Salvo suggested? Why ‘Information Age’?

I believe the name ‘Information Age’ still fits because it is before all our information that will become different. Information is also what will make the largest difference. I am reminded of the 13th century Zen Master Dōgen who as a young man travelled throughout Japan, and to China, in search for right knowledge. I believe the Information Age will be marked by a similar, but this time collective, search for right knowledge.

Like the legendary philosopher’s stone, good information will enable us to tansform everything else.

These are the main contours of Doug Engelbart’s vision. And these will also be the main contours of Information Age, if we choose to develop this direction. As James Burke observed (commenting on Valerie and Eileen’s book) :

We are at a decision crossroads. And as this book vividly demonstrates, Doug Engelbart has been there all along, waiting for us with the answer.

Doug Engelbart developed a tool kit and a strategy for evolving our collective ability to think and create solutions. But we understood and implemented only the first part, which we could use to build the technology that can make our habitual ways of working more efficient. The technology that already had a market.

When we understand and implement the rest, we will truly be in Information Age.

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One response to “Doug Engelbart and the Information Age

  1. Pingback: Knowledge Federation – An Enabler of Systemic Innovation | Dino Karabeg’s blog

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