Thursday, December 19, 2019

Douglas Engelbart: "The Man Who Invented the Future"

Valerie Landau, author of the fascinating January 2018 Smithsonian article The Man Who Invented the Future, notes a poignant truth about the subject of her article, Douglas Engelbart: "The great proponent of collaboration was, ironically, unable to collaborate." She observed that when he became frustrated with someone's inability to understand his concepts he would end the conversation by declaring, "You just don't get it."

In the 1950s, Engelbart envisioned much of the technology revolution that has transformed the world. Landau quotes Alan Kay, who ran Xerox' PARC lab in the 1970s, as saying, "I don't know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug's ideas." There may not be a risk of that happening any time soon. Engelbart, who passed away in 2013, told Landau in 2006 that only "about 2.8 percent" of what he had envisioned had been achieved.

In the spring of 1951, Engelbart was newly married and well-established at his job. He thought about what would be most meaningful for him to accomplish. Landau writes:
"It just went 'click,'" he told me later. "If in some way, you could contribute significantly to the way humans could handle complexity and urgency, that would be universally helpful." He had a vision of people sitting in front of computer monitors, using words and symbols to develop their ideas, and then collaborate. "If a computer could punch cards or print on paper," he said, "I just knew it could draw or write on a screen, so we could be interacting with the computer and actually do interactive work."
Landau describes Engelbart's vision, and how Engelbart presented that vision in 1968 to a San Francisco audience of 1000 people: "Engelbart didn't just come up with the notion of using computers to solve the urgent and multifaceted problems facing humanity. He also gave the first-ever live demonstration of networked personal computing. Today, it's known as 'the mother of all demos,' a precursor to every technology presentation that’s happened since--and arguably more ambitious than any of them."

Engelbart's attempts to fully implement his vision were thwarted in the 1970s due to lack of funding. Xerox' PARC lab, under Kay, took the lead in the computing field but focused on developing the personal computer, not the network that Engelbart proposed. Only the mouse, which Engelbart considered the simplest of his innovations, was fully developed--and Engelbart could not understand why the three button mouse that he devised was "dumbed down" to a one button mouse by Apple.

Landau asserts that Engelbart not only foresaw the technology revolution to come, but that his proposed methods are still superior to the techniques utilized today:
Because his system was designed to present the same information from different angles, it was more than a rudimentary version of the software we use today. I believe it was better equipped than Apple's or Microsoft's programs to solving problems like peace, income inequality, sustainable development and climate change. He designed it for sophisticated knowledge workers--writers, designers, data analysts, economists. Even Google's collaborative apps are less ideally suited to do serious work that integrates libraries of data, documents, graphics, text and information maps. Engelbart's system came with a learning curve, but he believed the result was worth it. When people praised other software for being more intuitive, he asked them whether they'd rather ride a tricycle or a bicycle.
Engelbart's story demonstrates the frustrations inherent in being so far ahead of your time that the rest of the world simply "doesn't get it." Maybe in 50 years the world will catch up to Engelbart--but who is today's Engelbart, and what great ideas are now being relegated to languishing in the shadows of the mind of a lone visionary?

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