I first met Doug Englebart in late 1997 or very early 1998, when my friend and mentor Harry Chesley and I went down to SRI to hear him speak. I was awed by his early breakthrough work. (If you have not seen “the mother of all demos,” set aside some time to watch it in its entirety — for now, you can checkout some highlights.)
I remember afterwards Doug saying “everyone thinks it is great being a visionary, but the problem with being a visionary is that no one ever knows what you are talking about.” At the time, I was awed that in 1968, Doug had not only foreseen, but had built systems that would gain widespread use 20-30 years later as personal computers became ubiquitous. Of course, Alan Kay is correct in saying that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Doug laid the foundations for the modern graphical user interface. At the time, I thought that was his vision and life’s work. I learned later how wrong and short-sighted I was.
I had the pleasure of meeting Doug Engelbart again in 2002, when Kevin Lynch had the brilliant idea of inviting Doug to attend the launch event of Flash video (then called the Flash Communication Server, later Flash Media Server). The event would be held in New York city and Doug was invited to attend remotely using our two-way video tech.
I eagerly volunteered to stay home and run tech support for Doug. His Augment system predated our efforts by almost 40 years and included more features. It was humbling. As the event began, Kevin had a couple of other items on the agenda before the big finale with Doug. Kevin talked about how we need to be mindful and respectful of our critics. Doug and I were listening in (on mute) from his home in Atherton. Macromedia had made great efforts to address concerns raised most vocally by Jacob Nielson, who had written scathing criticisms of Flash. At which point, Doug said to me: “Jakob never liked my work either.” Mike Chamber, who was there in New York, tells the story of what came next as witnessed by the audience:
“Kevin then talked about some of the pioneering work done in computers in the 50’s and 60’s, and introduced a clip of a presentation by Doug Engelbart, and his famous 1968 video of distributed collaboration and real-time video in a graphical computer.
It is really hard to describe the excitement and electricity in the audience while viewing the clips…
We showed the introduction to the presentation, and Doug typing on the screen, and then a clip where he was collaborating with someone remotely (using text and video!).
Kevin then opened up a Flash Communication Server application, which linked him and Flash Forward to Palo Alto, California and Doug Engelbart. When he came through on the video, the audience gave the loudest and longest applause of the morning.
Doug talked about how after he got engaged, he realized he didn’t have any long term goals. He decided that he should dedicate himself to making a positive difference to humankind, and that one way to do that would be to figure out a way to make communication and collaboration easier. Doug, who has actually used director in the past, said that he would like to see applications that make it simple to connect users via video, and then archive and search that video (as easy as searching and indexing text on the web).”
— Mike Chambers blog, July 2002
Doug had been a radar operator during World War II and it struck him that these new machines had phenomenal power to collect data, and foresaw that our ability to collect information would surpass our ability to understand and make good decisions based on that information. The goal of the system that he designed and implemented was to “augment human intellect.”
Later, when I went down to Atherton to pick up some things we had left at Doug’s house, I brought Jonathan Gay, who had built the original Flash Player and who I worked for when I led the Flash video team. Flash video was Jon’s inspiration — he coded the first prototype with Slavik Lozben. Like Doug, Jon had the ability to envision the future and write the code to get there.
Jon asked Doug whether he still had the first mouse. At which point, Doug brought us into his study, where he had an Augment system still running. It had been ported over the years and was running emulated on a PDP11 or something similarly archaic to my modern experience. An old personal computer ran as a client desktop. The mouse was designed to be used by one hand, and there was a chorded keyboard which allowed him to type with a single hand as well. The system supported full version control of all documents and links between them. An email could link to a source code file or written report, and the recipient could jump directly to the reference in the correct version of the file.
Doug told us that all of the innovations that he had built and subsequently inspired were merely the tools that he had needed to begin his work. He had barely scratched the surface of what would be required. Then he looked at us and said. I won’t finish this in my lifetime. It’s on you now.
Doug inspired me to pay attention to my visions of the future that might seem outlandish or unattainable. Although I might not get there in my lifetime, it is worth pursuing the larger goal of turning our technology into truly powerful tools for human’s to solve the very real and urgent problems of our world. I set out to learn how to reverse engineer my crazy visions — to connect the dots from the hypothetical sci-fi future to the primitive tools we have today.
Somehow we must find a way to do more than make data and compute power available. We must create the tools that allow people to use that data effectively, to learn, to understand, to collaborate and solve real problems — to turn data into knowledge, and from that knowledge gain wisdom.