Doug has just passed away. I honor his memory by publishing this interview I made with him 26 years ago.
Conversations with Douglas Engelbart
by George Pór
Computer Currents, 1987
The coming “big bang” of the ’90s will be an explosion of information and knowledge, like nothing we have ever seen. Never have there been as many high-powered means of information production in the hands of as many people as today. The converging knowledge technologies of hypermedia and expert systems, and along with optical mass storage and high-speed data transmission will further the movement towards the “big bang”.
There are two immediately noticeable trends signaling the shape of things to come. One of them is: the number of individuals, groups, and communities that can interact with each other through various electronic media is continuously increasing, and so does the size of shareable communications space. The other trend is: the communication media, modes and channels available to individuals and organizations are continuously expanding, and so does the bandwidth of shareable communications space.
As these trends pick up momentum, they’ll have an irreversible impact on the very fabric of all information-based cultures and economies. How beneficial or harmful that impact will be depends on how prepared we are to co-evolve our thinking and working habits with our rapidly evolving information environment.
The same technologies that will lead to the “big bang” of the ’90s can help us develop the new cognitive and organizational strategies we need to cope with it. Learning those strategies will be a condition to making our electronic “rite of passage.” Douglas Engelbart’s quarter-of-a-century quest for “high-powered electronic tools” to support “augmented knowledge work” was never as timely as today.
Engelbart is one of America’s least-known treasures. Those in the computer world associate his name with the first window on a computer screen, the first interactive telecomputing demonstration, the first mouse, the first word- and outline-processor, the first shared screens for teamwork, and other technological breakthroughs. Let me introduce you to another Engelbart, the one whose ultimate concern is how to develop sophisticated computer and human systems for “augmentation.”
“By ‘augmenting man’s intellect’ we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems… We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.” (A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man’s Intellect, 1963, by Douglas Engelbart)
The idea of enhancing our thinking faculties with a “machine” made for that purpose was introduced to the public at the end of WWII by Vannevar Bush, science advisor to President Roosevelt. He was the first to point out the need to create a machine with levers and buttons that would enable us to sort out the myriad pieces of information of all shapes and colors pouring in. He called it “memex.” That was the year 1945.
Forty-two years later, searching for a way to explain the amazing scope of things its new hypermedia program can do, Apple Computer got a hand from Bush. The brochure introducing HyperCard says, “As Bush described it, the human mind snaps instantly from one related thought to another, following an intricate web of associative trails: ‘the speed of the action, the intricacy of the trails, the detail of mental pictures is awe inspiring… Man cannot hope to fully duplicate this mental process artificially,’ he added ‘but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it.’ Bravo, Mr. Bush. Bravo. Finally, somebody has.”
Bravo, Apple. Bravo. We owe it to ourselves to give credit where it’s due and to acknowledge that Engelbart not only discovered Bush over four decades ago, but also was the first to build a working model of the kind of mind-amplifier Bush was dreaming about. Augment, a sophisticated software environment that Engelbart developed, is an enchanted land for the mind where you can reach out, grab a thought, hop on it, and ride in any direction you want, with perfect confidence in the system’s ability to take you within seconds to any nook or cranny of any huge knowledge web of your fancy.
Once recognized and systematically applied in the planning and management of knowledge work, augmentation may well become the single most important factor that will increase intellectual wealth all across the board. All we need is the right model of integrating the right technology with the right methodology. What is right? The one that will enable us to learn what it takes to graduate to the next plateau of human evolution. How can we recognize them? That’s one of the underlying questions of the Conversations with Douglas Engelbart. Here follows the interview. Continue reading