Doug Engelbart believes in “improving the improvement process,” and that’s what we did in our quest to help Doug express his vision in language for a mainstream audience. This edition does not pretend to be the final word, but rather the best picture we have at the present time. Doug liked the idea of publishing iterations of our dialogs, as an invitation to more dialog. From the beginning of his work, Doug has sought dialog to help find the right words and narratives to illuminate the Augmentation Framework and his highly conceptual thinking: capability infrastructure, dynamic knowledge repositories, collective intelligence, the ABC process and bootstrapping.
Our years of writing, drawing, rewriting, redrawing, and interviewing enabled us to hone the language and clarify the concepts. Our first version was an online-book presented as an experimental wiki-book.14 We also published various hard copy versions for different events, including a slim volume for the India National Knowledge Commission’s meeting in Long Beach in June, 2006, and a softcover book called “Evolving Collective Intelligence” for the 40th anniversary of “The Mother of All Demos” in 2008. We relied on a recursive process to develop our writings. We had to continually improve our “human systems” (the inner workings of our quirky team of three) and our “tool systems,” not just the online docs, blogs, wikis, and word docs, but also video, audio and paper and pastels.
But before describing more about our five-year experiment, let me tell a little about Valerie and me, and how we got together with Doug.
Valerie and I met in 2002 through NextNow Collaboratory15, a community organized around learning and technology. Valerie is our in-house radical, having grown up in San Francisco in the 1960s near the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, in a home that was a meeting center of artists and activists, including Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, Mario Savio and Angela Davis. As a young adult, she carried on the family tradition after college, spending two years in Nicaragua as director of the National Literacy Campaign for Northern Managua. She’d just finished a documentary chronicling the tours of musicians (including Joan Baez and Pete Seeger) opposing the Contra War the US was waging against the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, when she became associate producer for a documentary series about the history of Silicon Valley in 1985. During her research, she met Stanford librarian Henry Lowood, who convinced her to watch a film of Doug’s ‘68 Demo.
Valerie saw Doug’s story not through a filter of business and technology—the areas where Doug had been working—but through the eyes of a radical: Engelbart wasn’t just an inventor, he was a man with a vision for solving global problems. The vision involved a paradigm-shift in thinking, and Doug explained how new concepts defy old language. Valerie became an Engelbart scholar and was inspired to a career in educational multimedia design, returning to Harvard for an advanced degree, then teaching university students at a new technology-focused California State University, Monterey Bay. Engelbart’s ideas were central to her work so, when we met, she filled me in quickly.
I wanted to read more about Doug’s philosophy, but Valerie told me that he had not written a book. There was this little problem with translating his vision into common language. I was surprised. I’d heard Doug speak at several events and considered him the Einstein of modern technology, and clearly many around the world felt the same way. As a longtime journalist, this seemed like a lifetime opportunity. We talked to Doug about writing a book together, and he said yes! Later, I’d find out that many had tried before, and we would be challenged to the limit to help him find words to tell his story and explain his ideas in terms that the mainstream public could understand. He wanted dialog and we pledged to engage in as many as possible.
Valerie already had a test-bed with her classes at CSU Monterey Bay. Here were these young people who were not bound by previous ideas of “what’s possible.” They jumped in to experiment with various ways of explaining and practicing Engelbart’s ideas. One highlight was a student project interviewing Doug’s colleagues and friends at his 80th birthday in 2005.16
We began meeting with Doug in many venues. He joined Valerie with the students in Monterey, we visited with him at his then-office at Logitech, we joined him at meetings and talks (including a landmark session with the National Knowledge Commission of India) and we stayed for extended periods at his Atherton home, filming and interviewing him about his ideas, looking for gems that would capture the essence of his ideas.
We came to understand the true challenges of language for new ideas. For example, Doug in his papers had written about the role of “facilitator.” To us, the term “facilitator” meant the person running a meeting, or the person getting a team to talk or accomplish. But after many hours of conversation of many years, one day we had an “aha.” We asked Doug, “What does a facilitator do?” He looked at us like the answer was obvious. “A facilitator creates maps of the future,” he answered. His facilitator was a new role that had only emerged in the latter 20th century.17
People ask us why writing about Doug’s vision demanded so much dialog over so many years. One insight came when Doug took an online test about cognitive styles created by Michael Sturm, and he scored way off the charts as a conceptual thinker, which often leads to difficulty being understood—especially when his topics are concepts for the future. Doug was talking about global teams working together to solve complex issues facing humanity using computers and 3D views in 1951, when there were only a handful of computers existing in the world. Today we are still struggling with global teams; many of the things that Doug foreshadowed have come about, but many have not, and he’s still trying to explain those concepts. Many of his writings are obtuse and difficult for even fellow Ph.Ds to understand. Doug wants people to reflect back to him what he is saying, so he can improve the articulation of his own vision.
This brings us to another way we improved our process. Over the years working with Doug, I frequently created visual murals about his ideas. They were a hit with Doug and with others because these murals are ephemeral “snapshots”—not the final word. I created many murals during Doug’s various talks and interviews, including a memorable one with Alan Kay. Before explaining how the mural innovation process works, let me give some background about the medium. The idea is to gather specific facts, quotes, events and theories in a literal “big picture.” Instead of connecting information together with a verbal narrative, pictures provide the context. Unlike words, images are ambiguous and open to interpretation. A picture helps people share a frame of reference without imposing meaning or premature conclusions. We began using the visual tools more and more during the writing process.
Writing about Engelbart’s vision is difficult because his vision is holistic, multilayered and fundamentally nonlinear. It is also challenging to separate the concepts from the historical and social context, and the constant need to either separate or integrate the “human systems” and the “tool systems.” Doug talks about the need to create new tools to facilitate the manipulation of ideas. He argues that the current word processing and old print models just won’t do. We really needed to use the tools he was trying to describe to describe what he was thinking. And they do not yet exist in an integrated way that would enable the kind of massive online, structured dialog Doug envisioned, with flexible tools that would enable everyone to adapt the medium. We could benefit from another five years of dialog, both written, illustrated, and verbal—and look forward to migrating our videos, audio tapes, murals and various media into a comprehensive Dynamic Knowledge Repository.
So we innovated our process. As the 40th anniversary of the 1968 demo approached, we had some questions we couldn’t get a handle on: How did the demo impact history? What aspects of Doug’s vision had diffused? What aspects had yet to come to fruition? How was Doug’s philosophy a product of his time? How was the demo connected to previous technologies? We felt we could facilitate those conversations by creating a landscape of his life and times. We created a series of these. The first mural was 4 by 8 feet and included facts and information about significant technology events, starting with the year of Engelbart’s birth in 1925.
We placed those innovations in a historical context, adding global political events, big shifts in thinking about business and organizations. We realized we were illustrating Engelbart’s “capability infrastructure” —the culture, tools, and landscape of human experience in which co-evolution occurs. The first mural went to Foo Camp, an annual retreat of technology leaders hosted by O’Reilly Media. Most of the feedback we received was in the technology arena. But, there was also input about ideas of deep meaning to humanity, including the Anne Frank quote, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
We researched and filled in more historical facts, ideas, and trends. In dialog with Doug, we refined the illustrations of his vision. We posted our findings and asked colleagues to add information online, then carried it to different groups who engaged in exercises. We added the collective insights to each successive mural. When we created the latest mural, the big “wave” appeared with the rise of technology innovations around the Demo, just after the “big sun” of ideas that inspired this sea change in our history.
This mural has traveled from small meetings with Doug, friends, and family, and to large venues with hundreds of attendees. We even sat with people who normally argue about ideas and found that they didn’t argue with the mural, or one another, when they all had a chance to work together and share ideas. There was real dialog and collaborative constructive interaction that generated excitement.
Immersing ourselves in the mural process helped facilitate the writing of the 2008 version of the book. Engelbart jumps from the abstract to concrete in mid- sentence—he’s talking at the meta-level and at the concrete level. We began to actually SEE how these two come together and where we could separate them.
Before the Program for the Future event, celebrating the 40th anniversary of “The Mother of All Demos,” Valerie searched through our tomes of material to select the most salient passages. Doug reviewed the draft and made comments for revision. We asked some of his close colleagues to contribute chapters.
When the book was published, Doug opened the book, read several pages, and then had to stop to put his hand over his face, and he cried. He didn’t want the women standing there in his office to see him cry. “I’ve been trying to do this for so many years,” he said. Then he sat down and wrote an inscription to Mary, his secretary for 20 years, and gave it to her. It was one more step in the Engelbart dialogs.
The 2008 version brought a flood of feedback, excitement, controversy and debate. People had different memories about events we related, and different interpretations of Doug’s ideas. Doug was excited about the dialog, and we were a bit overwhelmed. We created an online blog for public debate, and had several offline rounds of off-line discussion. As we were creating a line-by-line response to criticisms, we wished for that Dynamic Knowledge Repository, so we could structure the debate, show where ideas converged and diverged, as we developed the next version.
For this publication, we returned to the title we were using back in 2005, and brought in some new voices and perspectives. Claudia Welss, executive director of the NextNow, had launched the NextNow NextPress to enable the publication of this kind of philosophy that might not fit into the mainstream publishing paradigm.
As we go to press with this version, we are pulling together our archive and looking forward to sharing the story behind the story in a better forum. For now, we are grateful to have taken another step in the dialog. We encourage you to help us keep expanding and refining so we can improve our collective intelligence—remembering Doug’s vision that, ultimately, we will find ourselves motivated and equipped to solve the complex, urgent problems facing humanity.
Eileen Clegg is a journalist, book author, visual communicator and founder of the company Visual Insight, creating large-scale, real-time murals to facilitate leadership of Fortune 100 corporations and non-profit organizations. Her work with Engelbart began when she was a research affiliate for Institute for the Future, in Palo Alto, California, creating future scenarios about learning and technology.
15NextNow is both a purposeful social network (NextNow Network facilitated by Bill Daul) and a collaboration laboratory (NextNow Collaboratory lead by Claudia Welss). The social network intends to accelerate the identification of synergies in the web of relationships it represents, and began in January of 2003. In September 2006, the collaboratory was established to help tap those synergies for social benefit—to help keep them “on-purpose.”
16 The video archive is on the web http://www.roundworldmedia.com/ednic/cst595/ sheranian_capstone/timeline/timeline5_18_5.swf”
__________________________________________________________17Engelbart’s boss at SRI, Roy Amara, went on to head The Institute for the Future, now known for their Future Mapping. Researchers used paper on the walls to map cross-disciplinary information to see the “landscape” of future scenarios.