I think of Doug’s work as having many dimensions. The mouse is among the enduring incontrovertible successes, but I am sure that Doug would not think of the mouse as his most important contribution. Rather, it was a convenient way of interacting with the oNLine System (NLS.) The oNLine System (NLS) made its public debut at the “1968 Demo.” As important as the tools he demonstrated was the philosophical view behind them: The idea that people could co-produce, engage with, manipulate and interact with information—and with each other—in a very direct way. The mouse enabled people to use physical gestures to manipulate data, so that people could have a “shorthand” conversation with a computer.
Doug espoused the belief that people should use these technologies to communicate and collaborate more effectively to solve problems. At the Augmentation Research Center, people used the breakthrough technologies as they developed them. They also had a systematic approach to collaboration in their physical interactions, including workstations facing one another and a projection system that allowed everyone to see a shared display of their collaborative work.
One might look at our present capabilities and ask about the implications of Doug’s philosophy for future collaboration. The “Demo” marked the beginning of a remarkable information ecology that has co-evolved in the decades since.
We have moved beyond textual documents and have the ability to design, build and interact with relational databases and other complex digital objects. Scientists are sharing information in enormous quantities: DNA sequencing, the large Hadron Collider, and the Hubble telescope are all sources of vast quantities of scientific measurements. Today, hundreds of millions of people have access to tools enabling them to contribute, interact, manipulate and share data through the “co-evolution” that Doug envisioned more than 40 years ago.
There are aspects of Doug’s ideas that were not fully understood at the time that could have impact if they were invoked in the context of today’s information ecology. For example, Doug saw people interacting with information in a structured way. He invented a vocabulary for editing and presentation that enabled people to abstract the information content of documents with very little effort. It represented a sophisticated way to manipulate information that could apply to today’s more elaborate digital content.
His ideas could further stimulate our thinking today about ways to convey to computers our intent and to interact with information in a variety of ways, with tools that could enable us to obtain context along with the information. For example, if you are interested in the age and make-up of the stars in our galaxy, you might interact directly with a three-dimensional star map to obtain detailed data associated with each star or galaxy in the image.
Through the use of touch sensitive displays, we have more ways to use natural gestures to navigate through detailed visual representations of information, enabling people to comprehend increasingly complex information spaces. These capabilities, together with audio and video conferencing, offer unlimited possibilities for people to collaborate remotely, resembling a portion of Doug Engelbart’s vision of 40 years ago.
Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. Widely known as a “Father of the Internet,” Vint is the co-designer, with Robert Kahn, of TCP/IP protocols and basic architecture of the Internet. In 1997, President Clinton bestowed them with the U.S. National Medal of Technology. In 2005, Vint and Bob received the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Vint has received numerous awards and commendations in connection with his work on the Internet, including the Marconi Fellowship, Charles Stark Draper award of the National Academy of Engineering, the Prince of Asturias award for science and technology, the Alexander Graham Bell Award, presented by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computer Machinery, the Silver Medal of the International Telecommunications Union, and the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, among many others. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UCLA and more than a dozen honorary degrees.