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Finding an evolution process is key to preventing an organization from becoming extinct. In order to create a process for the evolution of our social and organizational structures, you can learn to sensibly integrate different elements and co-evolve all of them in order to allow for a rapid change in scale without creating such an imbalance that the whole thing falls apart. What if we look ahead to see all the new capabilities that we probably will develop in the future? It would be very important to develop, early on, your improved capability to evolve.

The notion of the rapid change in unprecedented scale is a cornerstone of the Augmentation framework. The nature of change and rapid scalability has a profound impact on the high-tech industry. The idea of “dimensional scaling” stemmed from my first job at Ames Laboratory in the early 1950s. I noted to one of the Air Force officers, “I see you’ve got a little wind foil in a little wind tunnel, but it’s only one fiftieth of the size of the wing. How can you take the data here and say what it will do to the wing?’’ The officer said there is a special science called, “Dimensional Analysis.”

Years later, at SRI, I remembered that conversation. I conducted a study and wrote a paper on dimensional analysis, studying what happens if you make things smaller and smaller. When you make things smaller and smaller, it causes everything to function faster and faster. But there is also a different phenomenon at work. As you get smaller, some things will shift with the length, some will shift with the area, some will shift with the volume. There will be new phenomena you can explore. I gave a talk at a conference about that. After I finished, someone in the audience named Gordon Moore was eager to learn more. He developed a formula, known as Moore’s Law.

______________________________________________________________In 1965, Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double about every two years.

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I like to give visitors a little test to see if they understand the concept of scalability. What if all of us, and everything in this room, were to become 10 times larger? Would you still be able to do what you are doing now?” Visitors think about themselves sitting on a chair, standing up and down, and most of them figure that if everything grows at the same rate, things would look and behave the same way in relation to one another. The answer is “no.” Actually, a person would weigh 1,000 times more, but would only be 100 times stronger. You could no longer support your own weight to move the body. The chair would break and a host of other unexpected changes would take place.

The appropriate design for a five-foot creature is not that much different from that for a six-foot creature. But the design for either of these would be totally inappropriate for a one-inch creature, or for a thirty-foot creature. A mosquito, as big as a human, could not stand, fly, or breathe. A human the size of a mosquito would be badly equipped for basic mobility, and, for instance, would not be able to drink from a puddle without struggling to break the surface tension, and then if his face were wetted, would very likely get pulled under and be unable to escape drowning. When thinking about human aspects of collaboration and the technology involved, you have to think about the effects of increased and decreased scaling effects.

I became aware of an important general principle: if the scale is changed for critical parameters within a complex system, the effects will at first appear as quantitative changes in general appearance, but after a certain point, further scale changes in these parameters will yield evermore striking qualitative changes in the system.

Bootstrapping applies this concept to problem-solving. Each time a change is made, or a problem is solved, it leads to a completely new state of the situation. What is needed is a strategy that allows for continual reevaluation of the problem at every stage, so that a new strategy can be created. This applies to both human systems [social relationships, culture, politics] and tool systems [technologies]. As a result of issues of scale, it is imperative that human and tool systems must co-evolve.

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6 Responses to “Engelbart on Scalability: Size Matters (Really)”


  1. This puts into a different perspective the current practice of organizing small businesses almost the same as large ones. Given Doug’s argumnets, most likley the optimal organizational structure for a small business needs to be very different – as we are seeing emerge in many startups that do away with traditional structures, org charts and functions.

  2. bdaul Says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks for that insight! It is a good argument for what Eileen Clegg has referred to as extremophile organizations.

    –b

  3. Jan Freijser Says:

    The last sentence (“As a result of issues of scale, it is imperative that social relationships and technology
    must co-evolve”.) defines a way of dealing with technics and technology that in general we have not followed in our narrow consumerist western societies. Augmentation engineering cannot exist unless you take this as a basic principle underlying all human development of things technical. To me it reflects the ideas of Lewis Mumford (Myth of the Machine) and Conrad Waddington (The Scientific Attitude).
    Burning question: did Douglas Engelbart know Lewis Mumford?
    – Jan

  4. Eileen Clegg Says:

    Thanks, Jan, this is great perspective. We’ll check with Doug about the burning question!

  5. Jan Freijser Says:

    Thank you Eileen!
    It’s great to be able to connect like this.

    Mumford says somewhere that the relationship between man and technics should be symbiotic. This reflects what I think, viz. that there needs to be technological engagement, which can only arise if machines are designed with human engagement in mind. What has happened is that they have largely been designed with consumption in mind. This technological engagement vs non-engagement you find so neatly illustrated in the beginning of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in the squabbles between Pirsig and his friend John.
    I hope you’ll find out from Doug.
    Not so long ago I read that Mumford had been a great friend of Vannevar Bush’. I am not sure because I never saw a reference to Bush in Mumford’s writing, or Miller’s biography. Tangentially interesting here, because Doug does refer to Vannevar Bush, of course.
    Anyway, thanks!
    cheers, Jan

  6. Jan Freijser Says:

    Btw, another one I forgot to mention.
    It is my conviction that Moore’s law became Bill Gates’ new religious faith the minute he grasped what this could mean. It made him switch to operating systems, in the end stealing Gary Kildall’s brain child CP/M, via another guy who had stolen it first. In that sense, paradoxically, Moore’s law has done a lot of harm to the evolution of useful technology, I’m sorry to say. Why I think it became a religion is the nonsensical development of Windows in 1985, a product that remained un-usable for 7-8 years (I tried Win v 1.0 and 2.0 on Intel 286 and 386 PCs: took hours to install and half an hour to start up. So nobody used it, yet he sold it through marketing and sales trickery. And yes, it was vapourware, doing nothing to augment anything except of course the treasury chest. It was a bad old world.


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