By Valerie Landau and Eileen Clegg
Engelbart is often called the father of personal computing. In 1968, he produced an event so ground-breaking it earned the name “the mother of all demos.” At the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Engelbart and his team demonstrated a powerful integrated personal computing system complete with robust collaborative features (some of which did not yet have these names): word processing, document sharing, trackback links, hypertext, version control, integrated text and graphics—and, of course, the computer mouse.1 These innovations have become the foundations of personal computing. He has received the highest honors for his contributions, including the 2000 National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.
Engelbart is most famous for inventing the mouse, but his legacy lies with his conceptual framework that foreshadowed the shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. He is considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest visionaries. Over the past 50 years, he has maintained that the mind-set of the linear book, the alphabet, and even the Web page no longer suffice for serious intellectual pursuits in a global context. To raise the collective IQ (a term of Engelbart’s from the 1960s that caught on decades later) he calls for new ways of communicating: new symbols, new ways of structuring arguments, facts, and evidence. This paradigm shift will enable us to tap into our collective perceptual capabilities for large scale collaboration, creating an evolutionary step well beyond Web 2.0 into a new paradigm for solving complex global problems from environmental threats to war
Engelbart has always been far ahead of his time. Imagine reading his works in 1962, when room-sized computers, with disks the size of tractor tires, could cost millions of dollars. That was the year he described portable electronic devices connected together, enabling people to look up and share information on any subject.
During the dot.com boom at the dawn of the 21st century, bits and pieces of his framework emerged in interesting and unintended ways. Blogs, wikis, hypermedia, and networked communities of practice using dynamic knowledge repositories proliferated, including the Center for Disease Control website, the Human Genome project, and Wikipedia. But the haphazard, market-driven diffusion of technology lacks Engelbart’s foundational philosophical framework for augmenting human intellect for solving complex problems.
These writings by Engelbart and his colleagues place his well-known technology achievements in the context of his grand vision for a paradigm shift in our thinking. We believe that Engelbart’s philosophy is at least as significant as his inventions. His inventions were a result of his philosophy, thereby proving its validity.
What Engelbart wants most—and we want for him and for the world—is for his philosophy to be understood, applied, improved upon, defined, and understood in a new way, to again be applied, improved, defined and….on and on. He calls it “dialog.” As a man who has always had ideas before words caught up to him, Engelbart has longed for discussion to help articulate his vision.
We responded to Engelbart’s call for dialog. This edition is the latest synthesis of our years of conversation with him (Landau’s goes back to 1985, Clegg’s to 2004). We’ve published several versions, starting with an online book in 2004. We have devoted a chapter at the end of this edition to describe how we continually “improved our improvement process” to work with Engelbart.
In addition to choosing the best of Engelbart’s words about his philosophy, we’ve also included his memories of episodes in his life that shed light on his philosophy. And—in keeping with Engelbart’s commitment to dialog—we have included chapters from people who have been in conversation with him for many years, as well as chapters from scholars who have studied his work and applied it in their own. You will find many ideas and events mentioned multiple times, in different ways—reflecting various perspectives.
Valerie is a multimedia pioneer, professor, and inventor. Eileen is a journalist, visual communicator and organizational consultant. We’ve used every tool at our disposal—video, graphics, and many, many iterations of the book with Doug’s inputs and corrections. In the end, what best served the goal of conveying Doug’s philosophy was a trusted partnership among three people determined to use a linear medium to write about a non-linear, recursive, multi-layered framework based on multiple views of information, hyperlinking and collective dialog. The project was fraught with internal contradictions and constraints. So, this is by no means the final word; it is a step in furthering the dialog in the hope that Engelbart’s much-needed philosophy will reach the mainstream.
—Valerie and Eileen
1 Bill English, Cheif Engineer of Engelbart’s ARC lab, explains other features presented at the 1968 demo, “Video conferencing, multiple windows, and networking were simulated. You might say the demo gave us a glimpse of things to come and how they might be used in an integrated system.”