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One Response to “Engelbart’s Influence on You”

  1. Meeting Doug Engelbart was one of the few chances in my life.

    He was just arriving in California, at the glorious age of 26; I had not clue, and a worst accent. I had to work, but I could not exactly do my job: the sociology of development was not something I could see myself do from L.A., after a few years in the field in China, the south of France and Venezuela. I wanted to keep on doing sociology of science and technology, but I was desperately looking for an object.

    By chance, I started working for Everett M. Rogers at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. He was writing a report for the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on the potential uses of microcomputers for agricultural research, development and extension, and he needed the help of somebody trained in agronomy and sociology. I fit the bill, but reluctantly so. It was a classic question in the diffusion of innovations, a field Ev. Rogers had helped create. I was coming from the other end of the theoretical spectrum: my professors, in France, had trained me in the idea that any technology was also a culture, embedded a culture. Diffusion was an afterthought, and most of its studies, said my professors, were biased by an awful lack of understanding of this cultural aspect. Sure, I was trained in sociology and agricultural science; but I had no idea what a “microcomputer” was. I was putting myself in the situation to actually deserve the critics my professors had trained me to avoid at any cost.

    But I had to eat, and Ev. Rogers was so very nice, so much more open and wise than the “radical” sociologists who had trained me. He gave me a feeling for American pragmatics in the following fashion: always friendly, he used to tell me there must be something I could do rather than complaining about the theoretical shortcomings of this particular project. “If you don’t know (what a microcomputer is), he used to tell me, why don’t you do something (start a research project) about it?” Since I did not know where to start, Ev. also provided an answer.

    In 1991, while he was spending a sabbatical year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, he roamed the university libraries and came back with a great gift for me. I will never know how exactly he used his legendary charm and charisma to get it, but one day he came back to LA and gave me a folder with approximately a hundred typed pages. It was a full transcript of four oral history interviews Judy Adams and Henry Lowood had conducted with Doug Engelbart in the late 1980s. Ev told me that if I still wanted to understand something about this particular culture, this was as good a starting point as any.

    You bet it was. I had never heard of Doug Engelbart at that point, but, as I was reading the transcripts it soon downed on me that his was a great story, a big chunk of the history of computing leading to personal computing (I soon understood that “microcomputers” were something else altogether, and much less interesting for the sociologist that I was). I could not stop reading and thinking about it, and suddenly I had found some renewed passion in my work. This passion lasted actively for the next ten years. I was young and stupid, I felt that this would be a brief preliminary study in history before I could move to a sociology of personal computing. It took me ten years to realize how wrong I was.

    With the same kind of pragmatics, open heart and charisma, Doug relayed Ev. After reading the transcripts, my heart beating a bit faster than usual, my knees trembling a lot more, I took my phone and called him. To my surprise he soon told me that it had been twenty years he was waiting for a sociologist to ask him the kind of questions I wanted to ask. That was my luck, one of the few chances that marks a career. Actually I did not care much for a career, but I was looking for a good story to tell. It so happened that its main character was ready to talk, and that apart from Howard Rheingold (but with a different focus than mine) it seemed that nobody had told this story yet. I could not believe this. I met Doug a few times, and he told me his side of the story. Then he gave me the numbers of some ARC alumni and told me to tell them he was sending me. I interviewed Charles, Bill, Jeff, “Smokey”, etc. I went back to the Stanford library archive where Doug had deposited his papers. I interviewed Alan Kay and Jacques Vallée. I worked hard and had so much fun. It led to Bootstrapping, my first book.

    While doing the research for this book, it eventually came to my mind that I was actually documenting quite an interesting episode of contemporary American history. I became nervous and I might have overdone a bit. When Doug was honored with the Gold Medal of Technology, or when a bunch of us professors, academics and fans, gathered in Corvallis to give him a diploma and a copy of the file we had created to defend his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, I realized that I might not have been completely wrong. I know now that I was right. It is my pleasure and immense privilege to have been able to tell this story. And it is an euphemism to say that it is nothing at all compared to having the privilege to live it.

    This story is Doug’s professional life, his crusade, his obsession. It is a tragic story for some of its parts (the dreaded 1980s); it is the story of a stubborn drive. It was a life-altering experience for Doug and all of his colleagues, and in many ways it helped shape the everyday professional life of millions of people worldwide. That this story has not ended yet is a source of hope. That the revolution is (still) unfinished is another way to say that there is (still) hope. Hope to achieve the most grandiose goals Doug picked for himself and thus for all of us; hope to raise our “collective IQ”, hope to eventually find appropriate ways to deal with the urgency/complexity ratio of the sorry state of our human affairs. Today, as much as yesterday shows that still remains needed.

    But to avoid the grandiloquent turn these few line could now take, let me finish with an anecdote. In the early stages of my research, I also interviewed Ted Nelson. This interview will forever remain in my memory as one of the most amazing moment in my existence. Ted was recording himself and feverishly scribbling on post-its all his great ideas as he was telling them to me, soon covering the wall behind us in his floating house. The scene was surrealist. And its ending beat it all. Just before we left, Ted was nice enough to show us the trailer of his great movie, tentatively titled “Silicon Valley Story”. At one point, he, the protagonist, goes into a long and vibrant monologue about computing, its history, its future, etc. When the camera turns the other way and faces his interlocutor, one can see it is Douglas Engelbart. His answer is as short and sweet as Ted’s lines were over the top and passionate: he looks at the camera straight in the eyes and says:
    “I love you too, son.”

    That, to me, captures so well all Douglas Engelbart is about.

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