December 11, 1950. Alone in his car on his way to work, blinded by the sudden light, this thought dawned on him: “My life is pretty much over.” An abstract death if you will, this nagging feeling when you are 25 years old. Over, done. All that he could have done, and more, was done. A sudden feeling, and its aftermath, leaving him empty like a drying puddle after a rain. Over, done. And then?
All that he could have hoped for, and more, was accomplished. Surviving a depression, the Great Depression, surviving a war, the Second World War. Getting a job, finding love, getting engaged. 25 years old, going downhill, comfortably, toward retirement. What else?
Answer: “I ought to do something (else) with my life.” The rest is sheer stubbornness.
Anybody else, I guess, would have come back to his senses—on with the comfortable life or would have just shrugged—and shaken away the moment. Douglas Carl Engelbart, instead, clung to it. That morning, on the freeway, he embarked on his life-long “crusade.”
Trained as a RADAR technician, he sailed toward the Pacific theater of operations, passing under the Golden Gate… on V-Day! He spent the rest of his time in uniform reading on a beach. He did not question it. Anyway, here he had landed, on a beach in the Philippines, reading. Learning.13
That, he liked. He was not much of a talker, to this day still isn’t. Too abstract, too dense. Too obsessed and rigorous, maybe. Uncompromising.
After so much destruction, death, and despair, the whole world, not only he was recovering. It was time to rebuild. It was the time of the Marshall Plan and the Point IV program.
Listening to him tell his story (and/or reconstructing it), you can feel his drive, and its paradoxical innocence. Never again! And the pragmatism of the engineer: how to make sure it does not happen again? How to build a safeguard for it never to happen again? The death and despair, the war and destruction.
He did not get metaphysical or political; he did not wonder about a contemporary theodicy. He did not ask why so much evil and pain. In his usual, matter-of-fact, engineering pragmatism, he abstracted a ratio, like the efficiency of an engine.
Except the engine was the world, and it was pretty much out of control. To him, it boiled down to two notions (admire the minimalism): urgency and complexity. The world was facing, he intuited, increasingly urgent and complex problems. And Man was showing his limits; yes, Man was in over his head. The world’s problems had grown complex like a cybernetic system—another invention of the period—full of feedback loops gone astray, circular causalities and side effects. You could simply not declare peace, growth, and happiness for all. The time of wishful thinking was gone, blown up in ashes. He had seen the mushroom clouds, witnessed the effect of out-of-control chain-reactions.
Later, he would refine his diagnosis: a crucial, perilous, disastrous, lack of intelligence. Man’s means to react to ever increasingly complex and urgent problems, was, quite simply, wearing too thin given the complexity and urgency of the world’s problems.
It was high time to do something about it. It had come pretty close to be too late, the last time around. The euphoria was already gone, a Third World War (still cold) was cooking. You could feel pressure building, and, this time, it might prove to be too much. So, what to do about it? And again, pragmatically, “what to do with my life?” also meant, “what to do with the current state of the world?” Remember: he was recovering; he was, after all, strangely, still alive, awkwardly, temporarily out of danger.
So another ratio came to his mind equating the ratio of his still young and aspiring life to the ratio of the world. Provided he and his family were okay, the question became: “how to maximize the good he could do.”
The Computer as Midwife
The flash went on and reflected on the screen. Here it was: the screen and the script. The book and the RADAR. Tools for thought, still in the making. Again, it dawned on him: a vision of thought reflected on a screen; an engineer’s dream, with levers, knobs and all, to put the world back into working order. He knew for a fact “that wasn’t what the world’s dominant needs were; more engineering, right then…”
After all the latest science and engineering wonder, the A-bomb, was both (at best) the problem and part of the solution. The year before, the reds had successfully tested their own version of the monster. But hell, he was an engineer. However, he did not think about the computer in engineering terms.
He knew the computer was at first an engine, a difference engine. Years later, in his SRI lab, the time sharing computing system was set in a room dubbed “the engine room.” He also knew that the computer was more than an engine—an engine of change—a connected set of differences that make a difference.
He saw a means to meet the intelligence challenge. At that time, he actually did not know much about computers, almost nobody did. Back then, a computer was still a middle-aged lady with a hand calculator. Because of his readings and the RADAR training, he knew of the other computer, the universal machine that would replace the middle-aged ladies (among others, alas).
The computer, in his mind, was more than a calculator: something like a universal translator, a mind-prosthesis, a means to augment the human intellect.
This machine could become the midwife of a rebirth, the rebirth of Man, this intellectually challenged form of life. Yes, strangely enough, when he thought about the computer, on that morning in December 1950, he imagined symbolic logic, the incorporation of script at a whole new level, reconnecting mind, hand and sight by new, extremely powerful means.
His thoughts about the computer became the center of his conceptual and practical articulation of his very own idiosyncratic version of processed humanism. A unique combination of mid-century USA cybernetics, phenomenology, and materialist dialectics that suddenly crystallized in a personal philosophy he would never question.
Thierry Bardini is an Associate Professor at the Université de Montréal. He is the author of Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing. He is currently writing a new book, Junkware. The coming of Homo nexus.
13. Doug Engelbart responded to this passage,“I was not just lying on the beach reading. I had a lot of responsibility. I was in charge of running a radar and radio hub in the Philippines. Just twenty years old, and I was responsible for setting up, maintaining, and trouble-shooting radar and communications for the entire Manila area,” he recalls.“Imagine that!”