Part 2 of 3
Click here to read the first part of David Bennahum's interview with Doug Engelbart.
David Bennahum: How did you first come up, say, with the idea of a mouse? What was the logic there?
Doug Engelbart: Well, it was knowing that you're going to be sitting there looking at displays -- which wasn't taken for granted in those days, because they were so very expensive. But my assumption was that if a use was found for them on the computer, the price would come down rapidly. So: you're sitting there and you want to tell the computer what objects on the screen you want to do something with, you need something to select them with.
There were big wars. For some people the light pen was the accepted thing, and for others the tracking ball. Somehow neither one of them seemed to fit. We tested the different devices. Someplace in my notes there was this XY sort of thing. So we built it and put it in the tests.
DB: What about the Window? How did that idea come about?
DE: Well, that's pretty straightforward. You're sitting there working and just thinking: How can we do things differently? We have capability here that's different from the old documents we had, so you can say, "show me only the first two levels on the first line of every paragraph" or "let me see multiple windows so I can look at documents in different ways in different windows, and edit and cut between them" and the like.
DB: Were icons also invented at the lab? Or was it Xerox PARC, I guess, that came up with that idea?
DE: Well, I heard people talking about it even before PARC got going. But I went through the thinking about menus and it seemed to me that yes, if you could make menus, it would make things easier. But since we assumed we would have limited resources to go after how you really augment humans, I said, "Look, what I want to do is find out how you get power to humans." So things like that coding key-set, you'd look at it and say, "In the time it takes me to go up and pull it and then go down and click on something, I could have entered two to six characters with my left hand." And no menu selection is worth that much information.
On the other hand, during the time my cursor is moving up to select an object, my left hand can be telling me during that transit time what I want it to do. So by the time you get there, you're ready to click and execute. So we sort of disdained the menus to go with finding out how you could get real power.
DB: And it was sometime in 1968 that you had a system that was sufficiently robust that you were able to show it to people?
DE: Yeah. That was actually our fourth machine.
DB: And what you had was a series of computers that were networked locally in the room, and you could go into this one conference room and work together?
DE: No. We had one timesharing computer, and then we custom-made ourselves a display system so that it could drive and support up to 12 CRT displays. These were video-driven from the computer room -- we could run co-ax out to our lab and drive the workstations. That meant that when it came time to give this presentation we could lease two video lines up to the city, and send up video screens or video of the people in attendance, and then up in the city where the presentation was made we could also mix it with cameras from the stage.
DB: People say that the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco was a watershed. After seeing your demonstration, people left that room never thinking about computers the same way again. Would you say that's an accurate encapsulation?
DE: It was really giving them a new image. What I was really hoping was that the world would turn and say, "Wow! Really interactive display-oriented stuff with high power and all of that. It's really going. Let's all get going on it." It wasn't, though.
DB: It sounds like an amazing moment: not only did it succeed in redefining people's image of the computer, but it also showed a lot of people for the first time that computers could be intimate associates in everyday work, and not necessarily cold, calculating mathematical machines. I heard that Stewart Brand helped do the lights.
DE: He came and volunteered at the lab. He was a friend of ours in those days on that. We borrowed some tripods, and our video display generators actually each used an industrial video camera mounted in front of a small CRT in the computer room to carry that. We took off some of those, and needed cameramen, and we conscripted Stewart as one of the volunteer "cameramen." He was down in Menlo Park running cameras during that time.
DB: It seems like there was a cultural connection in which people like Stewart who were associated with the counterculture suddenly got involved in computers. I'm wondering if that struck you as strange.
DE: No. It just didn't register with many people in the "ordinary culture." The thing I've learned since the mid-fifties -- and it's terribly important for society to realize -- is how much the prevailing paradigm affects and limits the way one perceives what the future can do. Year after year after year we ran into this. The system that matured in the seventies was solid enough that when we got our research shut down, we could take it out into the commercial world. Between then and '89, all over the world, we had networks supporting something like 20 mainframe servers -- all kinds of capabilities still not duplicable in the web.
DB: This is the Tymshare system?
DE: Tymshare's Augment system. And McDonnell-Douglas bought Tymshare, so we got some very large application domains, and we had a chance to really get aerospace people to perceive this, and look at the scalability issues and the interoperability issues and all that. We could really show how you could redo the whole wave and do something, but somebody up the line would have to sign off on it, and some expert would tell them, "If IBM, DEC, Hewlett-Packard aren't doing anything crazy like this, I don't think you ought to gamble on it." We ran into that year after year. It's the World Wide Web explosion that has changed the view now. That's made a lot of difference.
DB: I've had this image in my mind: what we have now, with the web and the Internet and the personal computer with the graphical user interface and the windows, is an implementation, thirty years later, of what you demonstrated in 1968. It's taken this long to get here, and it may not be as sophisticated as what you proposed. The web exploded in 1994: that would be 26 years after your demo. It's amazing that it took us this long.
DE: Prevailing paradigms take a long time to shift. What really accomplished the shift was free access to Mosaic and the simple form that HTML took -- so that it could be replicated all around, and get enhanced, and people could start getting experience. That changed the profile. But in terms of the sorts of profound changes in the way people think and work together that are yet to evolve, this still is a minor paradigm shift, because they still get this thing over and over again where we can sort of automate what we used to do instead of looking at really doing things differently.
DB: So, in a sense, when you look at the web and at network computers online, there's still a big gap in your mind from really augmentation of our intellects and what we have now.
DE: It's a great start. The gap is in people's perception of where it's going to go. I feel that this technology will actually cause a larger-scale change in our society than anything since maybe the transition to agriculture.
DB: Why do you think it's that significant?
DE: I make an analogy: Look, you've got these funny organisms. They are social organisms called human organizations, and they're been puttering along with very weak interconnections all through the years. You can talk; you can wave your hands; pretty soon you can write; then you can print; then you can duplicate with Xerox machines, and so on. Suddenly, the digital computer and the network come about; they provide an improvement in what you could call the organizational nervous system. That's a huge step. It's like a mutation that's just fantastic.
All right. What is likely to be the evolutionary path of these social organisms? Their frame, their structure, everything is going to change. Massive changes throughout society. When geographical boundaries mean so little to your ability to cooperate, what are political/geographic boundaries going to become in the future? Suddenly you appreciate the stresses on the old geopolitical structures, not to speak of the economic structures, that will arise.
DB: Is this change inevitable? Is there something we have to do to make it happen?
DE: The change rate is inevitable.
What I call the Collective IQ can rise a great deal. If we pursue its expansion, it may help us weather the other changes that can cause dislocations and trauma of unprecedented magnitude -- trauma and stress to our society that may be more than our political-economic structures can handle.
DB: I'm wondering what role you see computer scientists or designers playing in all this. Do we need to reconceptualize some of the tools that we're using now to help this along?
DE: We have structural builders. And people who can build elevators. But what we really need is architects.
You have to architect in parallel the human systems of roles and skills and knowledge and language and organizational structure. We have the opportunity to redesign all of that. We can say: look, it's those things concurrently; it's the coevolution of those two sides we have to pay attention to, not just let the technology developers and vendors steer us along. It's a terribly important social outcome.
DB: Almost all of the breakthroughs in computer science have come not from the technology vendors but from people working way out there on their own research. Then, eventually the work is taken over.
DE: I've come to realize that the marketplace, which everyone takes for granted as the rock-solid way to let things evolve, is maybe the right way if you're trying to get cheaper and better products out, but it's not necessarily there to serve what society needs. If society really needs to improve its Collective IQ, we ought not to look for leadership from the vendors.
DB: The history of your research, the research under ARPA, and the research that took place in the universities, seems to show that all this innovation came in part through government-sponsored funding -- not from a competitive market.
DE: Right. Well, look, The personal computer erupted on the world in '83-'84 and made a huge impact about social awareness and everything. But networks had then been going for a long time. ARPAnet got moving in 1970. The personal-computer industry ignored it until the World Wide Web hit; then, it had to respond.
Click here to read Part Three of David Bennahum's interview with Doug Engelbart.
It seems to me that we should address the needs of our educational system using the net as a highway to provide the needed classes. I envision a combination of television, computer and in-class lectures that will offer top of the line information to all, cutting away the need for holding some students back for lack of funds while giving the rich the better advantage of higher learning.
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"Since we assumed we would have limited resources to go after how you really augment humans, I said, 'Look, what I want to do is find out how you get power to humans.'"
"What I was really hoping was that the world would turn and say, 'Wow! Really interactive display-oriented stuff with high power and all of that. It's really going. Let's all get going on it.'"
"You have to architect in parallel the human systems of roles and skills and knowledge and language and organizational structure. We have the opportunity to redesign all of that. We can say: look, it's those things concurrently; it's the coevolution of those two sides we have to pay attention to, not just let the technology developers and vendors steer us along. It's a terribly important social outcome."
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