Just got back home from a tremendous 2 days of NMC meetings (wow, I never thought “tremendous” went with “meetings” but ours are) where I was able to check off one of my 43 people… the legendary Doug Engelbart.

And of course the reflex association goes to “yeah, he’s the guy that invented the mouse…” but that was but one small thing he did for computer users. Just about every aspect of the computers we pound at like millions of monkeys can be traced back through Jobs ‘n Woz through Xerox Parc to Engelbart’s work at SRI in the 1960s.

It has been a while since I had since the famous 1968 Mother of All Demos (the full video is up at Google Video), but it is un-canny how he demonstrates computer interface elements that still took a generation to arrive (and have not evolved much beyond). So here is my tiny tribute, a photo from abut 18 hours ago superimposed on the clip from almost 40 years ago:

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We got to enjoy dinner with Doug the night before (photo proof I was there) and converse with him today as he shared his still vibrant ideas of network (the human kind) approaches to solving complex problems. He started with declaring his lifetime goal which it seemed he had honed well and lived by:

As much as possible to boost mankind’s collective capability for coping with complex, urgent problems

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It was almost (aiming timidly to paraphrase) that in designing solutions, we create engineered approaches where the problems themselves call out for something much more organic, even brain-like.

He also quipped about the early criticism his interfaces received (and what is still re-iterated today) that people could not readily learn and adapt to complex new interface tools… he mimed the notion of the powerful gesture combination of the mouse movement of one hand and the “chord” key patterns of the other. He tossed barbs at what is the continual cry for interfaces to be “user friendly” at a cost of them being limited in capability. And Doug illustrated it with a story of teaching his 7 year-old daughters to learn base 2 number patterns, letter encoded on their fingers, to be able to communicate in code built on a lexicon of gestures. It was not necessarily directly intuitive, but with practice, minds can learn complex systems quickly.

More so, his holistic concepts of “human augmentation” are to me very akin to network diagrams, and how in part, the things that most excite me about the net, really work.

There was much more that is already fading in detail, but this was an incredible honor to even be there.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

Comments

  1. Lucky Dog! We all owe Englebart a lot.

    It’s funny you mention the story of 7 year olds learning base 2 – on Saturday Calum was sitting around going “2+2 = 4; 4+ 4=8; 8+8=16” and so forth, and I took this as an opportunity to teach him about binary numbers. Putting it in the context of a ‘code’ really made him take interest. At one point, he, Kaya and I were opening and closing doors all over the house to illustrate how a computer represents a number. Fun!

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