Doug Engelbart’s Legacy

By | July 5, 2013

There seems to be a lot of death going around lately. I just heard of the passing of Doug Engelbart on July 3; he was 88 years old and in dicey health, but I will always remember him as the optimistic visionary who befriended me some 25 years ago at what had to be the low point of both our careers.  I can’t claim to have been a close friend, but we shared numerous breakfasts and lunches at an obscure coffee shop in Palo Alto, trying to figure out how his ideas might be translated into fundable research and practice. We never did progress to that goal, but I obtained a pretty clear insight into his vision of augmentation of human intellect and shared work within that context. In varying degrees, his ideas, which I had first encountered while still at the National Science Foundation, have inspired much of my subsequent research and thinking about how people work together in technological environments.

I heard about Doug’s passing through a fascinating blog post by Bret Victor entitled A Few Words on Doug Engelbart. Bret’s post went immediately past the universal acclamation for his “invention of the mouse” to note the highly integrated vision of human augmentation that he brought to the field, and the degree of discomfort and misunderstanding that often accompanied people’s attempts to understand what he was talking about. Doug was a true revolutionary, in the sense that his vision called for the uprooting and rethinking of just about everything that went into the first waves of what was then often called office automation. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the general idea was that if you dropped enough new technology into offices, good things would happen pretty much by themselves. It was technology push with a vengeance. Doug’s vision, by contrast, called for a careful development of the workgroup and its social relationships, with technology serving more in the background than as a principal feature, let alone a driver, of work relationships. So while in 1970, when his initial demonstrations of his AUGMENT system were made, he would be seen as a visionary, by the mid-1980s he was distinctly out of fashion, as technology was in the saddle.

Even as Doug was sharing his ideas with me over pancakes, the world was revolving yet again. 1986 saw the first of the Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conferences, in Austin TX, where some 200 researchers and practitioners tried to figure out whether we really had a new field within which to work. It was at that conference that Tora Bikson and I presented what I have reason to believe was the first real empirical study of electronic mail behavior, at a time when email was almost nonexistent. By the time of the third CSCW conference held in Los Angeles, put on by Tora, Lynne Marcus, me, and a cast of tens, which was great fun and highly productive and way over budget (my fault), it was clear that there was indeed a field of study and practice called CSCW that had considerable future potential. Although much of what later developed under the CSCW umbrella was less than perfectly aligned with Doug’s vision of augmented work, it was clear that he was regarded by the participants as an inspirational figure and that his work set a standard to be emulated. In a sense, the CSCW movement and conferences helped to rehabilitate Doug in the eyes of the research community, even if it did not fully honor his ideas and expectations.

So although Doug Engelbart will always be identified in any publication as “inventor of the mouse” – an invention, incidentally, that netted him precisely nothing, since at the time one could only patent pieces of hardware, not ideas – his true legacy lies in his expanded view of human augmentation through technology but always anchored in human relationships and the context of work. Reviewing his demonstration tapes is a fascinating way to understand how he was thinking, and both how much and how little of his ideas have made it into the mainstream. Doug was one of the very first people to think systematically about technology and work, and I will always be grateful for the time that we shared when we were both out of fashion. The fact that we returned to fashion soon thereafter, at least to some degree, must be credited to the wave of the Zeitgeist. I strongly agree with Bret Victor that we need to go beyond simply appreciating the various new ideas that Doug brought to the table, to consider his vision in totality. Doug would never see the full value of his ideas brought to application, but there is still time, brother.

I’ll have more to say soon about the CSCW movement and what it’s accomplished. I was there at the start in a fairly significant role, and although my level of participation has flagged in recent years, I’ve kept in touch. I have some fairly strong feelings about parts of it; watch this space.