I was asked to give a toast in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of The Mother of All Demos so I spent some time reflecting on Engelbart's work.
Most of the commentary on his work is focused on the technical achievements and the impressive feats of engineering that's genuinely 50 years ahead of its time. Just this week we, at Repl.it, we introduced Multiplayer -- the ability to code together with anyone in the world -- and although we have the benefits of modern tooling and infrastructure it was still hard work
A more interesting question to ask would be: "What's Douglas Englebart's generation function?" In other words, what ideas, themes, and philosophies that have inspired his groundbreaking work?
I didn't have much time to work with, so I had to go mostly of off memory -- this question requires a more in-depth examination. However, I've identified three themes that are worth studying.
Computers as mind extenders
Engelbart and his contemporaries saw computers as first and foremost tools for mind extension. Something we can use to augment our intellect to take on more and do more.
"By augmenting human intellect we mean increasing the capability of man to approach complex problem situation to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean mixture of the following: more rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining useful degree of comprehension in situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble." -- Augmenting Human Intellect
This sits in stark contrast to today's computers as the driver for the attention economy. Where computers as seen as entertainment devices at best. A more cynical reading of the way governments and ad-based businesses use computers would lead you to believe they're devices of control.
To understand Engelbart it's important to not view him as a lone inventor genius a la Tesla that predicted what computers could do 50 years ahead of his time. In his own words you can see that they took a much more exciting approach to discovery:
"We're pursuing this monstrous goal by building and trying empirically -- we approach evolutionary-wise because we feel it's a whole system problem [...] it's much more than these computer tools"
"Bootstrapping" is another recurring theme in Engelbart's work. I think of it as "increasing returns":
- You build tools, and then the tools you built helps you create better tools.
- Tools make you smarter, and you make better tools that make you smarter... ad nauseam.
- Tools increase productivity which makes us wealthier which in turn allows us to invest in more and better tools.
It's worth noting that what seemed to drive Engelbart was his concern for the unique challenges an exponentially changing world brings. He believed that "boosting Collective IQ" is imperative for the flourishing of humanity.
In Silicon Valley, at least in my circles, there's a general feeling that we need to return to the thinking of computers as "bicycles for the mind." And I hope we do.
Thanks to Figma and Dylan Field for inviting me to reflect on this awesome day.