A few words on Doug Engelbart

July 8, 2013 at 1:05 am 2 comments

Doug Engelbart, visionary whose inventions led to the modern mouse, hypertext, computer-supported collaborative work, died on July 2 at age 88.  Bret Victor wrote a wonderful piece about how statements about Doug’s inventions (like I just made) miss the point about what he was really trying to do.  Recommended, and linked below.

If you truly want to understand NLS, you have to forget today. Forget everything you think you know about computers. Forget that you think you know what a computer is. Go back to 1962. And then read his intent.

The least important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What did he build?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to admire him, to stand in awe of his achievements, to worship him as a hero. But worship isn’t useful to anyone. Not you, not him.

The most important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What world was he trying to create?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to create that world yourself.

via A few words on Doug Engelbart.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  July 8, 2013 at 2:49 am

    Bret really gets it.

    For the rest of the world, putting low-pass common-sense filters on the ideas of a real genius results at best in “reinventing the flat-tire” and as is most usual today, reinventing the horse and buggy, or perhaps worn out sandals.

  • 2. Mark Miller  |  July 8, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    When Victor gets into talking about comparisons of today’s technology to Engelbart’s, the most striking description to me was about screen sharing. I haven’t used that technology in a several years, but I just assumed that multiple mouse pointers were used with it when used collaboratively. He says no. People today just use a single mouse pointer. I agree. That’s a crude hack, and a dumbing down of the idea.

    Engelbart succinctly addressed this all those years ago when he said, “We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations.”

    I remember seeing demonstrations of collaborative workspace technology for PCs back in the late 1990s that was organized just a bit like NLS. Collaborators did not work remotely, but multiple keyboards, screens, and mice were either hooked into the same machine, or PCs were linked together in a LAN, and each participant had their own mouse pointer and cursor on the shared workspace. It made sense. I just assumed that had been carried forward.

    Insofar as Victor addresses dumbed down versions of good ideas, and how we tend to accept their crippled nature as “the same thing,” I’m in total agreement with him. I also agree very much with his point about “forget today.” I guess what he’s saying is it would be better to understand Engelbart’s intent and then try to think of some ways to implement it in a way that’s at least as powerful as what he came up with, as opposed to admiring his technical accomplishment. I agree that we should not be in the business of building temples to past sages. However, I’m not at a point yet where I can say, “Don’t look at his technology.” As I’ve heard Alan say on one occasion, it wouldn’t hurt to “reinvent the wheel,” since it would at least be better than the “flat tire” we’ve been creating. In that vein, I think Victor makes some harsh and somewhat unwarranted judgments about people who focus on the technology, such as when people use terms like “hyperlink.” He assumes that anyone who would do so is strictly using a “present” sense of it, and that all it conjures is admiration and hero worship. This is not true of everybody. A few, like myself, have at least looked a bit at what Engelbart meant by “link,” and see it as something that can be thought about, mainly something to aspire to, since it’s not in common use, and it maintains its power, in light of what’s present. I *do* appreciate what Engelbart created, but I don’t want to stop with that.


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