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Capability Infrastructure (According to Doug Engelbart)

Last updated on October 17, 2018

A short post about the Capability Infrastructure and the importance and relevancy of the technological / knowledge environments in addition to tools and human systems:  

The capabilities Doug Engelbart was aiming to augment would allow us to: 

    • Approach urgent, complex problems in order to
    • gain more rapid and better comprehension to
    • result in speedier and better solutions,
    • collectively.

These capabilities could not simply be built and let be, they would need to improve continuously as our understanding of the capabilities and problems evolve. 


We can think of capabilities as the result of what the tools allow, based on what the knowledge environment provides, exercised by a human being driven by curiosities with are either constrained by or augmented by prior understanding of the problem, the tools and the knowledge environment. 

  • What the tools allow. This is basic tool use, what we think of when we think of a tool.
  • What the knowledge environment provides. A digital environment can artificially constrain the tool use through lack of connective possibilities (such as prohibiting links inside books) and interactions (frozen PDFs for example).
  • Exercised by a human being driven by curiosities with are either constrained by or augmented by prior understanding of the problem, the tools and the knowledge environment.

Grasp #

In order to address the issue of speed and quality of comprehension we need look no further than a toddler (my son Edgar is 1 year and 1 day old today, so he is very much on my mind!), who is trying to understand something. In order to ‘get’ something he will try to ‘grasp’ it and ‘interact’ with it. This tangible interaction is to many degrees lost when we interact with our knowledge on flat, grey rectangles. Early interactions which were common in pre-digital form have been lost, such as the ability to annotate anything and to tear up and re-order our documents and to put different pieces of information on our desks and walls to really ‘expand’ our ‘view’ of the information.  

Digital Potential#

Digital information has the potential to make our interactions with the information much more fluid but so far the primary digital-native capabilities we have are the undo button and copy/cut-paste (via an invisible clipboard) and the rapid access of linked or keyword-searched whole documents. What we do not have, which would provide rich new capabilities to allow us to look at the problem information, contextual and potential improvement information, is the ability to interact with the information in fast and flexible ways–akin to racing down a hill on skis. This is something which the tool building relies on the environment to enable.  


In order to build power-tools for the mind, we need to make the environment support such power tools. This means we need to make it possible to point, to grab/grasp, manipulate, change how we view and how we share information. Much of this are issues of networks, document formats and cultural, legal and commercial artificial constraints.  

Racing Bikes#

We cannot afford to only build tricycles anymore. We must build bikes to win races, we must build racing bikes and this requires the information ‘rider’ to learn how to take both legs of the ground and learn to move at high speed through a complex environment, learning all the about the bike, it’s pros and cons, as well as learn about the environment being ridden on. At pit-stops, the rider needs to report back to the bicycle engineers what worked and what didn’t, in terms of navigation, accuracy and speed, and also listen to the engineers ideas of how experiment with the bike.

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