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Symposium Intro (draft) Post, 31 May, 17:48

Last updated on October 9, 2018


Today we will celebrate a great man and his great vision.

To do that, we will look back at Doug’s epiphany–what got him started down this road to begin with. We will then look at his seminal 1962 paper ‘Augmenting Human Intellect’ where his framework was first presented to the world. A few decades later he would have something tangible to show the world and this would become known as the Mother of All Demos and this demo is the fulcrum around which today revolves.

We will take a deep dive into some of the specific augmentations he invented and look at his notion of capability infrastructures and of course we will revel in the impact his work has had on all our lives.

However, those are the incredible artifacts which we now take for granted–apart from the ones we actually don’t have anymore and which are potentially hugely powerful. Still, these are only the artifacts. To look where the great man was going it’s not enough to look at his footsteps, we need to try to look through his eyes and this is where something much more powerful emerges.

You see, Doug did not take ownership of solutions or specific ways of doing things, he took ownership of problems and that leads to a very different set of priorities.

Doug was not interested in ease of use. He was also not interested in making computers more powerful. The way he looked at the world was deceptively simple: he wanted to invest his career for the benefit of mankind. He spent a lot of time looking at big ways to do this and having read a book on computers and having served as a radar technician in world war two, it came to him: We can use the computer to augment our intellect!

[the following would be on the wall now, and read out]


We need to augment

our collective (local, global etc.)

capability to approach urgent, complex problems

in order to

gain more rapid and better comprehension (which can be defined as more thorough and more critical) …

to result in speedier and better solutions. (more contextual, longer lasting, cheaper, more equitable etc.)

Furthermore, we must improve our improvement process. (as individuals and groups)




His goal was to support organisations of people operating at a high performance  –  and Doug saw the layers of this:

• For him, the work of an organisation could be called the A level of work, such as making products, selling them and so on.

• B level is improving the A level work, by introducing a new email system or starting a new trading program. This is how much of the world operates; an organisation does A level work and then they purchase ‘upgrades’ of some sort or develop some themselves, based on clear needs.

This however, only gives us linear progress to solve problems we understand well enough to out in a box and write a spec sheet for. And make no mistake, B level improvements for the A level work is crucial and should continue.

However, the screen on the Apple Watch (forget smart phones or tablets) uses more memory to display a single image than all the working memory of NLS in the 60s. This is significant because we have had incredible improvements in computer games–think of asteroids vs Battlefield V and visualisations in music and movies, but we have had nothing near the same rate of improvement with knowledge work systems.

When I asked an early question when thinking about today; “What can it mean to augment human intellect in the 21st Century?”, the co-inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, asked me right back; “could we even resurrect the capabilities he demonstrated back then?”

Why did Doug manage to invent such powerful systems to augment the way we think and collaborate? Why have we been stuck with programs like Microsoft Word with the myriad of entry-level buttons to click when he was quite literally flying through cyberspace in the 60s? There are many ways to approach this question and issues of commercialisation and educating the market and so on can come into it but today we will look at one very important aspect:

The C level of work, the systemic effort to improve the improvement is largely missing and THIS is the key.

I am a software developer myself and there are many features Doug invented and which I have been inspired by him that I want to implement and that’s fine, but that will only get us so far–that is looking at the great man’s footprints.

To really move our organisations, and ideally, all of society to a higher level of performance, we need to think–and invest–bigger than that. We must actively support pioneering efforts to improve improvement, otherwise we will have no hope at all at building systems, and by systems I really mean systems; people collaborating in person and through powerfully networked computers, which will keep up with the increasing complexity which the digital environment itself is brining about.

We can jokingly call the C level the ‘sea’ level since we either sink in the deluge of digital crud or we dive in and increase our performance to a high degree, something only investing in the foundational C level activities will help us achieve.

Today’s symposium is in the tradition of the annual Future of Text symposium where we meet to discuss the potential futures of the written word. It is nice, but it is but a snowflake on the mountain of the effort we need to make happen. Later today Christina Engelbart will talk about more of the mountain of effort she is doing at the Engelbart Institute and we sincerely hope that you will leave today some new information but more than that, we hope you will leave with inspiration to work together at the core issues of not just improving an aspect of how we work together to solve problems, but how we can re-frame improvement at a massive scale.

There is a lot of unknowns at the C level, from psychology and physiology to information science and the dynamics of groups and information systems which can benefit from huge investments, which if undertaken, could truly lead us into a new age of enlightenment where fake news and information overload becomes as insignificant as it should be.

While we stand by and watch, fake news, some of which is weaponised, and masses and masses of information crucial to our personal careers and that of our organisations escapes and we what is touted as the answer to many is not augmented intellect, IA, but AI, artificial intelligence. We need to be honest about whether we want the computer systems to think of us or whether we want to also think for ourselves, and if so, how we can work together to explore deep ways of improving how we actually collaborate. Do you think the big tech companies want to sell us the sugar pill of basic quick fixes or work to truly augment the performance of networked teams? We can leave it to the commercial markets and politicians to have our best interests in mind. Or, and this is truly your choice: This is something you can take ownership of, just like Doug did.

“Do Like Doug; Dedicate yourself to Depth not just Dollars”


Published inDougDemo@50Why?


  1. Hi Frode,

    As a university project, I build an application that will “reverse engineer” Hungarian laws and display their internal and external interconnection, allow to browse it, etc. We plan to publish it (I need credits for my PhD) so I will write an article and presentation about the data structure, features and development experience.

    I also have the more abstract research about science, literature, the lesson of Bush/Licklider/Kay/Jobs/Zuckerberg path, the fundamental difference between automata and the Turing Machine (my latest finding). It could be quite dense in 10 minutes…

    Can any of that fit to the Future of Text Symposium?

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