Skip to content

Tag: Doug Engelbart

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


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”



Thank you Ed

When my former university professor and mentor Ed Leahy discussed the importance of GPS in relation to knowledge work in group chats with people discussing Doug Engelbart’s work I really didn’t understand the relevance to something physical and something purely information based.

Since Ed is someone I greatly respect but this sounded very odd, I had to have a few rounds of thinking about it. The first relevance became work on notion of a time browser and then I kind of forgot about it.

Recently though, the notion of a symbol space has become important in my work and the notion of addressing has become front and centre. This is from Doug’s notions of high-resolution addressing and linking but I think that I also owe a debt of gratitude from Ed and his insistence of the importance of addressing  :-)

Leave a Comment

Summary of Doug’s call for Improving How We Improve

Summary of Doug’s call for Improving How We Improve, edited into lists from the original keynote address, using only Doug Engelbart’s original words: 

IMPROVING OUR ABILITY TO IMPROVE:  A CALL FOR INVESTMENT IN A NEW FUTUREDouglas C. Engelbart The Bootstrap Alliance April 23, 2002 (AUGMENT,133320,) 


A Level#

A level activities are the organization’s primary activities, such as marketing, sales, accounting, research etc. 

B Level#

    • B level investments are predictable.
    • B level investments have specific objectives and tend to proceed in a straight line from specification to final delivery.
    • Typical approach is narrowing the problem in order to make it more tractable.

C Level#

At the C level we are trying to understand how improvement really happens, so that we can improve our ability to improve. 

    • Different groups exploring different paths to the same goal constantly exchange information about what they are learning.
    • The dialog between the people working toward pursuit of the goal is often just as important as the end result of the research. Often, it is what the team learns in the course of the exploration that ultimately opens up breakthrough results.
    • Context is tremendously important, breakthroughs come from taking on an even bigger problem, moving up a level of abstraction, to look at the more general case.

The teams working at the C-level are working in parallel, sharing information with each other, and also tying what they find to external factors and bigger problems. Put more simply, C-level work requires investment integration – a concerted effort to tie the pieces together. 

That is, by the way, the reason that the teams that I was leading at SRI were developing ways to connect information with hyperlinks, and doing this more than two decades before it was happening on the web. Hyperlinks were quite literally a critical part of our ability to keep track of what we were doing. 

Thinking back to our research at SRI leads me to another key feature of development work at the C level:  You have to apply what you discover. That is the way that you reach out and snatch a bit of the future and bring it back to the present:  You grab it and use it: Application of the knowledge that is gained, as a way of not only testing it, but also as a way to understand its nature and its ability to support improvement. 


As a mnemonic device to help pull together these key features of the C-level process, you can take “Concurrent Development,” “Integration,” and “Application of Knowledge” and put them together in the term “CoDIAK.” For me, this invented word has become my shorthand for the most important characteristics of the C-level discovery activity. The CoDIAK process builds on continuous, dynamic integration of information so that the members of the improvement team can learn from each other and move forward. 

Pursuit of CoDIAK requires, in itself, some technical infrastructure  to support the concurrent development and continual integration of dialog, external information, and new knowledge. If this sounds somewhat recursive to you, like the snake renewing itself by swallowing its own tail, be assured that the recursion is not an accident. As I just said, one of the key principles in CoDIAK is the application and use of what you learn. That recursive, reflective application gets going right at the outset.  


One of the most important things that we need is a place to keep and share the information that we collect – the dialog, the external information, the things that we learn. I call this the “Dynamic Knowledge Repository,” or DKR. It is more than a database, and more than a simple collection of Internet web sites.  

It doesn’t have to be all in one place – it can certainly be distributed across the different people and organizations that are collaborating on improving improvement – but it does need to be accessible to everyone – for reading, for writing, and for making new connections. 

The DKR is a wonderful example of the kind of investment that you can start making at the C level, with modest means, that will pay dividends back as it moves up the line to the B and the A levels.  

You start small, and keep leveraging what you know at each stage to solve a bigger and bigger problem. 

This is precisely the kind of outcome that can come from investment in building a DKR at the C level. What you learn there can be used to improve work at the C level, which in turn improves ability at the B level, which then translates into new capability at the primary, A level of the organization. 


Another key, early investment is in the development of tools to provide access to the knowledge in the DKR for all classes of users, from beginners to professional knowledge workers expecting high performance. This “hyperscope” – that is my term for it – allows everyone to contribute and use the information in the DKR according to his or her ability.  

ViewSpecs #

Tied to the hyperscope is the ability to provide different views of the knowledge in the DKR – and I do mean “views” – stressing the “visual” sense of the term.  

Moving away from words on a page, we need to be able to analyze an argument – or the results of a meeting – visually. We need to move beyond understanding the computer as some kind of fancy printing machine and begin to use it to analyze and manipulate the symbolic content of our work, extending our own capabilities.  

The Capability Infrastructure#

The Capability Infrastructure combines inputs from both the tool system and the human system.  

  • The tool system is the contribution from the computer, provides access to different media, gives us different ways to portray information, and so on.
  • The human system brings its rich store of paradigms, information captured in customs, and so on.

Augmentation Systems#

The human system, as the part of this framework that is best at learning, also brings the opportunity to develop new skills, benefit from training, and to assimilate and create new knowledge. These dynamic elements are the “magic dust” that makes the whole system capable of innovation and of solving complex problems.  

High-Bandwidth Symbol Manipulation#

These valuable, dynamic, human inputs must of course come into the system through the human’s motor and perceptual capabilities. If this interface is low-bandwidth and able to pass only a small amount of what the human knows and can do – and what the machine can portray – then the entire system tends to be more “automation” than “augmentation,” since the computer and the human are being kept apart by this low-fidelity, limited interface.  

If, on the other hand, this interface can operate at high speed and capture great nuance – perhaps even extending to changes in facial expression, heart rate, or fine motor responses, then we greatly increase the potential to integrate the human capabilities directly into the overall system, which means that we can then feed them back, amplify them, and use them. 

The key to building a more powerful capability infrastructure lies in expanding the channels and modes of communication – not simplifying them. If we begin to act on this notion of our relation, as humans, to these amazing machines that we have created, we really begin to open up new opportunities for growth and problem solving. 

My sense is that computer science has brought us a gift of great power, the ability to amplify and extend our ability to manipulate symbols. 

It seems to me that the established sources of power and wealth understand, in some dim way, that the new power that the computer has brought from the heavens is dangerous to the existing structure of ownership and wealth in that, like fire, it has the power to transform and to make things new. 

We need to become better at being humans. Learning to use symbols and knowledge in new ways, across groups, across cultures, is a powerful, valuable, and very human goal. And it is also one that is obtainable, if we only begin to open our minds to full, complete use of computers to augment our most human of capabilities.