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Tag: Doug Engelbart

Joe & Sally

The XEROX PARC chapter of personal computing explicitly changed the user from Doug Engelbart’s high-performance knowledge worker to the secretary, whom they called ‘Sally’.

As Alan Kay pointed out, and which Doug illustrated in his seminal ’62 paper with the user ‘Joe’, Doug was trying to make a violin but not everyone wants to play a violin. Today we have the Mac and Windows with their point-and-click ease and limitations, with scarcely an innovation in the last few decades worth mentioning.

This distinction was of course never in black and white and today the average computer user is much more experienced than in earlier decades and of course it is important to provide an entry to a user with a learning curve which is not too steep.

When Doug made the Keynote Address at the World Library Summit 2002 in Singapore, he pointed out that we have made ‘truly tremendous progress’ in using computer systems to help us solve problems. He continues:

But that is not what I am going to talk to you about. Not out of lack of appreciation – even a sense of wonder – over what computer technologists have developed – but because I can see that we are not yet really making good progress toward realizing the really substantial payoff that is possible. That payoff will come when we make better use of computers to bring communities of people together and to augment the very human skills that people bring to bear on difficult problems.
Engelbart, 2018

He clearly presented what he saw as the goal; ‘to get the significant payoff from using computers to augment what people can do’:

Furthermore, Doug discussed the “seductive, destructive appeal of ‘ease of use’ – A second powerful, systematic bias that leads computing technology development away from grappling with serious issues of collaboration – the kind of thing, for example, that would really make a difference to disaster response organizations – is the belief that “ease of use” is somehow equated with better products. Going back to my tricycle/bicycle analogy, it is clear that for an unskilled user, the tricycle is much easier to use. But, as we know, the payoff from investing in learning to ride on two wheels is enormous. We seem to lose sight of this very basic distinction between “ease of use” and “performance” when we evaluate computing systems.”

Sally is now well served by the software community’s continual, gradual improvements. Let’s give Joe another shot, let’s build knowledge work systems like bikes with rockets attached.

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Capability Infrastructure (According to Doug Engelbart)

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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Dynamic Views [Research Proposal]

The project is to build and research

Whether accessed through a conversation between two or more people, or via pencil and paper, spoken AI, AR, VR or a futuristic Direct Brain Connection , the information we need to interact with in order to solve problems needs to have some sort of symbolic representation for us to be able to access, view, interact and share it; Without a symbolic representation we have no way to grasp the information – no way to get a handle on it – and no way to develop our perspectives.

The development of such symbolic representations must then surely be a core aspect of knowledge work to develop for.

Of the senses available to us, vision affords by far the greatest bandwidth between external symbol representations and our prefrontal cortex where we do our higher level thinking:

We perceive about 12 million bits/second
(10 million from vision, 1 million from touch, and the rest scattered among the other senses).
16 bits per second is the bandwidth of consciousness.
Symbols are the Trojan horses by which we smuggle bits into our consciousness.

Norretranders, 1999

This is why I am working on researching Dynamic Views for my PhD, with the goal of having something solid to demo on the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s Great Demo.

Text. Expanded

Text interaction is a natural candidate to consider augmenting because of it’s long and rich history. Text has been put to use on various aspects of thought augmentation for millennia – the three and a half thousand year investment our species has made in the written word has produced a powerful recording and thinking system. However, thus far, there has been extensive research on reading and writing, concept mapping and outlining, hypertext including spatial hypertext as well as layouts and typography, but the research has been on the different issues in isolation because before interactive computers enabled the development of digital symbol manipulation, these aspects were indeed isolated.

Workflow Integration

The research proposal does not aim to build a free-standing test system but to be integrated into real-world workflows and as such it is integrated into a word processing workflow:

The Project: Dynamic View

The research project is around the notion of a ‘Dynamic View’ which is an interactive concept-map-like view of a word processing document. This Dynamic View can be instantly toggled in and out of from the word processing view when the user collapses the document through a pinch gesture on a trackpad, leaving only the headings of the document visible, creating a free-form thinking space with the headings as nodes. From this grows specific research questions, including:

• What can and should visual lines represent?
• How can and should nodes be represented?
• How can text not present on the screen be interacted with, including keywords, citations and links?
• What will be the most useful options for generating visual connections and layouts?
• How can such rich documents, with so much inherent meta-data work within the Socratic Publishing mode to provide the basis for a DKR?

A description and visual mock-up introduction to the Dynamic View is available here:

To host the Dynamic View functionality I have developed (designed and project managed, not coded, I am not a programmer) a word processor for macOS which is available on the macOS App Store called Author, in reference and homage to Doug’s Augment system:

Aim & Timeline

The research will first be focused on building a flexible interaction space in Author where experiments in interactions and visual styles can be carried out, with the aim of producing a shipping version 1.0 to demonstrate on the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s great demo, if it is good enough at that point, along with a community of other project. I am passionate about having something to show on that day which will truly honour him.

The community I am working on to realise this vision includes Ted Nelson (coined the term hypertext), Ward Cunningham (inventor of wikis), Bruce Horn (coded the first Macintosh Finder), and Adam Cheyer (of Siri fame). They have invented many parts of the wheel of this great puzzle for which I am grateful and I will continue to have regular, recorded dialog with them as a part of my annual Future of Text Symposium which I co-host with Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet, who has also been a substantial backer of the Author project.


The initial interactions which I have been able to dream up (‘being a dreamer is hard work!’ Doug once said to me) will simply be project managing a software project but once the basic pieces are in operation, which is expected to be done by Easter. Once this is done, more advanced notions can be tested – notions which rely heavily on immediate interactions and not pre-thought scenarios, where the smoothness of the flow becomes paramount and we will then hopefully research and invent a new medium. This will be in a manner of how one still image after another, once they are shown fast enough, at least 24 images a second, goes from being a static image and transforms into the new media of the moving image –what can advanced non-linear text interactions become?

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