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A note on Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart, the man who pretty much invented personal computing, including the mouse and most of what we do on the screen, said the following in a speech in 2002:

“The thing that amazed me–even humbled me–about the digital computer when I first encountered it over fifty years ago–was that, in the computer, I saw that we have a tool that does not just move earth or bend steel, but we have a tool that actually can manipulate symbols and, even more importantly, portray symbols in new ways, so that we can interact with them and learn. We have a tool that radically extends our capabilities in the very area that makes us most human, and most powerful.There is a native American myth about the coyote, a native dog of the American prairies–how the coyote incurred the wrath of the gods by bringing fire down from heaven for the use of mankind, making man more powerful than the gods ever intended. My sense is that computer science has brought us a gift of even greater power, the ability to amplify and extend our ability to manipulate symbols…. 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.”

Doug’s life goal can be summarised easily but because it can be summarised easily people seem to second guess it or not look at it head on, I don’t know. I do know that he was upset that in the early years he sought support and only rarely got it and then he got wildly successful with his demo and that little rodent and when he received awards he just wanted to say to people: But you still don’t get it.

Doug wanted to work on augmenting how we work together to solve urgent, complex problems. And since he was a radar engineer in world war 2 he thought we could put a radar screen in front of a computer and display symbols, particularly text, interactively.

That’s it. Much would flow from this, based on his analysis of augmentation infrastructures and ABC levels of activities, how we should build Networked Improvement Communities and much, much more. His goal obvious, his philosophy intricate. His goal overlapped mine, like a blanket overlaps handkerchief, much bigger but the same goal, the same direction. So he became my mentor. It took me a long time to get a handle on the specifics of his philosophy but we had a same goal so that was what mattered.

Published inThoughts

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