Of mice, men and machines

Doug Engelbart invented the mouse -- and much more. He still dreams of upgrading the human operating system.

Published December 15, 1998 1:11PM (EST)

"What's that?" I ask, pointing to an unfamiliar device positioned to the left of Doug Engelbart's computer keyboard. The size of two decks of playing cards placed side by side, the gadget features five piano-organ style keys that Engelbart's long fingers are familiarly tapping.

The 73-year-old man glances up at me, his eyes lighting up for the first time during our interview. "That's the future!" he exclaims.

The future -- and the past. Engelbart explains that the seeming musical instrument is a "chordal keyboard," something he and his legendary team of
computer researchers invented more than 30 years ago. Designed to be used in conjunction with the mouse, which Engelbart's team also invented, the chordal keyboard allows users to type all the letters of the alphabet with just one hand. With both a mouse and a chordal keyboard, a computer user can navigate an information landscape by pointing and clicking and simultaneously entering text commands.

In contrast to the mouse, the chordal keyboard never quite caught on with the general public; learning the various key combinations that generate different letters proved too great an obstacle. But that doesn't bother Engelbart. Much more worrisome is the widespread failure to recognize that neither the keyboard nor the mouse nor any of the other innovations cooked up by Engelbart's team -- little things like multiple windows on a computer screen or hypertext links -- are interesting in and of themselves.

Their true significance, he believes, is that they are elements of a system designed to cope with the problem of the world's increasing complexity. That system is what Engelbart refers to when he invokes "the future" -- and it is a future nearly as far away now as it was in 1951, when Engelbart first began strategizing the best way to boost human capabilities.

Two weeks after our first meeting, Engelbart was honored by his peers and admirers at an all-day event at Stanford University dubbed "Engelbart's Unfinished Revolution." The event commemorated the 30th anniversary of the day Engelbart and his team stunned the computing elite with their blueprint for "the future." A parade of computing industry heroes lauded Engelbart's achievements, and the 1500-strong audience brought him close to tears with an emotional standing ovation.

The recognition was long overdue. Engelbart is a leading torchbearer for the dream that computers can help change the world for the better. In today's Silicon Valley, so obsessed by stock-option plans and corporate exit strategies, by e-commerce and the latest, greatest microprocessor chip, it is easy to forget the powerful humanist impulses that have propelled the computer's evolution. Engelbart is the living embodiment of that humanism -- that rare computer scientist who thinks about people first.

In video clips of the original 1968 demonstration, Engelbart looks like an early prototype for science fiction's cyborg man-machine. He wears a head-mounted microphone and rests one hand on the mouse and the other on the chordal keyboard as he steers through layers of code and text. He is handsome, with deep-set eyes, a kind smile and a gentle, relaxed voice. But behind the gentleness lurks the steeliness of a visionary who will not be denied.

Thirty years later, his hair is whiter, his hands a bit less steady. But his voice is just as gentle. Squirreled away in an office provided by Logitech, he now spends his 12-hour work days running the Bootstrap Institute, a nonprofit organization that strives to apply the principles that guided his work in the computer realm on a larger, social scale.

Engelbart's 1951 epiphany focused on a basic predicament -- his perception that the world's complexity was increasing at a faster rate than humanity's ability to cope. The computer, he decided, offered the best chance to "augment" human intelligence as a defensive measure. In opposition to the artificial-intelligence researchers clustered at MIT, Engelbart never cared particularly about making machines smarter -- his dream has always been to give us a wisdom upgrade.

Back in the late '50s, Engelbart's strategy was simple: He obtained government grant money at the Stanford Research Institute, assembled an astonishingly talented group of young researchers and, for the better part of a decade, spawned a stunning array of hardware and software breakthroughs. Thirty years later, at the Bootstrap Institute, his time is spent applying the same principles he developed with respect to computers in the social domain. The goal is identical: to pump up what Engelbart calls our "collective IQ." If we don't get smarter at learning how to cooperatively approach problem-solving on personal, corporate and society-wide levels, Engelbart is convinced that we could face social disaster -- economic dislocation and war.

Engelbart did not lightly choose the word "bootstrap" to describe his philosophical approach. Common to both SRI in the '60s and the Bootstrap Institute in the '90s is the assumption that the key to progress is constantly improving not just the tools we use, but our own improvement processes as well. If we self-consciously focus on permanently upgrading our ability to upgrade ourselves, our potential for success will be unlimited.

At SRI, the researchers implemented this philosophy in practical terms. First they invented new tools, then they used those tools to invent new tools and so on. So, for example, they developed shared-screen teleconferencing over computers to help them conduct more efficient meetings in which to plan their next step. They pioneered the use of online "journals" in which notes the researchers took were merged into a
collectively built information structure -- the results of which are still visible at the Bootstrap Institute Web site.

Successful bootstrapping implies a constant acceleration -- the better your tools, the more productively you work and the better tools you then create. But Engelbart's ultimate goal wasn't simply the creation of more dazzling equipment -- he aimed to apply the bootstrapping principle to human society.

He hasn't been as successful as he hoped. Humans, it turns out, are a lot harder to upgrade than machines. And corporations are proving particularly resistant to the kinds of cooperative ventures that Engelbart envisions as the first steps toward boosting an organization's collective IQ.

When I press Engelbart on this point, his answers are weak on the details. When I ask him to give an example of a corporation that is actually implementing bootstrap-style self-improvement processes, he can't think of a single one. But he does have some recommendations. Corporations working in the same market niche should band together to create pilot projects -- "outposts in the future" -- that will allow high-performance teams to experiment with different ways to get bootstrapping processes started.

Engelbart's few critics suggest that his main failing is naiveté -- he underestimates the free market's mandate of ruthless competition. Engelbart's overly idealistic outlook, they suggest, is one reason he floundered in the corporate environments he found himself in after his computer lab lost its government funding.

Looking out the window from Engelbart's office in Fremont, just across San Francisco Bay from the offices of corporations like Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics, one is inclined to agree. It does seem that Engelbart underplays the difficulties inherent in convincing capitalist enterprises to join together and hold hands. Perhaps in Japan, where the Bootstrap Institute has just founded a new chapter, societal mores may more readily support collective approaches to problem solving. On the surface, at least, Wall Street is less welcoming.

But the free market isn't the only place to look for Engelbartian fulfillment. The emerging cooperative culture of the Web deeply excites Engelbart. He has increasingly been fascinated by the rise of the open-source movement. The fact that distributed collectives of programmers
are collaborating to create incredibly advanced and complicated software -- and that the process appears to be accelerating over time -- suggests to him that his bootstrapping principles may finally be taking off in a context larger than that of a single laboratory or research center.

Engelbart is no newcomer to the Net. His laboratory at SRI was the second node hooked up to the ARPANet network -- the predecessor to the
Internet. His research group's specialization in coordinating work over networks made it the obvious choice to serve as the first "Network Information Center" -- the clearinghouse for organizing access to the network's resources. He's been watching the Net ever since. Engelbart's group, after all, pioneered the deployment of hyperlinked media, and the Web is little more than the most popular realization of that goal.

It's not perfect, though. One of Engelbart's goals has always been to structure links between information that remain permanent over time -- the idea being that information architectures will evolve into steadily more useful forms, but nothing will ever be lost or fade into irrelevance.

Meanwhile, vast stretches of the Web disappear constantly -- there are few things less permanent than a Web address. And while it is all too easy to throw your own document up on the Web, it's much more difficult to collaborate with others on extending and improving those documents.

But the Web is still a good first step, even if we have a long, long way to go. Engelbart isn't satisfied, but he's also not as frustrated as he once was. At a reception held after the close of the conference that honored him last week, I approached Engelbart as he sat signing huge posters of himself for an unending stream of fans. I knew he had been nervous over how the day would go -- he had feared he wouldn't have enough
time to properly explain himself, and he worried that the illustrious cavalcade of speakers who had come to honor him would go off on their own tangents. But he was smiling now.

"After all those dark and lonely years," said Engelbart, "where I really wondered what I was doing -- if anyone was hearing what I was saying -- to have something like this happen is wonderful. I could go another 50 years."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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