What if we had integrated Douglas Engelbart's insights into the modern Net?

by Andy Oram

Douglas Engelbart, pioneer of the GUI and of computer-supported
cooperative work, has received a couple awards of late. About 35 years
late, in fact. But he hasn't let neglect (and perhaps worse, empty lip
service to his accomplishments) curb his spontaneous love of
exploration. Spending a few minutes with him--at a ceremony
celebrating an
given last Saturday by
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility--convinced
me that he remains an American original with a vast scope of
interests, a bit like Edison or Feynman. I wonder what the modern net
of sensors and cameras and GPS devices and wireless networks would be
like if we had integrated his 1960s-era insights from the start.

I had a chance to tell Engelbart how I had first come across his
reputation and ground-breaking work; it was at a conference about
human communication that I attended in the early 1980s. A keynoter
managed to get his hands on a film of Engelbart's famous 1968
demonstration of computers as augmentations of human intellect, and
showed us five or ten minutes I will never forget.

The part of the demonstration we viewed started with some voice
conversation. Then a piece of paper came up on the screen and some
marks appeared as someone drew on it. More marks appeared as the other
person drew comments on the first one's marks. Then a small video
opened up in one corner and the head of an assistant, looking very
much like a Californian grad student of the 1960s, popped up and
started talking. The merger of voice, video, and whiteboarding was a
creative implementation of the kind of teleconferencing I suggested
recently in my article
A googol of teleconferences.

This demonstration, as I saw it in the early 1980s, blew my mind. That
the demonstration actually took place in 1968 was almost beyond ken.
But that was how ahead of us Engelbart was, and remains,

The 1968 demo reportedly cost $100,000 (which in 1968 dollars is also
nearly beyond ken). The computing world of 2005 has much more of the
infrastructure that could make Engelbart's vision a common experience.

But suppose we had listened to Engelbart back when he began? I can
imagine what would the modern network be like if we had integrated his
humanistic approach to augmenting intellect into technology each step
of the way:

The dignity and capacity of humans would remain central.

Modern sensor systems, such as smart dust and MIT's
Project Oxygen,
scoop up data somewhat indiscriminately, while the projected uses of
this new "Internet of things" suggest computers switching each other
to new tasks without human intervention. It's all kind of scary,
suggesting a world out of our control, a kind of science-fiction
Terminator reign of the machine. (To be fair, the designers of Project
Oxygen claim their mission is to be human-centered.) If we already
had a highly interactive network centered on human interaction, with
people tied closely by wire, we could build the new capabilities
asking at every turn, "How are we enabling people to do more of what
they are best at doing?"

Protocols might be in place for the integration of new instruments.

Click around your computer system--or the web sites of many
organizations, including the internal ones they establish perportedly
to increase the productivity of their employees--and you'll come
across a lot of information with no apparent use. Even the experts
will admit that some of it is pointless. Sensors and other
participants in the Internet of things are likely to suffer from the
same problem. If we had established a human-centered network over the
years, we might know more about what knowledge we need and provide
frameworks for incorporating valuable new devices.

User interfaces would be richer and more subtle.

Right now we're stuck with the legacy of the Bell telephone system and
that of the typewriter, a nineteenth-century mechanical device with a
bias toward the characters of the English language. Had we stressed
communication and the contributions of individuals to each other's
endeavors, we might have a plethora of different ways to react with
the computer by now.

Perhaps we might even have adaptive interfaces, which watch what users
do and change over time to present each user with the functions he or
she is more likely to want. I'd be very reluctant to use an adaptive
interface in our current state of computing, because our knowledge of
human-computer interaction hasn't achieved the sophistication an
adaptive system needs to be productive rather than annoying.

We might have new solutions to the storage and retrieval of massive
amounts of data.

For a long time, the focus of the computer field was on providing
applications. Now we've shifted toward a focus on
services, which are more fine-grained and can be combined in
innovative ways by the users. I tracked this evolution in an article

Applications, User Interfaces, and Servers in the Soup

Each shift in the use of data--as well as the amount collected and
searched--has brought with it sophisticated research into databases
and storage. We're seeing another leap in size and search requirements
as people become used to storing images and videos. The Internet of
sensors will lead perhaps the biggest scaling problem we've ever had.
But a network based on communication might have given us a head start
in understanding and adapting to the onslaught of data.

I think Engelbart's vision involves a move beyond applications and
services to a new focus: support for the most distinctive features of
human intellect, including communication with other people and
devices. Engelbart's vision has remained a beacon for us over the
decades, and I am hopeful that a future decade will instantiate it.