A birthday wish for Doug Engelbart

Today the father of interactive computing, the thinker whom Dr. Janet Murray called, precisely, “the Leonardo of the information age,” is 85 years old. I hope with all my heart that Doug is happy today, that he feels lifted up by the great cloud of witnesses who surround him with love and gratitude for his life and the work he has given to us, and for the future he teaches us to build together.

Everyone who has encountered this giant has a Doug Engelbart story to tell. As a birthday present and a testimony to the effect he has had on my life, I offer here my own Doug Engelbart story, or at least the story to date. For it is one of Doug’s most extraordinary accomplishments that he offers us a continually unfolding set of origins, inspiring continual horizon-work in an ongoing narrative of collaborative building. The capability infrastructure Doug imagines, the “c” process he outlines in his epochal “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” is among many things a story about how to make more complex, participative, and humane narratives for ourselves. With a researcher’s eye and a dancer’s heart, Doug Engelbart tells his own story as one of epiphanies, of flashes of insight, of recursive metacognitive journeys of self-realization that lead not to solipsism but to a just world in which individuals and community, like high-powered electronic aids and the “human feel for a situation,” live and work together in an “integrated domain.” Doug’s conceptual framework is not an endpoint, but a framework for thinking about conceptual frameworks, a complex and exhilarating accomplishment that may have come to Doug himself in flashes but took many years thereafter of patient, doggedly stubborn work to realize within an organization and a set of “tools for thought” (to borrow Howard Rheingold’s lovely phrase). A temporal ventriloquist, Doug threw his voice across decades. In many respects, it is only now that we can begin to hear the magnificence and understand the full implications of the voice that we hear in “The Mother Of All Demos,” the one that asks us how much value interactive computing would have for knowledge workers–a category, we now can dimly begin to understand, that is synonymous with “human beings.”

An organization and a set of tools for thought. Sounds like a place where students won’t “confuse learning with schooling” (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society ). Sounds like a real school.

And the architect of that conceptual framework? Sounds like a real teacher.

Yet I did not encounter Doug Engelbart or his work in any of my own schooling. Although “Augmenting Human Intellect” appeared before I entered first grade, and “The Mother Of All Demos” took place before I entered junior high, not one of my twenty-two years of formal schooling included a word of Doug’s writing or even a passing mention of his name. My own computer romance began to flower in 1988. I was in full-blown geekitude by 1992, when I installed OS/2 2.1 on a machine I bought for my first tenure-track job, a machine with a full eight megabytes of RAM and a crazy-big 200MB hard drive (lol, as the kids say). By 1994 I had an office with a 19.2 kbps connection to the campus network, reading newsgroups and telnetting around the world and downloading files and using PINE on a daily basis. And still Doug had not entered my life. I began to learn about ARPA, I heard about PARC, I was living in San Diego, for crying out loud, looking at the future through the California end of the telescope just before the first dot.com boom, buying and installing my first internal CD-ROM drive (a Mitsumi) and my first 16-bit sound card (not a Soundblaster, but another brand that worked better with OS/2–a Media something that I cannot now recall). I was visiting my colleague Bart Thurber’s house and seeing his work with the “Warsaw 1939” project on the extraordinary NewBook platform, a project in which students could enter an immersive textual world and record, store, and share the traces of their own engagement.

I was living in successive approximations of a universe Doug Engelbart had imagined thirty-two years before, and I had not so much as heard his name. I could have hopped in my car, driven ten hours, and met the man whose work was changing my life daily, filling my mind and heart with the wild surmise of collective intelligence, with a dream of how the world could be. But I had not so much as heard his name.

I look back at that time with mingled awe and frustration–awe at the ways in which Doug’s vision shaped so much of what fired my imagination and inspired my work when I was a young scholar and teacher, and frustration at the years I could have been studying that vision, spreading the news about it, perhaps even interacting with the architect of that conceptual framework himself.

But the frustration did end, and my Engelbart story did at last have a proper beginning, one in which I finally encountered, and thanked, this extraordinary person who wrote my future into being.

Fall, 2004. I was at my desk in the English, Linguistics, and Communication department at the University of Mary Washington, reading through an issue of InfoWorld magazine. InfoWorld was one of the many new reading materials I had added to my intellectual diet  as I began my second year as Assistant Vice-President for Teaching and Learning Technologies at Mary Washington. 2004 was the dawn of Web 2.0. Several crucial events had prepared me for that dawn.  In the fall of 2003, I visited MIT for the first time, during an AAC&U conference on educational technologies. In the winter of 2004 I went to my first National Learning Infrastructure Initiative annual meeting, where I met Bryan Alexander, Brian Lamb, Colleen Carmean, Vicki Suter, Cyprien Lomas, and many, many others whose lives continue to intertwingle with mine in wholly unpredictable ways. (I met Phil Long on a plane back coming back from a conference in Colorado, and I first saw Alan Levine on a webcam feed projected in a conference hall in New Orleans. Crazy world.) I knew I had some learning to do, and fast. My own contrarian naiveté led me not to the edtech literature first, though, but to trade magazines like InfoWorld, where I found writers like Jon Udell (though there’s really no other writer like Jon Udell) who had a peculiarly bracing long view that charged my own imagination in ways that academic discourse sometimes could, but often did not. And in one of those InfoWorld articles, in a sidebar as I recall, I first read the name “Doug Engelbart,” right next to the name “Vannevar Bush,” with citations of both “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” and “As We May Think.” Both titles struck me like thunderbolts. It sounds trite to say they called out to me, but that’s how it felt.

So I put InfoWorld down, moved the mouse that I didn’t yet know Doug invented, interacted with the computer in the familiar way that I didn’t yet know Doug had imagined (well, in a way that was another successive approximation, since even the riches of the Web are not a patch on what Doug imagined), and launched myself into a universe that would change my life.

I read the articles in chronological order. Bush’s “As We May Think” made my head spin. 1945? Was that a misprint? Bush’s vision of the Memex, and especially his idea that we could learn how to record, store, and share our “associative trails” in ways that were modeled on, and in turn amplified, our own mental processes, was exactly what had struck me the first time I saw Bart Thurber’s NewBook project, over a decade before. I was shocked to find what that what I had struggled to articulate for ten years had been described complexly and poignantly in an article published almost sixty years ago, an article I had never heard of.

Then I moved my mouse again, clicked again on a hyperlink, and read the opening of Doug Engelbart’s  “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” By the end of the first paragraph I knew I would never, ever be the same.

By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by “complex situations” we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers–whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

Immediately, T.S. Eliot’s words about John Donne flashed into my mind: “For Donne, a thought was an experience. It modified his sensibility.” Doug Engelbart’s vision of an “integrated domain,” set down forty-two years before that day in 2004, was the vision at the heart of my own passion for literature, for computers, for education. He had given my dreams, in Shakespeare’s words,  “a local habitation and a name.” And he had given me a language with which to share those dreams.

Turning points of this magnitude are rare in one’s intellectual life. I can recall only two or three others of this size, and they occurred much earlier in my journey. Now I had learned that a major part of my own intellectual life had unfolded within a parallel world I scarcely knew existed, that there was a language and a literature for what I had thought were only my own private mutterings and wandering fantasies.

I ran to my boss’s office and told him what I had learned. Chip German was the kind of boss who made you want to do that sort of thing. It didn’t matter that he had more items on his daily to-do list that I would encounter in a month of my own work, or that I was raving about things that he hadn’t yet encountered himself. He always trusted–more than I did myself, to speak the truth–that my excitement was meaningful, and that it would be productive, and that it didn’t matter if what my excitement produced was anything he could imagine or predict. He was that kind of boss. And so the second event in my Doug Engelbart story is that the moment I learned of Doug’s work, I had exactly the colleague I needed to sustain and expand that cognitive explosion.

I began talking about the integrated domain and Doug Engelbart to other colleagues. I found that some of my new mates in the edtech world knew Doug’s work. More conversations blossomed. I started talking about Doug at my staff meetings, visiting my ravings upon the folks who were working for me at the time. Some of them began to talk about Doug themselves. I started reading more and more. Bryan Alexander directed me to Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought, where the chapter on Doug is titled, with uncanny accuracy, “The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Thinker.” I read on. I dreamed on. I began to write about Doug and his vision in this blog, the one I had begun just a couple of months before.

Then, later that fall, podcasting emerged. I looked around for podcasts to listen to. One of the podcasts I found was called “IT Conversations.” These podcasts were full of talk about Web 2.0, about emerging technologies, and about the giants who had written this world into being. When in mid-2005 Doug Kay issued a call for volunteers to do audio post-production, I jumped at the chance. My thirteen years of radio experience got me the gig. I started editing the audio for programs I knew I wanted to know intimately, ones that I’d have burned into my brain after hours of matching levels, editing out ahs and ums, and polishing the audio for maximum impact. I scanned the assignment board for new prospects. One day I saw that a talk by Doug Engelbart was available, I snapped it up immediately.

Human voices are a particularly intense experience for me. To hear the voice behind the written word is especially intense. As I listened to Doug’s voice, I heard a mixture I hadn’t expected and couldn’t have predicted:  Northwestern farm boy, shy geek,  preacher, dreamer, child, sage. I spent hours and hours getting the audio just right, haunted equally by the ideas I was hearing and the power of Doug’s understated yet passionate delivery. When IT Conversations CEO Doug Kay complimented the work I’d done–“nice and tight,” he wrote me in an email–I was thrilled, but not for the reason you might think. I was thrilled because I had, in a way, collaborated on a project with Doug Engelbart himself, though I was literally a silent partner. A stretch to think so, perhaps, but that’s how it felt.

Not long afterward, I got to edit the audio for a twoparter devoted to John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Here I learned even more about the Augmentation Research Center and Doug’s work as its conceptual architect and leader. That work was obviously the stuff of legend. As is often the case with good legends, the story was also fraught. Like any human being, particularly those blessed or cursed with the kind of vision he has, Doug Engelbart is complex and in some respects, it seems, he could be difficult. Yet everyone in that two-parter, from John Markoff to the many computing pioneers who shared the dais with him to respond to his book and offer their own histories and testimonies, returned again and again to the centrality of Doug and ARC. And Doug himself, present in the audience, once again contributed his voice, and just as he had in 1968, he drew an ovation from his colleagues.

The pace of change in my own life was accelerating at this time. Learning from Doug’s work the scale and potential importance of the community of practice I yearned to be a part of, I found myself in the grip of what I felt was a need for haste. I felt a strong sense of urgency and at the same time felt the exhilaration of unfolding marvels before my eyes. And then, early in 2006, driving from my home to my office, I heard the podcast that led to a conversation with Doug himself.

The podcast was the audio from a “Nerd TV” interview with Doug. (Typically and tragically, the author of the website identifies Doug only as  “the inventor of the computer mouse,” when the full truth belies such shallow summaries. Alas.) In the podcast, Doug told the story of the demise of ARC, a story I had read about but one whose poignance emerged only when I heard the tone of Doug’s voice as he told the story himself. In Doug’s story, there was a day in which he was visited by the great J.C.R. Licklider, another genius and visionary, whose “Man-Computer Symbiosis” launched efforts that eventually became the Internet itself. Lick (as he liked to be called) had been struck by Doug’s 1962 essay, and when the time came, he funded Doug’s Augmentation Research Center. (I’m writing all this from memory, so please spot, correct, and forgive any errors here.) With Lick’s funding and support, Doug built out the capability infrastructure for that extraordinary integrated domain he had envisioned in his essay. But by the end, Lick’s vision and Doug’s had diverged pretty dramatically. In the podcast, Doug described the day in which Lick came to his lab, saw a demo of the latest iteration of Doug’s NLS (oNLine System), and completely rejected what he saw. Here’s an excerpt from the interview transcript (I’ve done some light editing for clarity):

So [Lick] came out to see us at SRI, my big brother. It was just great to see him and so we sat together; I was in the conference room and he was there and I was starting telling him about drawing on the board and telling him, so I just got telling him about this great thing how the application support team had worked so well and I turned around and looked at him and he was sitting there, just looking like this [gives an unhappy look].

I said, “Lick, what’s the matter?”

“You just told me your system’s no damn good,” [he replied].

[He was] just dead serious.  I said, “Well, what do you mean?”

“If it was any damn good, the computer system itself would know what the people need to learn and teach them; you wouldn’t need any of these damn kids out there teaching them. That just tells me your system’s no damn good.” And he was unshakable in this – his belief in artificial intelligence stuff.

Two roads diverged. Markoff writes of the split between proponents of Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Intellect. It seems that Lick came to Doug’s lab expecting the first kind of AI, Artificial Intelligence, and what he saw was Augmented Intellect.

Not long after, Doug lost his funding.

The whole story is much more complex, and those complexities are analyzed with depth and precision in Bootstrapping. There were many other factors in play, certainly. But as Doug told the story of that moment with Licklider, I heard not so much bitterness as a kind of plaintiveness, a sense that he himself had failed to understand how or why he had disappointed his mentor–or, as he called him, his older brother. In that moment, I heard in Doug’s voice many years of bewilderment and longing. By his own testimony, Doug has often wondered if he simply lacks the skills to put across his own ideas in the context of boardrooms, bean counters, and bureaucracy–or even in the context of fellow computer scientists. Lick was no bureaucrat and no bean counter–he was a famously disorganized manager–but the problem was the same: how to put across a powerful idea when the conceptual frameworks are so different, even at odds?

The podcast came to an end. By this time, I’d arrived at school and parked my car in front of the building where my office was. I listened to the closing moments of the interview, and heard Doug say, with that same plaintiveness and longing, that he was still working on his ideas and still hoped he could find people to talk to about them. As I listened, I found that I had begun to cry.

I had no illusions that I’d be able to be in conversation with this great thinker in any way that would measure up to his expectations or answer any of the hope or longing in his voice, but I knew what I could do. I could contact him and thank him. I could tell him that one more person had been transformed and inspired by his work, and that I had met others who felt exactly the same way. I suppose I wanted, perhaps foolishly, to assure him he wasn’t alone–foolishly, because the kind of loneliness that long-distance thinking inspires is not the kind of loneliness that a single phone call from an obscure English professor can touch or even begin to address. But looking back on it now, I also realize that I wanted to tell him something even more complex, something I could tell him, something I felt a strong ethical and personal obligation to tell him.

I wanted to tell Doug Engelbart that in this computer romance, in this strange parallel universe of longing and dreams built on a platform of ones and zeroes,  a universe (or a university) in which we could record, store, access, and share the traces of our own engagement, he had taught me that I was not alone.

I ran up to my office and called the number on the Bootstrap.org site, the site where I’d first read Doug’s work. A recording of a woman’s voice–I still don’t know who it was–played on the answering machine and invited me to leave a message. I left what must have been a truly strange and semi-coherent message of gratitude and a pledge that I would do whatever I could to further this vision within education. I left my telephone number. Then I hung up the phone and went to a department meeting.

When I returned from the meeting, I was weary. It was six o’clock. Time to go home.

The phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number on the caller ID. Maybe it was a vendor. Maybe it was a wrong number. Maybe I should just go home. The caller could leave a voice mail and I could call back.

I hesitated. Then I answered the phone.


“Hello, may I speak with Gardner Campbell?”

“This is he. How can I help you?”

“This is Doug Engelbart. You left a message on my answering machine.”

What followed was an hour-long conversation. I feared I might hyperventilate, so I periodically grabbed the desk with one hand. He immediately told me to call him Doug, not Dr. Engelbart. (“I’m just a northwestern farm boy,” he said.) I asked about augmentation, about symbolism, about metalanguages, about collective IQ. Doug talked about scale, about the eternal paradox of people who didn’t ride tricycles to work but thought all computing should be just that stable, simple, and unthinking. I told Doug I worked in education and desperately wanted to do something to bring his vision into that realm. He told me about Valerie Landau’s work, and about EdNIC (Educational Networked Improvement Communities)–and later, Doug wrote an email to me and Valerie as an e-introduction, signing it, as is his wont, “Appreciatively, Doug.” I told him I would love to be in conversation with him in any way he’d find helpful. He replied that he often had trouble even remembering what day it was, so he didn’t know how much conversation he had in him. (I didn’t understand the full import of what he was saying until I learned later that he was probably experiencing the early stages of the Alzheimer’s Disease he would be diagnosed with in 2007.)

Then came the moment the conversation should end. I didn’t want to hang up, of course. I wanted to stay on the line–online–with Doug Engelbart forever. In just that hour of conversation I had learned a staggering amount from the complex voice of that long-distance thinker, especially about how much more there was to learn. Yet I was not fearful or anxious in that moment. I think now I felt no fear because Doug’s voice and manner clearly demonstrated that he thought of the challenge, its scope and scale and disappointments and triumphs, as a series of adventures. Expeditions. The eye of an engineer and the heart of a dancer.

I groped for the words I wanted to say. Finally I said, “I just need to tell you that you have changed my life, and very much for the better. Your vision and your work are of crucial importance to me, every day, in all I do. I hope I’m not sounding too strange or putting you off in any way by saying so.”

He replied, “No, it’s very nice to hear, though I can’t quite grok it.”

I drew in a breath and said, “Thank you for all of it.”

He responded, “You’re welcome. Now go change the world.”

Nearly four years later, my Doug Engelbart story continues. In late 2008 I met him face to face, at the Program for the Future. He signed my copy of the book Valerie and Eileen Clegg had just published. I heard testimony after testimony from extraordinary, distinguished speakers to the power and enduring importance of Doug’s accomplishments and vision. I saw Alan Kay (who deserves a post of his own on his next birthday) embrace Doug Engelbart on the stage of a conference room in Adobe’s San Jose headquarters. I rose with the hundreds of others attending the program at Stanford University honoring the 40th anniversary of Doug’s “Mother Of All Demos,” giving Doug a prolonged standing ovation to give thanks for his life and work. Then in 2009 I saw Doug again, this time on the occasion of his being named a Fellow of the New Media Consortium. Here I met his daughter, Christina Engelbart, whose leadership of the Doug Engelbart Institute continues the work her father began, and who has been just as deeply generous and encouraging to me and my students as her father was in that surprise telephone call to an office in Fredericksburg, Virginia nearly four years ago.

So here’s the timeline.

2004, I learn who Doug Engelbart is, and begin to read his work.

2005, I hear his voice.

2006, I speak with him.

2008, I meet him face to face.

2009, I meet Christina Engelbart, and the conversation continues.

Five years. Another education for me. Another commencement.

“You’re welcome. Now go change the world.”

Happy birthday.

Alan Kay and Doug Engelbart, Adobe corporate headquarters, San Jose, California, December 8, 2008. cc licensed flickr photo shared by jeanbaptisteparis

EDIT: You can wish Doug a happy birthday on a special Posterous site, here. And when you do, spend a moment reading what other people have said. The mix of family, friends, and colleagues from many years and many projects is a powerful demonstration of the connections we can make–and witness–in the age of social media Doug helped to create. And the sentiments people express are deeply moving. They testify to the capability infrastructure Doug exemplifies and inspires others to make for themselves.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Gardo

4 thoughts on “A birthday wish for Doug Engelbart

  1. Thanks, Gardner, for introducing me to the world of interactive computing, to the works of Doug Engelbart, and now to his birthday. We miss you here. Thanks for writing a great piece or us, too! Love from Va.

  2. Pingback: Your birthday is a present to all of us! | Doug Engelbart Birthday Greetings

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