The Loneliness of a Long Distance Thinker

Doug Engelbart, 2003

I’ve always been haunted by the title Howard Rheingold used for his chapter on Doug Engelbart in his epochal Tools for Thought. Doug was still active in 1985, when the first edition of Rheingold’s book was published. He was traveling and speaking and working with undiminished vigor to share his vision of the augmentation of human intellect. He spoke to corporations. He spoke to academics. He spoke to groups of those who’d joined him in pioneering the digital age in which the rise of networked, interactive computing had permanently altered our culture. Yet even in the videos from the 1980’s and 1990’s, there’s a deep loneliness visible in Doug’s eyes. He was not alone in his disappointment with the commodified computer culture that sprang up in those decades. Visionaries like Alan Kay also voiced their deep dissatisfaction.  Yet something about Doug’s eyes seems different to me. Lonelier, and looking at a greater distance. Is it the distance between his original vision and what we’ve accomplished–or not–so far? Is it the distance between now and a future he wants to help build?

I’m sure Doug continued to take pleasure in his work. He must have been especially joyful when his daughter Christina joined him and helped to bring the Doug Engelbart Institute (initially called the “Bootstrap Institute”) into being. And as the years went by, his extraordinary work became more widely recognized, both within and without the computer community. In 1997, he won the Turing Award, the signal honor bestowed by the Association for Computing Machinery. He was cited “For an inspiring vision of the future of interactive computing and the invention of key technologies to help realize this vision.” In 2000, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, “the highest honor for technological achievement bestowed by the President of the United States on America’s leading innovators.” He received rapturous welcomes not only from his contemporaries but from the younger men and women who, often through books like Tools For Thought as well as the many writings on Doug’s website, had come to realize the enormous, revolutionary power of Doug’s vision and innovation.

You can hear that welcome in two IT Conversations podcasts: “Large-Scale Collective IQ” from “Accelerating Change 2004,” and his impromptu contributions to the panel discussion led by John Markoff on the publication of Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said. You can hear a similarly rapturous ovation from the audience at the 2008 celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Mother of All Demos.

I was the post-production audio engineer for the IT Conversations podcasts. I spent many hours getting the levels just right, editing out the pauses and throat-clearings, trying to craft an experience for the listener that would convey the full impact of Doug’s extraordinary vision. It was a vision I had first encountered only a few months before, a vision that literally changed my life.  All the while, though, in my headphones and in the waveforms before me on the computer screen Doug had helped to bring into being, I could sense that loneliness, perhaps born of what seemed to be Doug’s continuing amazement that the implications of scale and ubiquity in the computer age he saw so clearly would be so difficult and elusive for so many others to see. This was not arrogance on Doug’s part. It was humility. I truly believe Doug thinks that his own understanding is not so exalted or unapproachable that it cannot be shared. On the contrary, I think he believes his “conceptual framework” can be readily grasped and acted upon. At the same time, the years demonstrate that Doug was rare, perhaps even unique in his ability to imagine and build both the platform for augmentation and the processes that could be used for bootstrapping ourselves into ever-evolving, ever-ascending levels of augmentation.

Indeed, how he could have seen this vision in the 1950s and worked for years on its full articulation, with the 1962 framework as its crowning glory, is not so easily grasped.

I’ve written about Doug and his conceptual framework several times in this space, and I’ve not yet begun to scratch the surface. Reading through “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” once again in preparation for last week’s New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar at Virginia Tech (a session I led rather badly, I’m afraid—very frustrating for me, as I’m sure it was for the seminar), I was once again astonished at the breadth and depth of Doug’s vision. From oscilloscopes to the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis of linguistic representation is a long reach indeed, but Doug was onto something that far outstripped even J.C.R. Licklider’s vision of man-machine symbiosis. I found myself wanting to offer a commentary, an analysis, something that would help me explore and share its complexities more fully. I hope in the months ahead to do this. I begin here by sharing my recording of the last two sections of Doug’s masterwork, “Summary” and “Conclusions.”

At the end of it all, though, I still sense that loneliness, as if something nearly incommunicable had presented itself to Doug with the intensity and urgency of a revelation. The long distance his thought traversed is difficult to take in. The automated symbol manipulation he envisioned has entered our culture, not exactly in the manner Doug had imagined, but I believe at least some of the outlines of his vision have been realized in the work of people like Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. These folks lead and think at scale. I wonder if Doug would have been less lonely had he done his greatest work at the turn of the century, rather than when he did. And yet it may also be that loneliness was somehow his destiny, and that only a risky, enormously singular vision such as his, emerging at a time of great unrest and even greater social ambition, could have intervened so brilliantly in the course of human affairs. Perhaps such a time will come again, and another lonely long distance thinker will appear. I must hope so.

Once again I find it almost impossible to convey the poignant depth of my gratitude, Doug. Once again I can only say, “thank you.” I’ll keep working on that assignment you gave me back in 2006, one you’ve given to all of us with whom you’ve shared your time and vision: “now, go change the world.”


9 thoughts on “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Thinker

  1. As always, a post par excellence! But tell me, how is that a professor of English omits a crucial “by” in the first line of his post ;). Then again, who am I to point that out when I don’t blog as much as, or with the eloquence, that you do. Miss you Gardo!

  2. And through the wonders of the world Doug Engelbart helped to bring into being, I’ve made the correction. 🙂 As for how a professor of English could make such a mistake, well, that’s a secret I share with only a few….

    Miss you too, Vidya! Seems like that “nightcap” podcast was forever ago.

  3. My mind is whirling (as your posts typically do to me…). Coupled your thoughts with reflections this week of the impact of Steve Jobs on higher education and the world. Between the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, a networked and nuanced world is emerging (or one could argue that the gates are already open), and one wonders why its impact is not felt more in the halls of academia. Keep pushing and prodding, Gardo, for you do push that change!

  4. Gardner…your writing takes me back to the roots…only to surface hours later. It is an amazing service…Thank you!!

  5. Gardner, the connection you draw between long-distance thinking and loneliness has stuck in my head. Is loneliness a prerequisite to long-distance thinking? Or does it come with it? Does long-distance thinking involve “out-of-body” experiences of sorts that allow one a view of the world from heights and angles not accessible to others? I often think of visionary people like Engelbart as central nodes in our societal fabric. But maybe they are not. Maybe they are more like loose threads, partly attached and partly detached, with one end in our day-to-day world and the other, in a place of high vision and eternal loneliness.

  6. Die Aussage ,Es schneit’ ist wahr dann und nur dann wenn es schneit – Tarsky
    I feel D Engelbart is a philosopher who has the model( augmentation) and strategy(ABC/nic framework model) to make his philosophy implemented in our daily life. His model and philosophy in my experience is very much appropriate to bring a unity of the now connected world.

  7. Pingback: Accelerating Augmentation | Gardner Writes

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