Two birthdays, an anniversary, and a brief lament

First, the birthdays.

Happy birthday to the author I’ve studied and delighted over for the last thirty-three years: John Milton, born 1608.

John Milton, busted.

I never imagined I’d spend my life reading and thinking and writing about this writer. Just goes to show. (Show what? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.)

Happy birthday wishes also go out to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL, a fountain of wit and wisdom, and a pioneering genius of computer science. I first learned about Admiral Hopper from Dr. David Evans’ Udacity course CS101. (Yes, Udacity. It just goes to show.) Dr. Evans linked to her famous interview with David Letterman, and I was an instant fan.

“Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960.” From Wikipedia.

The anniversary: 45 years ago today, Dr. Douglas Engelbart sat on a stage in San Francisco and, according to one awestruck observer, “dealt lightning with both hands.” The event has come to be known as “the mother of all demos.” There’s a very nice remembrance of Doug and his demo in The Atlantic today. I know there’s also a memorial happening right about now in San Jose, as his daughter Christina and many of Doug’s family, friends, and admirers are gathered to remember the demo and Doug, who passed away this year on July 5.

I talked to Doug for about an hour, back in 2006. I met him and shook his hand in 2008 on the night before the 40th anniversary of the mother of all demos. I am humbled to be working with Christina on a project for this summer and beyond. I am so very grateful to be linked in spirit and work with Doug’s vision. When there are dark or confusing days, I try to remember how lucky I am to have found that vision, and to have thanked that visionary, while he was still with us.

Here’s the first part of the mother of all demos:

And here’s a version my wonderful student Phillip Heinrich did for a final project in my second-ever “Introduction to New Media Studies” class, what eventually became “From Memex To YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet” (and will have another morphing this summer at VCU and worldwide–watch this space):

Phillip’s work is a conceptual mashup of Doug’s demo and Michael Wesch’s “The Machine Is Us/ing Us.” Even four years later, Phillip’s work still dazzles. Apparently Doug himself saw it at one point, which makes me very joyful.


I write these words from a hotel room in Atlanta, where I’m attending the annual meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. I’ve heard some inspiring speakers and learned a great deal about more of the vast machinery of higher education. At the same time, I’ve seen many folks whose eyes are on fire with a passionate devotion to learning and teaching. I honor them, and salute their survival despite the vast machinery that exists, in part and sometimes ironically, to support them and their vocations.

The lament is for the ways in which the notion of “technology” that surrounds me here is untouched by the vision of either Grace Hopper or Doug Engelbart. When I hear a presenter say that a survey couldn’t include questions about “technology” as part of its core because “technology changes so rapidly,” I groan inwardly. In addition to the (typically) underthought use of the word “technology,” the speaker obviously has confused computing devices with computing. In the latter sense, “technology” has not changed substantially since the introduction of networked, interactive, personal computing, with the possible exception of mobile computing. But the confusion here keeps “technology” questions in a different survey “module,” and keeps educators from learning or even asking what they don’t know. (And eventually we all suffer.)

Similarly, when I hear another presenter say “we didn’t know technology would eliminate jobs the way it has,” then offer a list of “technology improvements” for the organization that include new computers and monitors, new office software, etc., I have to gnash my teeth (quietly, but still). How can we be in 2013 and still be so far removed from even the outer edges of the bright light shed by the visions of Hopper and Engelbart, among many others? How can we call ourselves educators and be content not only to remain in darkness, but to spread it through inaction and (I’m sorry, but it must be said) ignorance?

More than once at this conference I’ve heard presenters talk about “technology” in the same breath that they lament how old they are and how strange youth culture seems to them. Sometimes the lament is mingled with a little of that “kids, get off my lawn” curmudgeonliness. We all get to be a little prickly as we age, I guess, but methinks we do protest too much. Doug Engelbart and Grace Hopper didn’t surrender their visions as age overtook them. We do ourselves and our students no good service to remain in the shallows we have created for ourselves, the shallows we continue to excuse and extend. As Janet Murray writes, “When will we recognize the gift for what it is…?” Or as Doug Engelbart asked on that San Francisco stage forty-five years ago today:

If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?

Both Murray’s and Engelbart’s questions remain unanswered, and that itself is worth lamenting. The real grief comes, for me, because the questions are almost never asked, even among those who pride themselves on the arts of inquiry.

A sad case, but there is still hope. My students have taught me that.

4 thoughts on “Two birthdays, an anniversary, and a brief lament

  1. That’s an amazing presentation by Douglas Engelbart. No doubt, in another 45 years, Steve Jobs’ impressive demos will have take taken a similar patina and sense of mystery and magic (due to the aura of the presenter as much as the technology). Both were trailblazers. The development and popularisation of the personal computer was certainly a significant event. “How much value”, indeed! The avalanche of data led Vannevar Bush to imagine the Memex in 1945, but it could be argued now that a single operator at a console cannot be expected to deal with the volume and complexity of the ever-changing streams of data racing through innumerable firehoses these days, no matter how intelligent the individual or how powerful and responsive the computer. Connecting large numbers of users and processors in order to enable collaborative (or, as some would have it, collective) effort may be the subject of the next “Mother of All Demos”. Maybe that demo is being delivered right now, live, as it is constantly remixed by the many millions of participating “presenters” and viewers. Perhaps we will be able to look back in another 45 years and find out.

  2. ” How can we call ourselves educators and be content not only to remain in darkness, but to spread it through inaction and (I’m sorry, but it must be said) ignorance?”

    “We do ourselves and our students no good service to remain in the shallows we have created for ourselves, the shallows we continue to excuse and extend.”
    Indeed.

    Such a curious experience to see your twitter comments with this particular hashtag this week….evincing for me a even more curious intersection of those with vision (YOU) and ‘the machinery’. I wish I could put it into words better. Words fail.

    But, I am so happy to see that ‘bright light’ of yours still coming through here. Lately the machinery part for me is feeling a little like the Matrix….red or blue? Is there really any point to trying to be enlightened/help others become enlightened? Why not just put your head down and keep quiet and let the machine take control?

    Hmmm….posts just like this one….there is still hope. At least I think there is. I want to believe there is. Please keep writing. I should do the same.

  3. Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
    [Takes a bite of steak]
    Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.
    http://goo.gl/gqNq8j

  4. I work at a Jesuit college and part of the Jesuit mission is to offer a transformational learning experience, but this is not unlike missions at other institutions. I once taught, myself, but I now teach teachers to teach online. My role requires me to be open, deeply researched, and experimental so that my faculty can be the same. I see these traits as being directly linked to delivering a transformational learning experience. Great post!

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