NMC 2009 Closing Plenary: Dreams About How The World Could Be

Now comes the valedictory moment, the climax and the moment I’ve been dreading, too. I’m lousy at goodbyes. I feel the dark pull of leavetaking long before I rationally should. The “sense of an ending,” as Frank Kermode argues, can lend shape and meaning to the arc of a narrative. For me, that’s certainly part of the experience. But the sense of an ending also makes me mournful, both because it means saying goodbye to some dear, inspiring friends, and because I can’t help thinking that another week, another month, another year together could provide the breakthroughs we all seek. The sense of expectancy, of sheer possibility generated at a meeting like this make me so hopeful that we can be a force for positive change, that we can reach the transformative moment. That we can bootstrap ourselves into a better world.

Larry’s taking his leave by talking about what inspires us, what makes us proud. He’s getting ready to present NMC’s annual Centers of Excellence awards to three highly deserving schools. Just ahead of me on a darkened stage left sits Doug Engelbart, a thinker and human being whose vision has shaped more of our information age than any other single person’s. There sits a man who has inspired me as much as John Milton has. (That’s saying something–I call my friends to bear me witness.) Doug is watching full-screen, full-motion video projected on a large central screen. The man who in 1968 sat on a stage and projected the images of his vision and his team’s accomplishments–and in the words of one observer “dealt lightning with both hands”—is watching a video of Abiliene Christian University’s iPhone mobile learning project.

Abilene Christian University Center of Excellence Award

In 1962, Doug Engelbart, the father of interactive computing, published a seminal essay called “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” The essay impressed one J.C.R. Licklider, the father of the Internet, who set Doug up with a research lab that would help bring the information age into being. Today, forty-seven years later, Doug listens as the team from Abilene Christian University talks about students having computers in their pockets that connect them to a universe of invention, innovation, and conversation, a universe that manifests the collective intelligence he’s devoted his life to describing and encouraging and empowering. My heart is full beyond the telling. The question he asked all those years ago at the Mother of All Demos is being answered. We’re answering it. What value could we derive in partnership with a computer that is always on, always connected to information, always connecting us to each other?

Doug, this is the value we can derive. This is the value you have empowered us to imagine and recognize. This is the value your life and work embody for our world. I am grateful beyond measure.

Now the Berkeley Center for Digital Storytelling is honored for helping us “understand what it means to be human,” in Larry Johnson’s apt words. The CDS’s work has inspired people around the world to share their stories and “lend their minds out to help each other,” as the poet Robert Browning wrote. We’re hearing one of those storytellers right now. She’s musing aloud about a time and place “where fists of fear don’t fly”–voices imagining and yearning for that better world. The voices and the images that illuminate their breath. Listening deeply and speaking our stories. Stories that unite us even as they portray the bleak and destructive differences that divide us–the fists of fear that do fly, that insist only a few voices can speak and only a few should be heard.

But there are alternatives. Instead of shouting and creating divisions, we share ourselves into being. With technologies–interventions in the natural and cultural world–that belong to us. “It’s not like talking about it–it’s like going into it.” See E.P. Thompson on the seven-year arc of an idea–an inspiration for Joe Lambert. Joe notes that in many ways YouTube is the triumph of digital storytelling, so now we must renew our efforts and refocus our attention to find even more innovative ways to inject meaning into our stories.

I thought the emotions were running high before. What did I know? These stories wring the heart and lift up the soul.

Joe Lambert, Center for Digital Storytelling

“Inside each one of our hearts is a life-changing narrative…. We have a responsibility for getting those stories out of ourselves and into the world.” Joe Lambert, Executive Director, Center for Digital Storytelling, Berkeley University.

And still Doug looks on, taking it in, watching and listening to the stories of a world in which we still try to bootstrap ourselves into community and innovation. Stories of a world he helped us create, and inspires us to re-create, co-create.

Now the Open University of Catalonia, the first institution outside North America to receive a “Center of Excellence” award, and a testimony to the growing global context in which the NMC does its work. (To take but one example: the Horizon Project–click here for the 2009 report, and please comment–continues to be shared with the world, and has been translated into Spanish and now Catalan.) The UOC has 47,000 students around the world. Their openness has extended over their 15-year life, from open to students to open to the world. “Our difference is the name … we are open to develop, to create content, and we are open to collaborate,” says the director of their Learning Technologies Center. Again I am struck by how Doug’s pioneering work in the augmentation of human intellect by means of collective intelligence and bootstrapping methodologies has blossomed in extraordinary, often unexpected ways.


As we continue, quite rightly, to identify and even to rail against what’s breaking and broken in our schools, it is good also to see and remember what school at its best can be, and is: a means of augmenting human intellect, a place for bootstrapping, a place for hearts and minds to work and play together. School’s not the only place that happens. But it can happen there, and I want to help make it happen there–to preserve the fragile magic that rests upon a flawed but vital infrastructure.

Now Larry Johnson has begun the tribute to Doug Engelbart. His testimony moves me deeply. He plays excerpts from a videotaped interview he did with Doug about ten years ago. As always, the clarity and poetry of Doug’s vision take my breath away.

I’ve got to stop typing now.

NMC Fellow Dr. Douglas Engelbart

The rest here is from memory, as I was too overcome with emotion on that morning to write another word as the tributes rang out.

Lev Gonick, VP for Information Technology Services at Case Western Reserve University, and Kristina Woolsey, NMC Fellow and head of Woolsey & Associates, lead Doug onto the stage. The room is instantly on its feet, applauding and cheering. How many times does one get to thank, face to face, the inventor and visionary who has made a new vocation possible? For the work we do is a vocation, a calling, and we hear the voice of that calling through the stubborn insistence of this man’s efforts.

Doug was called many names during his years leading the Augmentation Research Center. Some were flattering, but many were not. He was thought by many to be (not to put too fine a point upon it) off his rocker. One early colleague warned him quite explicitly not to share his vision with anyone else lest he be fired or completely marginalized. This we know from the awed testimony of his colleagues’ speeches at last December’s celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Mother of All Demos. Those colleagues testified to the awe they continue to feel of Doug and his achievements. They are awed by Doug’s persistence, awed by how wrong his critics were, awed to know and to have worked with someone who despite “the loneliness of the long-distance thinker,” as Howard Rheingold so aptly put it in Tools for Thought, fought through the isolation and misunderstanding and, yes, at times even antagonism and hostility, to keep his vision alive and aloft.

The ovation continues as Lev and Kristina and Doug settle into their chairs at center stage. Finally, the applause subsides, and Lev and Kristina begin to speak. They speak of Doug’s accomplishments. They recall what it was like to discover Doug’s writings, many years into their own careers, and to read their futures in the work of his heart, hands, and mind. Lev and Kristina help us understand the scale and significance of Doug’s vision. They look at him with affection, with respect. With wonder.

Several times Doug covers his face in genuine humility. Can he be the person they’re describing? Certainly he did not do his work alone. But of all the great seers and doers of the nascent information age, Doug’s achievement is the most singular, the most to be driven by a single imagination. And yet his imagination was never the point. Always, the goal was to enable us to identify, harness, and raise our collective IQ. The idea was to augment human intellects one by one, but by means of a fine tracing of mental and spiritual connections from which would emerge a true “capability infrastructure” to prepare us for the dangers, questions, and opportunities we would encounter as civilization continues to develop.

Doug thought at scale. He understood that a car is not simply a faster tricycle. He had faith that an augmented intellect, joined to millions of other augmented intellects, could clarify individual thought even as it empowered vast new modes of thinking, new modes of complex understanding that could grasp intricately meaningful symbols as quickly and comprehensively as we can recognize a loved one’s face. For Doug, computers are the tools we have invented in our quest for a new language, even a meta-language. A manner of speaking that can move us through the enmiring complexities of our shared lives and dreams, and thus help us to use those complex lives and dreams wisely instead of being their puppets or victims.

Lev has spoken; Kristina has spoken. Now it’s Doug’s turn.

Doug accepts his NMC Fellows Award with these words:

Well this is, you know, a trite thing to say, “I’m overwhelmed,” but I sit here just feeling overwhelmed. You know, I wasn’t doing all of those things in order to sit here and get something like this. It’s been so many years … and I still have dreams about how the world could be … anyway, I appreciate this very much, so thank you, thank you.

Tribute to Doug Engelbart

Afterward, these photographs:

NMC Fellows

The four NMC Fellows: (l-r) Ted Kahn, Doug Engelbart, Kristina Woolsey, Carl Berger.

Christina and Doug Engelbart

Christina Engelbart, Director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, and her father, Doug Engelbart

Christina and Doug Engelbart

A family triumph

4 thoughts on “NMC 2009 Closing Plenary: Dreams About How The World Could Be

  1. In recent decades, the opportunity to link the heart-warming to the important has seemed rare, and the important felt cold and hope-starved. The past year, however, suggests that the important can also be tied to the best of us. There seems no better evidence of that than this notion of celebrating the positive vision of Doug Engelbart. No one can deny its importance (now as then) and no one can diminish the hope and warmth that infuses that vision with such power. That he accepts such celebration with grace and humility just makes it better.

  2. Thanks Gardner, this was very enjoyable to read. It took me back to my early days in the late 70’s deploying technology on my campus. Having lived through the days of Engelbart’s inventions the only thing I can think to add to this wonderful post is how uncertain most of us were about the things he (and others) saw so clearly. Things like hypertext, or even the mouse were not immediately embraced by us educators. In fact, there was a fair amount of criticism and uncertainty about these technologies.

  3. @Chip Precisely and inspiringly so. Doug’s flame burns brightly and I’m honored to carry it forward with you and our many fellow travelers. Hope is what we have; hope is what we are.

    @Jim Indeed, and that’s a cautionary tale for all of us. In some ways, little has changed. At the same time, your comment is also weirdly encouraging. Many nights as I try to drop off to sleep, mind abuzz with doubts and hesitations about the effectiveness or even the worth of our efforts, I think of Doug’s example and how difficult these struggles always are. I’m very grateful Doug has lived to see the way his ideas have come to life, but he’s absolutely right–we need to keep dreaming, and at the same time realize how much farther we have to go.

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