And now for something completely different. In the Mother of All Demos (MoAD), Douglas Engelbart demonstrated the NLS (“oN Line System”) to 1,000 computer professionals in San Francisco’s Convention Center. Arguably, Engelbart’s demo was more important than anything else going on in San Francisco in 1968. Here’s the video:
Now, the demo is one hour and forty minutes long, so unless you’re a geek or you love the history of technology, this probably isn’t the video for your morning coffee. But if you take a few minutes to skip through it, you will see the first demonstrations of:
- The mouse
- The cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor (what we all used before flat screens, if you can imagine such a thing)
- The graphical user interface (GUI) with windows (as opposed to the previous state of the art, the teletype)
- The word processor (with cut, copy, and paste)
- The outliner
- Computer generated slides
- Hypertext with clickable links
- More abstractly, “the file,” with file name, creation date, and creator, with navigation through a hierarchy of files
- And Herman Miller office furniture!
And much, much more. To me, the MoAD is an astonishing moment in time. These days, we revere Steve Jobs for his presentation skills and trade show demos, his aesthetic sense, and his executive skills, but compared to Engelbart, and his team with their Mission Control ties and haircuts, isn’t Jobs a rather trivial figure? After all, when the history is written, who will be found to have had the more powerful reality distortion field? Jobs or Englebart?
However, this isn’t a history, even a potted one, of the work Engelbart and his team did at the Stanford Research Institute‘s Augmentation Center (you could start here). Or a history of computers. Rather, I’d like to share a few reflections that seeing MoAD conjured up for me.
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The MoAD took place in 1968. Simplifying the family tree, the NLS begat Xerox PARC’s Alto, in 1975. Alto (more or less) begat the Apple Lisa (1983) and the Apple Macintosh (1984), where the GUI with a full-fledged WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing device) had its first mass-market commercial success. Microsoft Windows followed at a later date. Excel followed much later, and much later than that, we had finance types crashing the world economy using Excel spreadsheets neither they, nor anyone else, could understand. But I digress.
My point is that 1984 – 1968 = 16 years. That’s the time it took for the technology that Engelbart demonstrated to be adapted successfully for commercialization in the mass market. And 2013 – 1968 = 45 years. That’s the time that Engelbart’s vision — or, at least, a version of it — has, more or less unchanged, dominated the way that humans interact with computing machinery. We think of computers and the computer industry as evolving very rapidly, and being very dynamic, but are they not, in reality, remarkably static? To put this another way, I’ve been living in Doug Engelbart’s world for almost all my adult life. (I bought my first Macintosh, a 512KE, in 1986.) And so have many of you….
* * *
My Mac 512KE totally empowered me (“augmented” me, as Engelbart would say) as a human being, at least after I managed to install more memory (it wasn’t easy) and got a Bernoulli drive (300 megabytes of storage, as I recall). The Mac was absurdly easy to set up, far easier than, say, model trains: I lifted it out of the packaging, set it down on my desk, plugged it in, and there was the soon-to-be familiar Happy Mac face. Then the screen saver kicked in — some sort of dark, oscillating, sine-wave pattern — and it then took me many hours to figure that that to make the screen saver go away and get to “the desktop” I had to move the mouse….
Anyhow, being “augmented.” I come from a literary background, and through most of my life up to that point I had been attempting to write… Something. Something worth reading. On several typewriters, through an IBM Selectric Composer that actually justified type (with fonts, dammit)… But I was never able to complete anything. Not anything. I’d start strong, and get part away along, and then start polishing, and never find my way through the borking paths to a conclusion. (The thought of using index cards did not occur to me).
Enter the outliner! One of the features of Engelbart’s NLS. For the first time, I could write down my thoughts as they came to me, and then drag-and-drop them into the order I wanted. There was no cost, no friction to writing: No paper, no platen, no crumpling and throwing away…. And because there was no cost, I didn’t have to self-censor; I could throw out an idea, develop it, or just throw it away. Learning to use that simple outliner — Acta; I’m using its descendant, Opal, right now — was one of the most freeing and joyous experiences of life. (Okay, okay….) I wrote an article (for my computer user group) in a few hours. Then I wrote another one! (Of course, later Microsoft came in and killed the entire product category with the hideously clunky and ludicrously inferior outline mode in Word, but that’s another story.) To quote Ursula LeGuin’s Genry Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness, the goal of Englebart’s vision was “the augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life,” and that goal was achieved for me.
* * *
Finally, and however, this. (Amazingly, a transcript for MoAD was put up on Github just this month). Toward the end, Engelbart says:
[ENGELBART: Anyway, one of the interesting things that NLS does, just . So on these statements, uh … on everything, every statement that you write it keeps track of who you are and when you did it.
Um. To be fair, “online” to Engelbart doesn’t mean “on the Internet,” as it would to you or me today; toward the end of MoAD, Engelbart mentions an “experimental network” that he hopes will be able to “transmit across the country” in the following year; that’s ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet.
Nevertheless, it’s a bit saddening that the technology that has brought me such a sense of power and joy has also enabled a digital version of the Stasi, and that this possibility, too, was implicit in “augmentation” from the very beginning. I wonder what Engelbart thinks about that?
Readers? What do you think?