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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Doug’s Daring Demonstration

Even in the mid-1960s the computer industry could not really wrap its head around Engelbart’s ideas, because they could not conceive of people interacting with computers in the way Engelbart imagined. Thus, in 1968, in an effort to show the computer world the reality of his dream, Engelbart demonstrated the capabilities of his new system, by taking a “test flight” in what has since become affectionately known as “the Mother of all Demos.”  A film was made of this demonstration and can be viewed on the Internet (Engelbart, 1968)

Engelbart staked his reputation and his life’s work on a “demonstration so daring and direct that finally, after all these years, computer scientists would understand and embrace that vital clue that had eluded them for so long” (Rheingold, 1985, p. 188).  After the demonstration, Engelbart and his colleagues received a standing ovation, something rarely done in that milieu. 

The demonstration used state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment from around the world, and the presentation team included Stewart Brand who had previously produced “mind altering multi-media shows” known as “Acid Tests” (Rheingold, 1985, p. 188).  During the two hour long demonstration, Doug took his audience on a flight through information space, from his computer console. which was hooked up to a large screen behind him, so that the audience could view what was on Engellbart's display screen.  Engelbart's console was equipped with now familiar objects, most of which at that time were cutting edge: the display screen, the five key chord keyboard, a standard keyboard, and the mouse.  On the display screen were a number of windows that Engelbart could switch between at will as he demonstrated different things.  Rheingold (1985) poetically describes the demonstration:

Imagine that you are in a new kind of vehicle with virtually unlimited range in both time and space.  In this vehicle is a magic window that enables you to choose from a very large range of possible views and to rapidly filter a vast field of possibilities—from the microscopic to the galactic, from a certain word in a certain book in a certain library, to a summary of an entire field of knowledge.  The territory you see through the augmented window . . . is an informationscape in which the features are words, numbers, graphs, images, concepts, paragraphs, arguments, relationships, formulas, diagrams, proofs, bodies of literature and schools of criticism.  The effect is dizzying at first.  In Doug’s words, all of our old habits of organizing information are “blasted open” by exposure to a system modeled, not on pencils and printing presses, but on the way the human mind processes information . . . . Even the chewing-gum-and-baling-wire version Doug was attempting to get off the ground in 1968 had the ability to impose new structures on what you could see through its windows.  The symbolic domain, from minutiae to the grandest features, could be rearranged at will by the informationaut, who watched through his window while he navigated his vehicle and the audience witnessed it all on the big screen.  Informational features were reordered, juxtaposed, deleted, nested, linked, chained, subdivided, inserted, revised, referenced, expanded, summarized—all with fingertip commands.  A document could be called up in its entirety, or the view could be restricted to only the first line or the first word of each paragraph, or the first paragraph of each page . . . . Doug moved his audience’s attention through the outline by the way he manipulated their “view” of the information.  His manipulations maneuvered the screen display and the audience’s consciousness through categories of information, zoomed down into subcategories, broke them into their atomic components, rearranged them, then zoomed back up.  (pp. 190-192)

Engelbart and SRI were one of the original nodes of ARPANET, which debuted in 1969, the Defense Department precursor of what would later become the Internet. ARPANET allowed different types of defense related research computers to be linked together into a network. 

Like McLuhan, Engelbart realized that the medium is the message and that with computers we did not have to be constrained by linear print technology.  Engelbart saw that computers could allow us to be multidimensional and to be able to access many different layers of information with different levels of detail.  While this may be obvious to us now, when Engelbart had his idea of augmenting human intelligence in the 1950s his ideas were so radical that his colleagues advised him not to discuss them, and only at the end of the 1960s after Engelbart's demonstration did people begin to understand the implications of Doug’s dream, and begin to awaken to its revolutionary possibilities.

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