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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Doug’s Dream

Engelbart had been a radar technician during World War II and had come across Vannevar Bush’s article 1945 “As We May Think,” which was a major influence on him.  In that article, Bush proposed a device to improve human thinking called a memex.  In the early 1950s, Engelbart pursued a graduate degree at UC Berkeley in electrical engineering and at that time kept asking about the possibility of actually using the computer to teach people.  Rheingold (1985) describes Engelbart’s request and the response he received:

“When we get the computer built, would it be okay if I use it to teach people?  Could I hook it up to a keyboard and get a person to interact with the computer?  Maybe teach the person typing?” … The engineering people said, “there’s no way that kind of idea is going to fly.”  The interactive stuff was so wild that the people who knew about computers didn’t want to hear about it.  Back then, you didn’t interact with a computer, even if you were a programmer.  You gave it your question, in the form of a box of punched cards, and if you had worked very hard at stating the question correctly, you got the answer.  Computers weren’t meant for direct interaction.  And this idea of using them to help people learn was downright blasphemy. (p. 178-179)

In 1957, Engelbart began to work for SRI (Stanford Resarch Institute), and one of the people who interviewed Engelbart for the job, to whom Engelbart had described his vision, advised Engelbart not to tell anyone else about it because it sounded “too crazy,” and would prejudice people against him (Rheingold, p. 180).

In 1962, however, after over a decade of working on this idea of augmenting human intelligence, Engelbart finally finished a paper containing his ideas, entitled “A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man’s Intellect,”  which was published in 1963. By the mid-1960s technology had caught up enough with Engelbart’s vision so that he could begin to implement some of his ideas.  At first, the computer community greeted Engelbart's framework with silence but in 1964, his project—the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) finally received early funding from Bob Taylor at NASA, and also from JCR Licklider who was funding the defense department's ARPA (Advanced Research Planning Agency). 

Engelbart’s concept for augmenting man’s intellect deals with helping increase man’s problem solving capabilities in different ways to help people better cope with the wide variety of “complex situations” that they are faced with daily.  Part of this concept deals with being able to access information more quickly, to get a better understanding of that information, and to be able to communicate it to others.  In his article, Engelbart writes:

We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for the situation” usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods and high-powered electronic aids. (Rheingold, 1985, p. 181)

One of Engelbart’s first considerations was hardware, a low level component of the system, but one that would help to augment higher levels because “human intellect uses tools, but the power of the human mind is not itself limited to the tools the human brain automatically provides” (Rheingold, 1985, p. 181).  Engelbart felt that by introducing tools to help people communicate more efficiently and effectively, the entire system could be better leveraged and in his paper, as Rheingold relates, Engelbart proposed:

“Suppose you had a new writing machine, a high-speed electric typewriter with some very special features.”  In a few words, he proceeded to describe what is known today as a “word processor” . . . . “This hypothetical writing machine thus permits you to use a new process of composing text. For instance, trial drafts can rapidly be composed from rearranged excerpts of old drafts, together with new words or passages which you insert by hand typing…if the tangle of thoughts represented by the draft becomes too complex, you can compile a reordered draft quickly.  It would be practical for you to accommodate more complexity in the trails of thought you might build in search of the path that suits your needs.  You can integrate your new ideas more easily, and thus harness your creativity more continuously, if you can quickly and flexibly change your working record.  If it is easier to update any part of your working record to accommodate new developments in thought or circumstance, you will find it easier to incorporate more complex procedures in your way of doing things.” . . . The point he [Engelbart]  wanted to make had to do with the changes in the overall system—the capabilities such an artifact would open up for thinking in a more effective, wider-ranging, more articulate, quicker, better-informed manner . . . . (p. 184)

Keep in mind that Doug wrote this in the early 1960s. We can see play concepts of bricolage and transitional space at work here, too. A later stage was envisioned by Engelbart of automated external symbol manipulation:

In the limit of what we might now imagine, this could be a computer, with which individuals could communicate rapidly and easily, coupled to a three-dimensional color display within which extremely sophisticated images could be constructed, the computer being able to execute a wide variety of processes on parts or all of these images in automatic response to human direction.  The displays and processes could provide helpful services and could involved concepts not hitherto imagined. (Rheingold, 1985, p. 185)


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