Note — Sep 04, 2022

A Machine for Thinking: How Douglas Engelbart Predicted the Future of Computing

Most readers probably know about Engelbart and the Mother of all demos, but this by Steven Johnson is a good read on the topic anyway, with an overview of his life’s work and some of the ‘sceniusian’ influences and interconnections, including Bill English, Stewart ‘Forest Gump’ Brand, and how the “Bay Area tech scene lay at the unlikely intersection of three distinct cultural rivers: the intellectuals and scientists in the orbit of Stanford and Berkeley; military funding from DARPA; and the counterculture that had become such a dominant presence in Northern California during the period”.

[A] future device that Bush called the Memex, a machine for augmenting our memories and our intellect, just as telescopes and microscopes had augmented our vision. Bush described it as a kind of “mechanized file or library” where people would someday store their books and documents and correspondence, making “trails” of association between all the data, like paths beaten down through a dense forest of information. […]

“Man’s population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity. Augmenting man’s intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable approach and some plausible benefits.” […]

“The personal computer revolution,” he wrote in the 1980s, “turned its back on those tools that led to the empowering of… distributed work groups collaborating simultaneously and over time on common knowledge work.” It wasn’t until the rise of cloud computing and services like Slack and Google Docs that Engelbart’s original vision of collaborative software truly came of age.