Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Demo at 50

I spent Sunday at a symposium on the 50th anniversary of a demo of the Online System (NLS) by Doug Engelbart and his group in 1968. The demo is famous in computer history.  

I joined the group in 1970, about two years after the demo and stayed till 1980.  The first two talks in the morning were about the demo and how it had been achieved.  Computer processing necessary for the demo took place at SRI in Menlo Park and was connected to Engelbart controlling the computer and dwarfed by a giant display screen in what is now Bill Graham Civic Auditorium by a two-step microwave link.  The whole process was intricate, fragile and something of a miracle in terms of both software and hardware.  Of course, I'd heard about it, but never in such detail with excellent slides created by some of the people who did the work.  I found the morning very interesting.

By my guesstimate there were about 250 people gathered at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, roughly one tenth of the people who saw the demo.  The audience was dominated by old, white men, as were the presenters.  About half of it was younger, down to teenagers, but again predominantly white men.

Engelbart's work is conceptually separate from the Internet, but historically it has been much entwined with it.  His lab at SRI was the second node on what became the ARPANET and eventually the Internet.  The notion of linking documents came from Doug and/or a philosopher named Ted Nelson (see below), but the implementation, as we know it in the Internet today, came later from other sources.

All of the speakers credited Doug's person and his thinking as important influences in their lives.

Later morning sessions discussed the immediate impact of the demo on computer research and development.

The sixteen presenters, including several computer luminaries, expressed many interests and viewpoints, but the afternoon sessions tended to focus on whether Engelbart "vision" was being fulfilled by the contemporary computer world.  Engelbart set out his vision in a paper in 1962.   Basically it is not a vision about hardware or software, but about building tools to aid the process of solving problems: "By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems." Speakers were in general highly aware of the distinction.

Speakers tended to say that the computer world has sadly failed to implement the vision, mostly because it has been diverted into getting rich.  There was some criticism, for instance of Google, even though Google was one of several sponsors of the meeting.  One speaker recalled the first time an advertisement appeared on the Internet and his moral disgust at seeing it there, which was shared by his colleagues.  Facebook took several hits from speakers, although I notice more than one person sitting in the audience sneaking a look as they listened.  Wikipedia was several times praised.  This was a group of smart, collegial,  bland, and well-off guys, and a few gals, beating themselves up for not having done more for the world in the manner Doug envisioned and suggesting ways, none of them very likely in my perspective, of doing better.

In the foyer of the auditorium, there were demos of software influenced by Doug’s thought or practice.  Dean Meyers showed a version of NLS running on Windows.  I was most impressed by a small teaching tool based on links running on an Apple II.  It's been a while since I saw a running Apple II.

The problem from my perspective is that forces like capitalism and the human propensity to divide into groups and squabble tend to subsume whether people communicate with the aid of computers.  For instance, climate change was mentioned several times.  Undoubtedly, computer-based exchange and examination of knowledge can help with scientific and technical problems having to do with climate change.  But the coal companies have computers too.  At a high level, everybody knows what to do about climate change: eliminate fossil fuels and cultivate forests and other absorbers of greenhouse gases.  This is not a technical problem -;  it is a political problem.  Again, Internet computer communication has had diverse and profound effects on politics; whether they have reduced conflict or mismanagement remains to be seen.  The methodical use of the Internet by the Russians and others to confuse people was not motioned in my hearing and efforts by China to mold social identity was mentioned only once.

The overall moderator was Paul Saffo  who describes his occupation as "futurist." That and chatting with old friends and acquaintances, some of whom I would not have recognized without nametags, recalled to me how strange it was when I first began working in what is now called Silicon Valley that people's identity seem to center on what they hoped or planned to do rather than what they had done or where they had come from.  I have not yet become comfortable with it.  After all, the past has happened and shaped us as it has.  The future is at best a plan and for sure uncertain.

The last speaker was Ted Nelson.  He is extraordinarily eloquent.  He described his personal and intellectual relationship with Doug over a lifetime.  I cannot describe what he said, only admire it.  


  1. Impressive. It's a world apart from anything I know, although I know that it is shaping the world I know.