In the spring of 2004, I read these words for the first time:
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 a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.
The words had been written and published forty-two years earlier, in a long research report (really, a monograph) titled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, by Douglas Carl Engelbart.
These striking sentences come at the very beginning of the document, at the close of the first paragraph of the introduction. For me, they were the framework for the framework, the compass for an expedition I’ve been on ever since. Whatever one’s take on the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis or the essential structures of thought, whatever one’s vocation–English professor, engineer, mathematician, chemist, history professor, what not?, these words define the scope and character of Engelbart’s primary concern: how to make the intellect-augmenters human beings continually invent for themselves better serve the world of meaning and benign purpose we imagine, respond to, and seek to build.
A way of life in an integrated domain.
This week marks the official beginning (Week 1) of an effort to convene and amplify a conversation around this 1962 research report. Alan Levine and I have been working on the design and implementation of this effort for several months. Christina Engelbart, Executive Director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, has contributed wise counsel, great ideas, research support, and steady encouragement. And for the next three weeks, fourteen featured annotators from many lands and walks of life, all busy and all giving of themselves and their time, will contribute their thoughts on the document and their thoughts on their thoughts in conversations that will be recorded and added to the record as a meta-layer of consideration, something I hope Engelbart himself would enjoy as a kind of level “C” activity, augmenting the augmentation so to speak.
Yet this activity is by no means limited to me, or a small circle of collaborators. This activity is an invitation to thinkers of all levels of experience, knowledge, and vocation. The invitation envisions a complex, many-layered conversation that will not obscure the original document, but illuminate it: illuminate its hopes and accomplishments, illuminate its shortcomings and failures, illuminate our shortcomings, failures, hopes, and successes.
As several speakers noted at the Symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the famous “Mother of All Demos,” networked digital computing, at scale, amounts to one of the most powerful and potentially dangerous experiments we have ever performed on ourselves. There can be no doubt, given the events of the last decade, that the experiment has brought both weal and woe to our species and our planet. What’s vitally important to remember, though, is what Engelbart insists on throughout Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework: as a species, humanity is distinctive for precisely these kinds of self-experiments. This is what we do. Agriculture, language, mathematics, architecture, poetry, science, the list goes on. All these inventions, activities, and domains are all intellect-augmenters, experiments involving our own capacity to experiment, to generate counterfactuals, to ask the questions what is good? how can we make the good more widespread? how can we make our intellects that imagine and invent good things more effective at doing so?
Engelbart insisted that effective intellectual augmentation was always realized within a system, and that any intervention intended to accelerate intellectual augmentation must be understood as an intervention in a system. And while at many points the 1962 report emphasizes the individual knowledge worker, there is also the idea of sharing the context of one’s work (an idea Vannevar Bush had also described in “As We May Think”), the foundation of Engelbart’s lifelong view that a crucial way to accelerate intellectual augmentation was to think together more comprehensively and effectively. One might even rewrite Engelbart’s words above to say, “We do not speak of isolated clever individuals with knowledge of particular domains. We refer to a way of life in an integrated society where poets, musicians, dreamers, and visionaries usefully co-exist with engineers, scientists, executives, and governmental leaders.” Make your own list.
(Find a large university, examine its intellectual and curricular structures, and check for useful co-existence.)
Of course there are many things Engelbart does not treat in his treatise. The uncertain future of labor for workers of all kinds. The vast social inequities that governments should and could address, but do not. The widening spirals of lust for power, status, and wealth. Surveillance capitalism. Climate change. You can supply many more of these examples, too. As Engelbart himself warned, if we do not simultaneously work on both the technologies and human flourishing, flourishing that will depend on a shared understanding of what it means to be a flourishing human being, our technologies will certainly run away with us. They will turn malignant and reach a stage where there is no turning back. With the invention of fission and fusion bombs, shadows dense with dread, terror, and despair that hung over 1962 with particular force, Engelbart knew very well that mere invention was not enough. Predictably, and with grim effect, the isolated clever tricks of human ingenuity will always solve one problem in one particular situation at the cost of multiplying problems and unwelcome consequences across wide swaths of planetary experience.
Engelbart thought we could do better. He knew we must try to do better. He thought that networked digital computing could release and channel neural power in the same way that physics had released and channeled nuclear power, but to far more beneficial effect. To me, that sounds like a bet on education, on communication. A bet on human potential. A bet on what Lincoln memorably called “the better angels of our nature.”
For these reasons, and for many others, it seems like a good time to look forward by looking back, a good time to (re)visit Engelbart’s foundational work–not the mouse, not one of his dozens of patents, but a book. A research report emerging from a search for a conceptual framework. We will see what Engelbart got right, and what he got wrong; what he saw, and what he overlooked. We will see Doug Engelbart’s brilliant and unusual effort, made in good faith, to point his own life in the direction of maximum usefulness to the future of humanity.
That’s a calling to keep in mind. A calling to listen for, and answer.