Dear Mr. Engelbart,
Yesterday I knew nothing about you. Today I learned that you invented key features of the mouse, the window, the word processor, the hyperlink, and the Internet, among other priceless technological staples without which I could barely function today. Now I’m not a techie myself, Mr. Engelbart, and although I will thank you for your revolutionary inventions, I’ll confess that there’s something else about you that has left an even bigger impression on me. Your spirit.
I don’t mean to pry, Mr. Engelbart, but can you tell me more about you? Below are my questions. They are just three. Goes without saying that if there’s any you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to, of course.
In your early 20s, while working as an electrical engineer in California, you devoted your free time “to searching for professional goals; for some reason [you] wanted to invest the rest of [your] heretofore aimless career toward making the most difference in improving the lot of the human race. […] Within weeks [you] had committed [your] career to ‘augmenting the human intellect'” in order to help “boost mankind’s ability to deal with complex, urgent problems.” In fact, you determined that this latter goal “would be an attractive candidate as an arena in which a young person might try to ‘make the most difference.'”
Mr. Engelbart, how many, would you say, fully employed electrical engineers in the 1940s found their careers “aimless” and took time to contemplate how to make the most difference in bettering the human condition? More importantly, how many young folks in their 20s, would you say, felt empowered enough to sit back and imagine how they, themselves, were going to, um, just elevate humanity to a level never seen before, by transforming it into an effective solver of urgent and complex scientific and social problems? Mr. Engelbart, what gave you at the time that restlessness? The confidence? The inspiration? What enabled you to see yourself so big and capable? What fed your determination to change not humanity’s surroundings, but humanity itself?
I want to know because I think that our world today needs more, many more, augmented imaginations, augmented determinations, augmented visions, and augmented beliefs in the capacity of oneself to make the fantastical real. If you let me take a quick peak at your spirit, I might be able to pass a tiny bit of your bigness to others. Will you?
If I understand it correctly, your conceptual framework for “augmenting human intellect” involves:
“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. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble.”
Mr. Engelbart, I think I have a sense for what you imagined. I just gave a short lecture to a class of engineers and scientists about the “ethic of care.” As part of my preparation, I sat in front of my computer and, with the click of a mouse, was able to pull up oceans of information relevant to my topic, including the works of folks who have thought long and hard about how the ethic of care can help engineers and scientists specifically serve humanity better. I even found a wonderful video presentation about Carol Gilligan, one of the founders of the ethic of care, that deepened my understanding of the subject. Of course, the multilayered knowledge I gathered in a few hours did not help solve any complex, urgent, or insoluble world problems. But the human-machine system that I used — or, more accurately, that I became a part of — could just as easily be used toward grand goals in the very same manner that it helped me prepare my talk.
In 1962, you wrote that the types of complex and insoluble problems that you envisioned finally being resolved by an augmented human intellect were problems of scientists, academics, and various other professionals: diplomats, lawyers, designers, etc. I am curious: What kinds of problems, specifically, did you have in mind? In what ways was the complexity and urgency of these problems growing at an increasing rate back in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s? What made you concerned about these problems?
I’m asking because I find that the augmentation of the human intellect, via the augmentation of human interaction with artifacts-language-methodology, is helping not only professionals but also many ordinary people to finally address (and sometimes even resolve) complex and seemingly insoluble problems. These problems, like for example community exposures to toxic chemicals, or flawed and misleading scientific studies, or misguided and unjust laws, or abusive government policies and practices, are sometimes created by the professionals you envisioned benefiting the most from your Framework.
When you were dreaming big about “improving the lot of the human race,” were you thinking about giving voice to people who often go unheard? Or is this type of empowerment that we see today an unintended consequence of your dream? Were you thinking things like democracy, public participation, justice?
It is said that you consider your “Framework” (does this term refer to the augmentation of the human intellect through the proper harnessing of new technologies?) as your most significant contribution to the field of new media. In 1988, you wrote:
Metaphorically, I see the augmented organization or institution of the future as changing, not as an organism merely to be a bigger and faster snail, but to achieve such new levels of sensory capability, speed, power, and coordination as to become a new species–a cat.
New levels of sensory capability, speed, power, and coordination? Mutating from snail to cat? Mr. Engelbart, do you think we humans, previously parts of snail, have the wisdom it takes to handle ourselves with dignity and greatness as parts of cat? Do you think we have it in us to maneuver adroitly and with caution toward a better world? Or are we more likely to lose ourselves in our newly acquired claws?
I so look forward to hearing from you.
With great respect,
[Inspired by Wardrip-Fruin, N. and N. Montfort, eds., 2003. The New Media Reader, pp. 93-108. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.]