Mammoth mural drawn for the anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos”

Eileen Clegg and Valerie Landau, with Douglas Engelbart, Co-Evolution of Human Systems and Tool Systems. [Palo Alto], August 14, 2008.
Mural in magic marker on Tyvek or similar material, ca. 4’h x 24’w at sheet edge. Wear and small losses along upper edge and sides, heavy tape reinforcements on reverse side.
$25,000

A jaw-dropping, hand-drawn, mural-size infographic summarizing digital pioneer Douglas Engelbart’s views on the “co-evolution” of humans and technology.

The mural
This huge mural clocks in at roughly 24 by 4 feet, making it by a good margin the largest info-graphic I’ve handled. It is the second of two such murals (the other may be viewed here) produced in the Summer of 2008 by “visual journalist” Eileen Clegg and education technologist Valerie Landau, in collaboration with Engelbart. The occasion was the approaching 40th anniversary of the “mother of all demos”. At this now-legendary event in San Francisco on December 9, 1968, Engelbart and his colleagues at the Stanford Research Institute had demonstrated prototypes of the graphic user interface, the “mouse”, and other technologies that form the basis of the modern human-computer interface.

At the time the murals was drawn, Clegg, Landau and Engelbart were collaborating on a book, The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart (Berkeley: Nextpress, 2009). The book summarizes for a popular audience Engelbart’s views about what he called the “co-evolution” of humans and technology. He saw this process as a virtuous cycle that would exponentially improve humans’ “collective IQ”, i.e., their ability to collaborate to solve even the largest problems facing the modern world.

The murals were designed to render Engelbart’s philosophy in graphic form, but were absolutely not intended as the final word on the subject; on the contrary, Clegg, Landau and Engelbart saw them as working documents, as tools for stimulating dialogue about Engelbart’s philosophy. As I understand it, one or both of the murals was presented in December 2008 at the “Program for the Future” conference at the Tech Museum in San Jose, as well as at subsequent conferences and events at SAP, Google, and elsewhere. Indeed, the other mural still retains 18 Post-it notes applied by participants at one of these events.

Rendered in magic marker on Tyvek or a similar material, both murals are essentially timelines, beginning in the year 1925. The choice to begin in 1925 was deliberate, as that was the year of the Scopes “Monkey Trial”, in which a Tennessee teacher was convicted of violating that state’s Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach evolution in state-funded schools. The mural offered here bears a terminal date of 2020—twelve years after its completion—as it invited viewers to help answer the question “How do we collectively use technology to map our future… with integrity… mindful of the perspectives of others… and future generations?”

The timeline highlights a vast range of major developments during those 95 years, with special symbols—explained in a key near the far upper left–representing “major “era” shifts”, “high impact events”, “ideas captur[ing] mainstream attention”, “business trends”, “scientific breakthroughs”, “epidemics”[!!!], and other categories of event. All these are superimposed on a stylized landscape, over which shines a central sun motif labeled “Engelbart’s Vision: Augmenting Human Intellect[:] Raising the Collective I.Q.”

Engelbart believed, among other things, that “a change in one part of the system affects all the others”, and in keeping with this the first mural used directional arrows to suggest causal relationships between developments. But this aspect of that mural seems more suggestive than definitive, leaving me to wonder if the format, while visually compelling, was not entirely up to the conceptual task. In any event, Clegg and Landau have largely omitted the directional arrows from this second mural.

One final observation: While Engelbart saw technology as a means to extending humans’ “collective IQ”, he saw this as merely a means to the far greater end of solving the largest problems facing humanity. Indeed, he lived long enough to see his technological innovations—the graphic user interface, the mouse, hypertext, and so on—widely adopted and celebrated. But he came to believe that the tech industry had lost sight of the philosophy and social goals underpinning the technology, and that he had thus failed in his life mission. In keeping with this, the content of this mural is replete with technological advances, but fails to list a single global problem solved by those technologies.

Douglas Engelbart
A native of Portland, Oregon, Engelbart (1925-2013) received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Oregon State University in 1948. His undergraduate studies were interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Navy, which trained him as a radar and radio technician and posted him to the Philippines. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was during this time, while “on the remote island of Leyte in a small traditional hut on stilts”, that he read “As We May Think”, a July 1945 Atlantic Monthly article by Vannevar Bush, wartime head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. Surveying the range of wartime technological advances—in communication, optics and photography, information storage, and elsewhere—Bush laid out a vision of how these could be harnessed to accelerate human creativity by freeing it from computational drudgery, to record these creative processes and their products, and to make them readily accessible to others.

“The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

 

“But there are signs of a change as new and powerful instrumentalities come into use…. there are plenty of mechanical aids with which to effect a transformation in scientific records.” (Bush)

If you squint just a little, Bush’s article reads like a request-for-proposals for the development of personal computers, the World Wide Web, and smart phones. It must have been heady stuff for a brilliant engineer-in-training like Engelbart.

From Oregon State Engelbart went on to study electrical engineering at UC-Berkeley and gained his PhD in 1953. I get the sense that his work at Berkeley was advanced but mainstream, basically focused on how to make bigger and better calculating engines, constructed from miles of wire and thousands of vacuum tubes, and controlled by reams of punch cards.

But Engelbart’s real passion was elsewhere: Like Vannevar Bush he was not terribly interested in developing machines that could do boring work more quickly and efficiently. What he really wanted was to develop machines that could store the sum of human creativity and knowledge and make them readily accessible, thereby boosting humanity’s “collective IQ”, its capacity for collaborative invention and problem solving. The result, he believed, would be a virtuous cycle of “co-evolution” of humans and technology: New tools and systems would improve the creative capacity of networked humans, yielding further improvements to those tools and systems, with further improvements to human capacity, and so on. This virtuous cycle would “boost… our collec­tive capability to pursue important challenges at scale” (dougengelbart.org), be they industrial, environmental, medical or even geopolitical.

In any event, a few years after finishing at Berkeley Engelbart took a position at the Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI) in Menlo Park. There, with ARPA funding, he founded the Augmentation Research Center (ARC), where he and his team developed the oN-Line System (NLS) for human-computer interface. Among other things, the NLS featured bit-mapped screens, a prototype “windows” interface, hypertext, a chorded keyboard, and—wait for it—the mouse. These were revealed at a December 9, 1968 conference in San Francisco, which later came to be known as “the mother of all demos” (Click here for a YouTube video of the demo.) It’s also worth mentioning that the ARC was the second site on the ARPANET, the progenitor of the internet.

This seems to have been the peak of Engelbart’s professional success. The NLS was never commercialized, and Engelbart’s ARC lab blew up over personal and professional differences (Many of the ARC engineers moved to Xerox’s PARC laboratory, where they further developed many of the NLS technologies, which in one shape or form were ultimately adopted by Steve Jobs and Apple.) Engelbart remained behind, but was increasingly marginalized as ARC was acquired by other organizations, ultimately becoming a unit of McDonnell Douglas in 1984.

Engelbart “retired” from McDonnell Douglas in 1986, then in 1988 co-founded with his daughter Christina the Bootstrap Institute, which sought to disseminate his philosophy through educational programming and publications (and, I assume, lucrative corporate and government consulting gigs). The Institute remains in operation today, having been renamed the Engelbart Institute after his death, though it is not clear how extensive its current activities are.

In later life he received a raft of awards, including for example the 1997 Turing Award in recognition of his “inspiring vision of the future of interactive computing and the invention of key technologies to help realize this vision.” In 2000 he received the National Medal of Technology from then-President Bill Clinton. And on December 9, 2008, the fortieth anniversary of the “mother of all demos”, the Stanford Research Institute honored Engelbart with a commemorative conference, “Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing”.

Despite his enormous influence on the shape of the tech industry, and despite all the accolades, it seems that Engelbart came to view himself and his life’s work as a failure. As discussed above, he found himself celebrated for his technological contributions, but found little sustained enthusiasm for his philosophy of “co-evolution” of humans and technology in the service of solving humanity’s greatest problems.

Looking backward from 2023, ten years after his death, it’s difficult to disagree. Sure, technology has given us an opportunity to think better together, but it’s also given us a world of entrenched polarization, social media addiction, spam, 4Chan, trolls, and deep fakes. In the meanwhile, the jury’s still very much out on our capacity to solve the great environmental, medical, social, political and geopolitical problems of the 21st century.  Are we really better off? I suppose it depends on your choice of metrics, and maybe on what’s in your retirement portfolio.

References
Mark Hall, “Douglas Engelbart[:] American Inventor”, at Britannica.com. Valerie Landau, “How Douglas Engelbart Invented the Future”, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2018. “Douglas Engelbart”, at Wikipedia.com. Much background from September 2023 phone interviews with Eileen Clegg and Valerie Landau.

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