photo of Doug conducting workshop Doug Engel­bart's driving vision - augment­ing our collec­tive abil­ity to solve the tough­est challenges
Watch highlights of his pioneering vision in action (6min)
Watch Doug in 1986 describe this vision quest (4:35)

Historic Firsts:  
A Vision for Humanity 0

Introduction 1

Doug Engelbart has been most widely celebrated for his pioneering work in information technology, from inventing the computer mouse to producing his now-famous 1968 "Mother of All Demos," marking the dawn of interactive computing and the Information Age. Indeed most of his awards, from the Webby Award to the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, emphasized his technological achievements. Thus most people are surprised to learn that technology was not the main focus of Engelbart's research, nor was it the most significant. In fact his work encompassed an overarching strategic vision that was altruistic in nature, focused on the very human challenge of raising our Collective IQ, a term he coined in 1994.

A 'Vision Quest' 2

Early on in his career as an electrical engineer, Doug Engelbart set his sights on a lofty goal – accelerating the betterment of society. In 1950, while recently engaged to be married, he began reassessing his life's goals. He wanted to dedicate his career to a humanitarian purpose, and he soon realized that the best and the brightest who were tackling the daunting problems of the day – be it world hunger, finding a cure for cancer, or drafting important legislative reform – were struggling to make a significant difference. He also recognized that it was only a matter of time before the rate and scale of change facing society would be increasing dramatically, which would mean that the problems society was facing would become increasingly more complex and challenging, while the need for brilliant solutions would become increasingly more urgent. Thus the big question would be, what could be done to help intellectual problem-solvers become dramatically more capable and effective at solving important problems? In fact every year sooner could make a huge difference in number of lives saved, amount of suffering averted, and quality of lives improved.

Human beings face ever more complex and urgent problems, and their effectiveness in dealing with these problems is a matter that is critical to the stability and continued progress of society. A human is effective not just because he applies to a problem a high degree of native intelligence or physical strength (with a full measure of motivation and purposefulness), but also because he makes use of efficient tools, methods, and strategies. These latter may be directly modified for increased effectiveness. A plan to systematically evolve such modifications has been developed at Stanford Research Institute. The plan is a long-range one and is based on the premise that a strong, coordinated attack is necessary if significant progress is to be made.

He instinctively knew that computers could play some part in this endeavor. So it was in 1951 that Doug Engelbart envisioned a vast information space, which intellectual workers could access through display "working stations". At the time, computers were massive number crunching machines, and he had read about but never actually seen one. But he knew from his Navy experience working with WWII radar and communications technology that information could be tracked and displayed real time on a cathode ray tube display. It all seemed feasible to him. But he also knew if he was going to realize his vision, he would need a doctorate degree. By 1959, armed with a PhD from UC Berkeley, a half dozen patents in his name, and several years of experience proving himself on other research projects, he was at long last given the time to begin work on own research agenda at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA. He named his research "Augmenting the Human Intellect".

How would he go about helping intellectual workers become dramatically more capable? It would help to determine: (1) What makes us capable (or not), or what is a capability made of? (2) How does one intentionally change or improve a capability? and (3) How might one improve a capability much faster than previously possible in order to drive the change up an exponential curve?

As he studied these questions, Engelbart discovered that our intellectual problem-solving capability, in fact most human capability, relies heavily on a mix of technologies such as pen, paper, phones, meeting facilities, etc., call that our Tool System, plus a mix of techniques, approaches, language, organization, practices, skills, conventions, methodologies, paradigms, and know-how, etc. – the human side of the equation – which he dubbed the Human System. Together the Tool and Human Systems are what augment our innate abilities, so he called the combined system our Augmentation System. Thus he discovered what augments our ability to be effective in the world, what makes us capable (or not). For example, the Augmentation System evolved by the people of the Kalahari Desert is beautifully adapted to their environment, and quite different from the Augmentation System evolved in ancient Egypt, or Middle Ages Europe, or Rennaissance Europe, or post WWII North America. The more finely honed the Augmentation System, the more effective and capable one can be in the given context.

So Doug Engelbart's first big strategic breakthrough was realizing that effective vs. ineffective vs. brilliantly effective capability was a factor of the individuals' innate abilities plus the Augmentation System they employed. Therefore, to improve their capability, your biggest opportunity is to look at their whole Augmentation System for what to improve.

How to do this? Well, the Augmentation Systems we use now have been evolving for centuries through gradual or sometimes radical changes in the Human or Tool System, which then have a reverberating effect throughout the whole system. For example, introduction of the horseless carriage prompted or enabled change in conventions (rules of the road, licensing, speed limits), language ("MPH" and "DUI"), technology (rearview mirrors, freeways, automatic transmission), organization (highway patrol, DMV), demography (suburbs), and paradigms. Consider the introduction of other technologies like fire, the plow, written language, or the printing press, each of which caused gradual yet sweeping economic, political, intellectual and social change over time. Engelbart saw this reverberating effect between the Tool System and the Human System as a continuous process of co-evolution, since making a change in one will prompt change in the other, and vice versa. Through the process of co-evolution, any innovation anywhere in the Augmentation System is gradually adopted and evolved, or rejected.

Watch Doug summarize his strategic approach in 1968 (04:38)

This led to Engelbart's second big breakthrough: To foster rapid, dramatic improvements throughout the whole Augmentation System, rather than letting co-evolution take its course in a meandering way, he must figure out a way to accelerate the co-evolution process pro-actively. An obvious approach would be to set up some exploratory pilots of problem-solving teams (subjects) who would participate whole-heartedly in continuously reinventing their whole Augmentation System through rapid cycles of experimentation and reflection.

And that led to Engelbart's third big breakthrough: He would designate his own research team, by definition a problem-solving team, to be the first exploratory pilot subject group. After all, they had intimate knowledge of the generic Augmentation System they were reinventing, and as researchers they had intimate knowledge of what was possible, and how to prioritize. Serving as both subject and research team afforded a very fast feedback loop and learning curve, with each innovation immediately put to use in the lab, adapted and refined through intentional co-evolution, which would then quickly inform next steps. He realized that this would provide a multiplier effect to their results, because by using their own research results, which were designed to improve human effectiveness, with each iteration they would become smarter and more effective than the last. The team would thus be able to forge a "steep ascent" into the frontier. He named this powerful phenomenon "bootstrapping", an engineering term that described compounding results, and also reminiscent of the fairy tale about a giant who lifted himself up by his bootstraps so he could see from a higher vantage point.

In Search of a Framework 3

Photo of 1962 report Doug's 1962 Framework Report Click to browse the text

With modest funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Doug Engelbart conducted a two-year study drilling down into every aspect of his vision, and fleshed out his ideas and core concepts in great detail.

A Manifesto 4

By the summer of 1962 he had developed a coherent framework and proposal for pursuing his research. His final report, submitted to his sponsors in October of 1962, was titled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. This seminal report is literally a manifesto for humanity, informing and driving his research agenda throughout his career.

See our Field Guide to Doug's 1962 Framework
for fun facts, pointers, quotes, and to select your preferred version and format.

Based on this report, he began to get funding to grow his research lab at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), which he called initially the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center (AHIRC).

Solving for the Future 5

Doug Engelbart saw the opportunity to radically improve the effectiveness of intellectual problem solvers by continuously reinventing their Augmentation Systems, accelerating the human-tool co-evolution, using his own research team as the first subject group. He would start small and build on results, targeting both the Tool and the Human Systems at once, since it didn't make sense to make big changes in one without considering corresponding changes in the other. He would ask "What if we could 'reach into the future' so to speak, and bring forth radically better tools and practices to support these intellectual workers, as he called them, in the daunting task of finding solutions to larger and larger problems with greater speed and effectiveness than ever before imaginable – let's not be limited by how we do things now".

Engelbart was assuming that computers could provide a whole new medium for advancing the state of the art in collective intellectual work. Building on the rudimentary technology available at the time, his research agenda required that his team push the envelope on all fronts: they had to expand the boundaries of display technology and interactive computing and human-computer interface, help launch network computing, and invent hypermedia, groupware, knowledge management, digital libraries, computer supported software engineering, client-server architecture, the mouse, etc. on the technical front, as well as pushing the frontiers in process reengineering and continuous improvement, including inventing entirely new organizational concepts and methodologies on the human front. Engelbart even invented his own innovation strategy for accelerating the rate and scale of innovation in his lab which, by the way, proved very effective. His seminal work garnered many awards, and sparked a revolution that blossomed into the Information Age and the Internet. But as yet we have only scratched the surface of the true potential Engelbart envisioned for dramatically boosting our collective IQ in the service of humankind's greatest challenges.

A special note on the Human System: Of the two, Engelbart saw the Human System to be a much larger challenge than the Tool System, much more unwieldy and staunchly resistant to change, and all the more critical to change because, on the whole, the Human System tended to be self-limiting, and the biggest gating factor in the whole equation. It's hard for people to step outside their comfort zone and think outside the box, and harder still to think outside whatever paradigm or world view they occupy. Those who think that the world is flat, and science and inquiry are blasphemous, will not consider exploring beyond the edges, and will silence great thinkers like Socrates and Gallileo.


See Also 6

  Image of Historic Firsts chart Click to visit Historic Firsts Highlights

Explore the Web 6a

  • Visit Historic Firsts - for a bird's eye view of Doug Engelbart's many other groundbreaking innovations.
  • Visit Doug's Great Demo: 1968 - brings to life his early accomplishments with archive footage, photos, fun facts, story, and retrosectives (aka the "Mother of All Demos" – snippets shown above).

From Doug's Lab 6b