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INTRODUCTION: The Changing Role of Citizanship

ANALYSIS: Empowering the Digital Citizen
DON TAPSCOTT: The Digital Generation and the New Economy
DISSERTATION: Preparing for the New Economy
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: Creating Environments of Opportunity
ROBERT BALLARD: Passion, Purpose and Vision
ALAN WOLFE: Facilitating a Civil Society
JESSICA MATTHEWS: Power Shifts and Citizen Innovation
DOUG ENGELBART: The Unfinished Revolution 


Doug Engelbart "The Unfinished Revolution"

By Blake Harris | Editor at Large 

Thirty years ago, Douglas Engelbart and a small team of visionary researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) stunned the computing world with a two-way interactive computer demonstration that defined the future of computing from that point forward. Although Engelbart was responsible for introducing such innovations as the mouse, display editing, outline processing, linking and in-file object addressing, use of multiple windows, hypermedia and context-sensitive help, all these were but a small part of his total vision of turning organizations into augmented-knowledge workshops. He pioneered what is now known as collaborative hypermedia, knowledge management, community networking and organizational transformation. After 20 years of directing his own lab at SRI, and 11 years as senior scientist, first at Tymshare, and then at McDonnell Douglas Corp., Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Institute, where he is working closely with industry and government stakeholders to launch a collaborative implementation of his work.

Q: We have started to hear about "Engelbart's unfinished computer revolution." Can you explain what this is all about? 

A: The revolution that I would talk about, or what I had in mind, is really the total revolution that technology is causing. I don't like to limit its characterization to just a computer revolution. Just look at what the printing press did. The unfinished revolution is about what we can do to change the way we face the future so that we can better cope with all that is now happening. 

Q: Perhaps if you started by describing a little of your work at SRI. 

A: Actually, the whole motivation started out six years before I joined SRI. I realized that the world was getting more and more complex and, therefore, humanity would have to deal collectively with more complex challenges. It seemed to me that we faced a real problem. 

The human ability to deal collectively with complex, urgent problems would have difficulty keeping up with the urgency and complexity of the problems. So I wondered if something could be done to boost our ability to deal with such problems and, in 1951, that became the career goal that has been driving me ever since. 

I quit my job as an electrical engineer and went to graduate school to learn about computers. I believed that the potential for using computers interactively could really change the way we go about collective, cooperative knowledge work. The state of computers in those days was not such that anyone really entertained this kind of use, so I had to do my Ph.D. in other areas. I then went to SRI in 1957 as a place where I could start petitioning anybody in the world to support this kind of research. 

I got a few little incidental studies in the late '50s that were very useful. And then from 1959 to '62, I got a project where I could actually develop a conceptual framework. This resulted in 1962 with "Augmenting the Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," published in an SRI report. It was here that I came up with a lot of the things that have steered me ever since. 

Q: The idea that the real promise of computers lies in their ability to augment human capabilities, especially problem-solving capabilities, is something we perhaps have lost sight of. 

A: Yes. The whole idea springs from the realization that the capabilities we humans exercise, individually or collectively, depend on a great many things: language, socialization, tools and a large number of conventions and things that essentially form a system that augments basic human capability and intellect. So when we talk in terms of technology, we are really talking about an augmentation system or a tool system. 

americaThat's on one side of the equation. Every time there is an invention on that side, then on the other side, the human side or system, there are also changes in the way we do things; in the conventions which guide our work; the vocabularies we use; and the way we organize. But nobody was talking much about that side. 

I had done a study in the late '50s about the scaling of electronic components. I found that as you make them smaller and smaller, 
a lot of amazing things happen. This scaling effect convinced me that if the market pressure for digital technology was going to push like I was sure it would, there was going to be all the computer capacity one could ever need. So if things were going to change as drastically on the technology side as I was picturing it, then talk about using computers personally and interactively was a sure thing if people could realize the payoff. 

So after I had done that study, I began getting some money from ARPA The Advanced Research Projects Agency and we began to study ways to work interactively on a CRT screen. We started developing I/O devices for that, and amongst those ideas was what became the mouse. 

Q: Also in those ideas, I believe, was the concept of windows. 

A: Right. And hypertext was early. That's what we could show in '68. And outline processing, making your whole document hierarchical. We had a whole interface for commands; then had a much richer vocabulary. We assumed that the full value of computers was not going to be really achievable by people without learning new skills. People later came in and were very proud of themselves for trying to make things easy to learn and natural to use because they were trying to sell computers to the uninitiated. 

But we felt it was important to find out what levels of performance you could achieve by whatever it took. If you can get twice as much capability using tools, methods and skills that would take 50 hours to learn but you would be twice as effective, well, you ought to also offer that to the world, rather than selling only those things which are easy to learn and natural to use. 

So we were pushing ahead with a lot of things and had a different view. The people at Xerox Park and elsewhere, for instance, would say things like, "The real user is the secretary, so you have got to make it very easy for her." I was saying the real user is tomorrow's knowledge worker. 

The artificial intelligence people were so sure that computers would get very, very smart so that you wouldn't have to teach the human anything because the computer could figure out what the human wanted to know. So they all sort of turned and said we were headed in the wrong direction and we lost all our support in 1977. But by then, we were supporting people around the ARPA Net. Our computer had been the second one connected to the Internet and we started right off offering services -- hyper-media, e-mail and things of that sort. But we couldn't get people to buy in because everyone said we were too complicated at the time and they didn't sense the value payoff of these things. 

So we had to go out into the commercial world and that taught us a lot. And then McDonnell Douglas bought the commercial outfit that had bought our stuff from SRI, which gave us some very useful experience in the industrial world -- what you could do in designing, manufacturing and field-support of complex aircraft if you really had a hyper-media environment like we had. 

But the real goal behind much of this was always the idea that our society really needed new ways for collective knowledge to work and that this goal was worth going after strategically, and not just as an accidental by product of things that people immediately got excited about. That's what we have continued pushing. 

My daughter and I set up the Bootstrap Institute and it now seems people are beginning to recognize there really are some very important goals here with respect to what societies, organizations and institutions have to do to cope in the years ahead. 

Q: So the important idea behind what you have continued to push is that the real use of computers is to augment human intelligence? 

A: This would be more apparent if people recognized that collective intelligence, or collective IQ, is a very real thing. If you take any organization, and if you could wrap it up in some kind of special membrane so all you could judge is how it dealt with the outside world as an organism, how aware and perceptively interpretative would 
it seem to be about what is happening in the outside world? 

What did it really keep track of and know about? How did it recognize threats and opportunities? How quickly did it change its approach to things, its goals and targets? How quickly did it recognize changes and set up a new plan of action and rearrange its resources accordingly? If you looked at different organizations and institutions this way, you'd find some very big gaps. 

Q: When I first began talking to you about collective IQ, you mentioned a scaling effect in terms of intelligence. The one key principle behind the Industrial Revolution was the scaling effect of a division of labor. Adam Smith wrote about this in The Wealth of Nations, saying that a division of labor greatly increased productivity. If we are today going through a knowledge revolution, an essential ingredient would be new ways to get a similar scaling effect in the intellectual arena, and that this is what collective IQ is really all about. Is that a correct comparison? 

A: Yes. And along with that, because of the scale and the change in the performance capabilities that technology offers, which are just leapfrogging ahead and are now so widely pervasive throughout society, and the globalness of the intercommunication and interaction possible between all parts -- all these things portend huge changes throughout society on a global basis. And this brings up the danger part of it. This isn't going to be like any transition that history has ever recorded before. 

That and the complexity and rapidity of it could just overwhelm any of our existing models and our ability to cope rationally and collectively. Just look at the global economic structure, the financial world. What if that got into some kind of turmoil and began to collapse one day? Who knows enough to say they could keep it stable amidst an unprecedented amount of social trauma? You can just come up with scenarios that are totally frightening. Awareness of this is important because if these same technologies could be used to significantly improve our collective ability to deal with complex situations, then that is a goal worth going after quite explicitly and energetically. 

That isn't something the marketplace is necessarily going to take care of. There isn't anybody in that marketplace today who is explicitly looking at end-user organizations to figure out what they really need to better deal with the future. Generally, what companies are mainly focused on is creating the largest market share for their products. 

Q: One prevailing idea concerning the marketplace is that because things move so fast, only the business sector can keep up. Hence, business must lead and government must follow when it comes to many of the issues arising from the wide use of new technologies such as the Internet. At the same time, there is an assumption that there is something of a natural trajectory to the evolution of the technology, and that many things will take care of themselves as part of that evolutionary process. Opposing that view are concerns that perhaps we are not exerting as much control over the direction of the evolution as we should; that we need to start collectively defining a little more clearly what we actually want from technology. 

A: That is exactly what our framework stems from. You look out there and say the only ones who understand the technology are the people producing it. Yet all of them are pushing to get into the marketplace and to steer things with those products that they are inventing. But who is looking ahead to say what institutions and organizations, as end users, will actually need most? What configuration of capabilities in the technology, what operating systems, what environment and what evolutionary processes for changing the organization will be needed? 

This really becomes apparent when you look inside most of these high-tech companies to see how they use the technology. Is how they are using the technology to do their work what they would picture as representative of where the world is going to go? None of those that I've checked into are. When you bring this up with them, they all sort of shrug and laugh in an embarrassed way and say, "No we are just trying to sell the technology. We don't have time to figure out how to use it fully." And they don't. 

The weakness of the marketplace is that the market only does what it is supposed to do when you've got educated consumers who know how to differentiate. If we consider that the end user of this technology is not just the individual user, but organizations and teams -- and that collective use should also be the real beneficiary, the real end user -- well, go find me such end users who are really aware of where we are going to be in the next decade and how long it will take for their organizations to adapt and change in any significant way. 

And you compare that with the time frame, the speed that the technology keeps getting thrown at them, and you have to say, "Wait a minute." Or add up how much they are going to have to spend on scouting the future and making plans and commitments to make the needed transitions and changes in their organizations. All this is just as relevant to government, if not more so, than it is to business. A lot of stuff coming down the pike will change government's role tremendously in all this. 

Q:Another concept that has caught on in the last few years is the idea that organizations are moving from heirarchical to network structures, and we are beginning to see new kinds of organizations, the virtual corporation and such. 

A:[The network model] is an example of a new kind of organization [one alternative], not necessarily the new kind of organization. 

Q: Nevertheless, the Internet is poised to significantly change the organization of a great deal of economic activity around the globe, through electronic commerce and also by changing citizens themselves -- and what they require and expect from the commercial environment and from government. What do you think government should be focusing on? 

A: Well, anything that is as big a challenge as this is really needs a strategy. You have to find a way to change. Let's call that change improvement. So you have to take a look at the infrastructure within and between organizations that accommodates the improvement process. And the question becomes, "What can we do to enhance that improvement infrastructure and give it more attention? Get it clarified?" And then get organizations to realize they are going to have to spend more resources to strengthen their improvement infrastructure. 

Then, if we think of the improvement infrastructure as something that has an organizational, collective capability, the question becomes how to make that part smarter. How do we improve collective knowledge work, especially in distributed cases? Can we take a new or a better look at revitalizing our improvement infrastructures? The improvement infrastructure would be a terrifically important place for governments and other organizations to invest early money to better prepare for changes ahead. Which is what we mean when we talk about bootstrapping. 

There are already what one would call improvement communities. Government Technology, for example, is really part of the improvement infrastructure. So we also talk about the need to better network the improvement communities that already exist using the best of today's technology. 

Q: It seems to me the scope of what you are getting at might be missed if we only think of computer networks in the narrow context of "communication medium," or at least in comparison to earlier communication media. 

A: Oh, you bet. It's just a whole new mode for doing knowledge work. It starts with the way you can really change the way you externalize the symbols that are being used to represent information and knowledge. The computer has so much more flexibility to portray things than the printed press did; so much more flexibility for letting you view it in different ways; for controlling what you are moving through and how you see it; and how you make connections. 

It is just a totally different medium. And so when people just think of it as piping around current document pages, they are just missing a huge part of the potential which is going to come. Current practices like the GUI interface -- a lot of people credit me with what turned into the GUI interface. True, we did interface stuff in windows and all of that, but we sure weren't thinking that you were going to have to point and click at everything. Could you imagine any other control, for a car or an aircraft or whatever, where you had to point and click at everything? 

That is very limiting. To get around it, you need to change people's perceptions that there is a real, new capability to go after -- and then go after it. We've got to get away from saying, "Well, the way I steer a horse and buggy is with reigns, so the natural way to steer this new horseless carriage is with reigns." 

Q: You've mentioned knowledge and knowledge workers several times. Do you have any ideas about how technology is actually going to change our ideas of what knowledge is and how we use it? 

A: You bet. And the roles people will have in using knowledge and the way they will collaborate together. It is only going to be possible if there is a lot more specialization, but not just in little tiny pockets. Different people will have to specialize in different ways. You might be broad at a certain altitude so to speak. Someone else might be very deep. And someone else might pick these five little zones that aren't connected because they all have synergistic impact with each other. 

So there will be roles for specialists who can all fit together to make the collective capability work, perhaps like a football team. It will be teams of people moving the ball rather than every individual picking it up and staggering for a few feet before somebody else picks it up and goes on by himself or herself. 

Q: Do you see any particular challenges for people who work in government? What advice would you give to the head of a government agency, for instance? 

A: Any government agency will face many of the same changes that other organizations face in the way they do knowledge work. Most government agencies are engaged mostly in knowledge work. So the roles will change, and what they can do will change because larger social needs are also going to change dramatically. A government agency is interacting with citizens to provide service, but also to assess needs and steer and interact that way. 

Take any legislature. How are we going to change the effectiveness of political lawmakers? During a time of tremendous change, we are going to need a lot more flexible understanding of things that are happening than currently prevails, or we are in real trouble. So how do we bring that about? What kind of changes are needed to maintain democratic principles -- especially when people just have to know a lot more? Will the support staff for legislators have to have a more explicit role? Are they themselves going to have to be responsible for the accuracy of the knowledge they provide to the guy who is supposed to do the voting? 

There are going to be a lot of problems connected with making needed changes to political structures. But they are inevitable. So when we talk about an evolutionary environment in a society that supports the smartest kind of evolution we can get, that's a big strategic need. 

Q: Some people might look at this and say, "Well, we are evolving." Certainly, businesses are changing and, to some degree, so is government. 

A: Sure they are evolving. But, right now, they are evolving in an environment that gives them how much of a picture of where they are going? If everyone is simply adapting to what they see currently, how good a view or how good an assessment is that? So the real question is, "How can we get a better view of the future?" If you add up all the things that are already being planned and thought about, and made scenarios of those, I'll bet you the future many organizations think they are developing toward would be very different. 

If people ask themselves where they want to be in five years, they usually are not aware that there are already technologies that could be turned into products, or will be, that would drastically change their assumptions about what they could be in five or 10 years. The time constants for changing organizations are much longer than the time constants for getting new products out. So the key question is, "Who is driving all this anyway?" There are limitations to any market orientation. People's immediate perceptions of what truly might be valuable to them isn't always the most enlightened. 

Q: Are there any other basic assumptions that spring to mind that limit how we have been looking at things? 

A: Fundamentally, I believe we are unprepared for the scale and pervasiveness of the technology changes ahead, and especially the secondary effects of these technologies. Who is thinking about these second-order changes, which can be huge? And who is really aware of the forthcoming nanotechnology? This is for sure going to be there. You will be able to manufacture things that are so very, very small and therefore so very, very fast. 

Putting that to work in the digital area will guarantee that, in 10 or 20 years, you just have unimaginable computing and memory capabilities and bandwidth -- not to mention little objects that are sensors of all kinds, optical and hearing, magnetic, electromagnetic, smell, all much more sensitive than we are. And you can embed these devices in humans so humans can have new sensory perceptions. All that is, for sure, going to come about. But who is thinking about the effects this will have and what we need to do to prepare to cope as a society? Nobody I know of. 

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