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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.