Doug Engelbart

January 25th, 2010

When I first started reading this article, I did not realize that it was written by Doug Engelbart. While many people may not recognize his name, they will recognize his most well-known invention: the computer mouse. This and several other innovations by Engelbart were unveiled in 1968 at the “Mother of All Demos.” Other keynotes at this convention included the first example of video conferencing, and crude versions of email.

This article, being written in 1962, offers an interesting look into some of the early concepts behind Engelbart’s soon-to-be-unveiled ideas. Hands down, he is one of the most important people in modern computing history. He had a keen insight into the fundamental human-computer relationship, which was necessary in order to innovate. Let’s take, for example, the mouse, one of the most basic peripheral devices that we take for granted.

At its inception, it wasn’t highly sought after. Sure, some people were interested in it, but no one could really wrap their head around how useful this device would be. This is because they couldn’t look deeper into the human-computer relationship the way Engelbart could, which we can see mapped out so clearly in his article. He didn’t just want to invent new things for computers in the 60’s – he wanted to deconstruct the fundamental interface, and then cater tools to this relationship. This is why many of his early innovations laid the groundwork for things we use today: email, networking, work applications, and of course, the mouse.

Videos of his 1968 Demo can be found here. You can see him demonstrate some of the ideas conveyed in the article.


January 21st, 2010

I’ve always lamented the terrible computer training students receive throughout their educational careers, from elementary school to college. Quality digital curricula has been reserved for the IT guys and CS majors. For those of us who consider ourselves tech savvy yet not necessarily professionals, or even hobbyists, this has been more than a little frustrating. It’s kind of like the way I learned piano: I taught myself how to play piano when I was little, and still dabble today. I’m really terrible, actually, but I can get through a few songs and it sounds like I know what I’m doing. But since I never had any consistent, formal training, my ability to understand the art and process of playing piano never developed. I can do a few things, but with no real insight into the hows and whys.

My tech experience has been comparable. I’ve been teaching myself little things along the way, and even briefly managed a website for a company I worked for. I can do a few cool things, but I can’t seem to tie it all together due to lack of consistent education, and also lack of time and/or personal interest on my part to keep up with the constantly changing standards – especially in those post-bubble burst days before the Web 2.0 phenomenon, when all the rules changed.

The revolution that was dreamed of in the days of the DynaBook was partially realized: we have superb, intuitive machines that are reliable, functional, and generally progressive. We can do anything from schoolwork, to business management, to hobbies like gaming, music composition, and art generation. We can own  traditional desktop towers, or super-mobile devices like laptops, netbooks, and pdas. Access to broadband means everyone is connected, and information is always at our fingertips. Physically, the revolution is here. But something is lacking. As Gardner Campbell said, the computer revolution was realized, but the true dawn of the information age has yet to be seen.

Gardner Campbell’s take on the personal cyberinfrastructure truly sums up what I’ve been thinking all these years, but could never put a finger on. We’re completely capable of moving to the next step in our digital evolution, but instead we’re stuck in this digital facelift. Ironically, as computing becomes more user-friendly, allowing the masses to participate in the digital world, the disparity between tech savvy pros and average users grows wider. Sure, everyone can use a computer and the powerful applications that come with it, but who actually knows what they’re doing, and why? Does anyone else find it absurd that one person can program their own applications while another is still trying to figure out how to use a firewall? The user-friendly method is great for accessibility, but has dramatically hindered our ability to think outside the box.

I love how kids were exposed to the DynaBook. Nothing was dumbed down, they weren’t confined to the realm of At Ease and Office products. They were taught not only how to use the device, but also to manipulate it. The quote “a computer is an instrument whose music is ideas” is so very fitting. Students need to be able to identify with interfaces, not be blind to them. The idea of mainstream education about basic cyberinfrastructure management is very appealing to me. This way, each student is at a basic level of competence when entering real-world situations. We will be able to think on a more dynamic level than before, pushing the boundaries and allowing for comprehensive participation.