Doug Engelbart, Human Systems, Tribes, and Collective Wisdom

Sunday, December 9 was the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s The Mother of All Demos. There was a symposium in his honor at The Computer History Museum and much media and Twitter activity throughout.

Among the many things said and written that caught my eye that weekend was a Twitter exchange between Greg Lloyd and Mark Szpakowski. Greg tweeted a quote from this Los Angeles Review of Books article:

“At the very heart of Engelbart’s vision was a recognition of the fact that it is ultimately humans who have to evolve, who have to change, not technology.”

Mark responded:

And yet 99% of the Engelbart tribe work has been on the techie Tool System. http://www.dougengelbart.org/firsts/human-system.html … used to say “coming soon”; now it has disappeared. Time to join up with recent progress on Social Technologies for Complex Adaptive Anticipatory Human Systems?

I agree with Mark, with one caveat: It depends on how you define the “Engelbart tribe.” Let’s explore this caveat first.

Tribes and Movements

There are many folks specializing in process design (what Doug would have categorized as “Human Systems”) who consider Doug a mentor or, at worst, an inspiration. I’m one of them, although I didn’t start (exclusively) from this place when I started working with him in 2000.

Three others in this group have been direct mentors to me: Jeff Conklin, who spent a good amount of time with Doug, and Gail and Matt Taylor, who didn’t, but who knew of him and his work. David Sibbet, the graphic facilitation pioneer, came across Doug’s work in 1972 and worked some with Geoff Ball, who was on Doug’s SRI team doing research on facilitating groups with a shared display. Those four people alone make for an impressive, accomplished, world-changing group.

There are also many, many more folks doing important work in human systems who aren’t familiar with Doug’s work at all or who don’t identify with him for whatever reason. Doug himself thought that lots of what was happening in both open source software development communities and in the Agile Movement were highly relevant, although he had nothing to do with either. At the Symposium celebrating Doug, Christina Engelbart, Doug’s daughter and the keeper of his intellectual legacy, connected the Lean movement to her dad’s work and invited Brant Cooper, the author of The Lean Entrepreneur, to speak.

An effective movement is an inclusive one. What matters more: Seeing Doug’s vision through, or establishing tribal boundaries? If the former, then it’s important to acknowledge and embrace the work of those who may not have the same heroes or conceptual frames of reference.

I don’t think many of us who loved Doug and were inspired by his vision have been very good at this, and unfortunately, our tribalism has extended to technologists too. After the Symposium, I had drinks with my friend, James Cham, who is a long-time fan of Doug’s, but who wasn’t lucky enough to spend much time with him. James told me that Dylan Field (co-founder of Figma Design) was inspired by Doug and that he had hosted his own celebration of the Demo that same Sunday that 300 people attended. Amjad Masad (founder of Repl.it, a tool that Doug would have loved) gave a thoughtful toast about Doug’s work there.

I didn’t know either Dylan or Amjad, and I certainly didn’t know that they tracked Doug’s work and were inspired it. I’m fairly certain that the organizers of the official celebration didn’t either. That’s pretty remarkable, given how small of a place Silicon Valley is. Now that we know, I hope we can start making some fruitful connections.

Capabilities and Collective Wisdom

The movement of folks committed to Doug’s larger vision is much larger than the “official” tribe to which Mark referred in his tweet. But even if we take into account this larger group, I think Mark’s criticism still holds.

Doug sought to make the world collectively smarter. He believed the path to achieving this would be a co-evolutionary process involving both tool and human systems. In other words, new tools would give us new capabilities, assuming we learned how to master them. Those new capabilities would inspire us to create even better tools. Rinse, and repeat.

As my friend, Travis Kriplean, pointed out to me this morning, we can already test this hypothesis. Technology has already evolved exponentially. Have our collective capabilities — or even more importantly, our collective wisdom — evolved with it?

Let’s narrow the question. Our ability to capture, store, and share information has improved by leaps and bounds since Doug’s Demo in 1968. Has our collective memory increased as a result of that?

If you were pinning me down, I would guess, “no.” The mere existence of those tools don’t guarantee that we remember more. Furthermore, the tools have a nasty side effect of overwhelm. But, these tools certainly create the potential for us to remember more — we just have to figure out how.

Right now, my eight- and 14-year old nephews have access to this blog, where they can read many of my innermost thoughts, including stories I wrote about them when they were younger. Right now, they can explore my Flickr, Instagram, and YouTube accounts without even having to ask for permission. If they asked for permission, I would probably let them go through my Google Maps Timeline, which is automatically harvested from my cell phone’s location data and which contains a comprehensive journal of my every day travels over the past few years. They already have access to lots of information about me, including my efforts to distill little bits and pieces of my experience. Most of this is purely the result of technology, with a little bit coming from my occasional discipline of sharing thoughts here and there.

But does any of this help them become wiser? If not, is it because our technology has not evolved enough, or is it because our human practices have not evolved with the technology?

The best example I know of a human system that evolved with the technology are wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular. Not enough people realize that wikis and Wikipedias aren’t just tools. They are a wonderful marriage of human and tool systems that created fundamentally new collective capabilities, exactly the type of thing that Doug envisioned. They are also 20-year old examples. I think this speaks very much to Mark’s critique.

Recommended Readings on Doug Engelbart’s Ideas

Earlier this month, someone asked me for the best resources to learn about Doug Engelbart’s work. Doug didn’t publish prolifically, but he wrote quite a bit, and some of his papers are must-read classics. You can find most of his writing and many other great resources at the Doug Engelbart Institute, which is curated by his daughter, Christina.

Start with his classic paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”, which he published in 1962.

For Doug’s own historical overview of his work (published in 1985), read, “Workstation History and the Augmented Knowledge Workshop.”

For a deeper understanding of his conceptual framework for high-performance teams, knowledge work, and the role of technology, read, “Knowledge-Domain Interoperability and an Open Hyperdocument System” (1990) and “Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware” (1992).

I’ve written a lot about Doug and his work over the years, and it represents only a fraction of what I learned from him. For a high-level overview of his work and why I think he’s so important, start with my tribute to him when he passed away in 2013 (“Inventing the mouse was the least of it”) as well as my more personal tribute.

Brad Neuberg also wrote an excellent overview of Doug’s ideas. There are also short video clips of me, Brad, Jon Cheyer, and Adam Cheyer at a memorial service for Doug that I think are worth watching.

Luisa Beck did a great podcast earlier this year for 99% Invisible on Doug’s design philosophy, featuring Christina and Larry Tesler.

For more down-and-dirty essays about and inspired by Doug’s thinking, read:

For more on Dynamic Knowledge Repositories (DKRs) and Networked Improvement Communities (NICs), read:

Finally, for a detailed repository of notes and recommendations from when I first started working with Doug in 2002, see this list. Sadly, many of the links are broken, but most are probably findable via search.

If you have others to recommend and share, please post in the comments below!

purple-include: Granular Transclusions for the Common Man

Many thanks to Jonathan Cheyer, Craig Latta, and Kaliya Hamlin for coming to the HyperScope sprint this past weekend, and special thanks to Christina Engelbart for hosting. Also thanks to Thom Cherryhomes and others who hung out with us on IRC. The notes from the day are up on the Wiki, and I put up some pictures as well.    (MEL)

https://i2.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1134/681861752_857ef74d28_m.jpg?w=700    (MEM)

The big news, though, is that Brad, Jonathan, and I wrote a cool hack called purple-include, based on Mark Nottingham‘s most excellent hinclude. It lets you transclude granular chunks of content from any web site by using an img-like tag. Check out the examples. I think this will go a long way in making Transclusions more common on the Web.    (MEN)

You address granular content either by using a fragment identifier that the document author provides (such as a Purple Number) or by using an XPath expression. Thanks to Tony Chang for his cool interactive XPath tester.    (MEO)

The planned next step is to create a Firefox plugin that adds a “Transclude” option when you right click inside of a browser text widget. This will allow you to transclude copied content, rather than paste it. Don’t know whether any of us will get to this soon, so we encourage the lazy web and all you Firefox hackers to beat us to the punch.    (MEP)

This was my first non-trivial foray into JavaScript, and I was disturbed by what I saw. The language itself is not horrible, although its object system makes Perl 5 look like Smalltalk. What’s shameful is its API support. We had to use a very ugly, although apparently common hack to get a DOM of external web pages. This is pure silliness. The browser is already doing the hard work of parsing broken HTML and XML and turning it into a DOM. Why not easily expose that functionality to the developer?    (MEQ)

As Brad dryly noted, “Welcome to my world.”    (MER)

HyperScope Sprint, June 30 in Sebastopol

Last month, we held a HyperScope sprint at Jonathan Cheyer‘s house in San Jose.    (MCC)

https://i1.wp.com/farm1.static.flickr.com/221/497382906_fa363d9798_m.jpg?w=700    (MCD)

It was so productive and fun, we’ve planned another one at the end of this month, Saturday, June 30, from 10am until we drop. This time, we’ll be meeting at Christina Engelbart‘s house in beautiful Sebastopol.    (MCE)

Please join us! This will be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the HyperScope and to hang out with some very interesting and cool people. RSVP at Upcoming or contact me if you’d like to attend, and I’ll forward more details.    (MCF)

Announcing HyperScope v1.0!

Last March, I announced the HyperScope project. Six months later, I’m proud to announce the release of HyperScope v1.0. More information is available from the HyperScope web site.    (L5E)

We’re throwing a little release party at SRI in Menlo Park tomorrow night to celebrate, and it looks like we’re going to have a great crowd. We’re also announcing a contest to write HyperScope file transformers. The prize? No less than lunch with the man himself, Doug Engelbart. (Or, if you’re not in the Bay Area, then you’ll win an autographed poster.)    (L5F)

It has been an intense and gratifying experience. I’ve known Doug for almost seven years now, and I’ve studied his work intensely for longer, and I still learned a tremendous amount. Much of that learning was the result of collaborating with an unbelievable team, including Doug, his daughter Christina Engelbart, Jonathan Cheyer, and the man who wrote the HyperScope code, Brad Neuberg.    (L5G)

I’m looking forward to sharing much of that knowledge over the next few months. For now, play with the software and participate in our community. The best document (for now) to play with is Doug’s classic 1962 paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”    (L5H)