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.

Perspective

For the past four weeks, I’ve been doing a little experiment as part of a cohort in which I’m participating. Every week, I’ve set aside three hours to write about lessons I’ve learned from different people (Doug Engelbart, Jeff Conklin, Chris Dent, Gail and Matt Taylor, and Kristin Cobble) and projects. I’m doing it primarily as a bottoms-up exercise to surface the core principles of my work, but I’m also curious to see if the stories themselves help people better understand my own story — why I do the work that I do and the core principles underlying my practice.

It’s been challenging and fun. It’s definitely helped me get clear, and I’ve also gotten good feedback from peers. I’ve benefited from decently organized notes over the years, several of which I published on this blog.

At times, I find myself flummoxed by how long I’ve been doing this. I “officially” started focusing on collaboration in 2002 — 15 years ago! — and I started this blog the following year. I’ve been pulling up lots of posts that I wrote a decade ago or longer, and while it’s been fun to revisit work that I was doing and questions I was exploring, it also leaves me wondering where the years have gone.

Then I think about my mentors. Jeff had been doing this work for 20 years when I first met him, Matt and Gail for almost 30, and Doug for 50! One of the many things that all four of these good folks had in common was that they were still curious, still learning. They had strong points of view that they had earned through many years of real practice, but they never let that interfere with their hunger to learn more and from anyone, regardless of age or background.

Compared to my mentors, 15 years still squarely places me in the beginner category, which is good, because that’s about how I feel. Maybe I’m in second grade now. It’s firing me up for what I’ll learn in the next 15 years, at which point maybe I’ll graduate to third grade.

More importantly, it reminds me how lucky I’ve been to have important mentors in my life and how important it is for me to pay it forward.

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!

My Top Blog Posts in 2013

Here are my top 10 blog posts from 2013 (unique visits in parentheses, bolded items explained below):

  1. Aaron Swartz (3,105)
  2. Tom Bihn Bags for Micro Four Thirds Cameras (1,732)
  3. Seeking Google Alerts Replacement (699)
  4. Balance, Impact, and Next Steps (333)
  5. Three Simple Hacks for Making Delightful Virtual Spaces (300)
  6. Survey on Changemaker Challenges (255)
  7. Five Tips for Facilitating Power Dynamics (235)
  8. WikiWednesday in San Francisco: State of the Wiki Ecosystem (199)
  9. Balance Bikes for Changemakers (199)
  10. Lessons on Mentors and Mentorship (158)

I found this breakdown curious, and it speaks to why I started my new website, Faster Than 20. The purpose of this blog is not to build an audience. It’s a place to record my thoughts. If others find my posts useful, great. If my posts catalyze interesting interactions and lead to new connections and learning, even better.

My site statistics reflect my lack of intentionality as well as the vagaries of attention on the Internet. The top post by far was a memory I shared about Aaron Swartz, someone I barely knew. Obviously, his suicide was big news, and rightfully so. But my tribute to Doug Engelbart — someone whom I knew well and who was more famous than Aaron — didn’t even crack my top 25 most visited posts. (It was 27.)

My second most visited post was about camera bags. I’ve written over 650 posts, and none of them have been even remotely similar to that piece. Why the popularity? Mostly because it was reshared by Tom Bihn, the manufacturer I mentioned in the post, but also because there’s not a lot of good information on the Internet about bags for micro-four-thirds cameras, which was why I wrote the post in the first place. From that perspective, I’m glad that it’s been a popular post.

On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed that the knowledge nuggets I shared about collaboration (by rough count, about 75 percent of my posts this past year) were not more prominently represented in the top 10. (The ones that were are bolded.) I think that several have been useful and important, but they have not been widely accessed. This could either mean that I’m overstating their importance in my head, or that I haven’t been intentional enough about building the audience.

Both are probably true, which is why I started Faster Than 20. I’m happy about keeping this space as is, but I want more people to read what I have to share about collaboration. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference intention makes next year.

Passing the Torch

We hired Dana Reynolds as Groupaya’s administrative assistant in the middle of 2012. She was a recent college graduate who had all the attributes we were looking for — hard-working, competent, detail-oriented, learning-oriented. She was also ambitious and aggressive, two attributes I love and relate to. She wanted to become an organizational development consultant, and she was looking for a place where she could learn the trade.

This past year, as I started to explore what I wanted to do next, I thought a lot about Dana. I knew she was learning a tremendous amount from working closely with Kristin Cobble, my former business partner, but I also knew that actual practice opportunities were few and far between.

My new mission, in many ways, can be boiled down to this: Creating practice opportunities for people like Dana. Changemaker Bootcamp has been my primary experiment, but I’ve been playing with other ideas as well.

Dana participated in my most recent Changemaker Bootcamp pilot, and I got to see first-hand how much she’s grown in the year since I left Groupaya. After my exit interview with her, we discussed her career goals, and I saw how hungry she was for practice opportunities.

A few weeks later, an opportunity unexpectedly cropped up. Meghan Reilly of Code for America reached out to me and asked if I would facilitate their staff retreat. I explained that I no longer do that sort of thing, but I asked if she’d be open to having someone less experienced facilitate the retreat, with me serving as backup. She very graciously said yes.

We had done this together once before. Meghan had reached out to me two years earlier about the same thing. I had just started Groupaya with Kristin, and I saw it as an opportunity to give our associate, Rebecca Petzel, some practice with me as backup. Meghan graciously agreed, and Rebecca killed. The difference was that Rebecca was far more experienced then than Dana was now, and she had known a lot more about the organization and the civic innovation space. Having Dana do it was risky, and I did not take the faith that Meghan and the other leaders at Code for America had in me lightly.

So we prepared. Dana worked really hard and put in extra time to make sure she was ready.

The day before the retreat, Dana and I were supposed to meet to complete our preparation. At the last minute, I needed to find a different location for our meeting, so I reached out to Rebecca to see if we could use her coworking space. Rebecca said yes, and she also found time to sit in on part of our meeting, which was an unexpected bonus.

At one point, Dana asked me if she could keep time during the retreat on her cell phone. I opened my mouth to respond, but Rebecca jumped in beforehand. She took off her watch (which her best friend had given her), and she handed it to Dana.

She explained, “When I did their retreat two years ago, I realized that it was hard to keep time with my cell phone. I didn’t have a watch, so Eugene loaned me his. Now I want to loan you mine, so you can use it tomorrow.”

It was a beautiful gesture, and the spot where I was sitting may have gotten a little dusty at that point. Dana ended up doing an amazing job, far exceeding my expectations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship this past year. I worked very hard to get to where I am, but the reality is that I was also incredibly lucky to have mentors who believed in me and who opened doors for me. The most important one — the one who set me on this path in the first place — passed away earlier this year. I feel a huge responsibility to create opportunities for others in the same way that he did for me.

I very much hope that my professional peers feel the same way. The kind of work that we do around collaboration is urgent and necessary, and a lot more people need to learn how to do it effectively. We have a responsibility not just to pass on our knowledge, but to create opportunities for others so that they can learn the way we did.

Seeing Rebecca “pass the watch” to Dana meant a lot to me, but what has been even more gratifying has been watching Rebecca work. This past year, she led a six-month collective learning process with a group of civic engagement funders that was innovative and transformative. There are only a handful of people in the world who could have done the work as skillfully as she did, and that handful does not include me.

I want to live in a world where there are thousands of people like Rebecca doing the kind of work that she’s been doing as well as she’s been doing it. Dana will get there, but we need many, many more. In order for this to happen, those of us who are already doing this kind of work have a responsibility to share what we’ve learned and to create opportunities for others so that a new, better generation can emerge.