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Doug Englebart and what world he was trying to create

July 16, 2013

What world was Doug Englebart trying to create?

In No Straight Lines, technology plays an important role, it must do. Because to deny our umbilical relationship with technology is to deny ourselves. But it always seems a struggle to get people to reconcile  the important philosophical, anthropological and societal relationships to technology that we indeed have – where it comes from, what drives our longing (on a large scale) which consequently affects what we imagine, create and make. Doug Englebart died recently, a man who had a profound social impact through his work in computational technological innovation, and I came across this great post by Bret VictorA few words on Doug Englebart. What drew me to this post is my maxim that, ‘technology only succeeds when it meets fundamental human needs’. Englebart was credited with pioneering the mousehypertext, and video conferencing amongst other things and his obituaries singled these out as his achievements’, however as Bret Victor explains,

Engelbart had an intent, a goal, a mission. He stated it clearly and in depth. He intended to augment human intellect. He intended to boost collective intelligence and enable knowledge workers to think in powerful new ways, to collectively solve urgent global problems.

The problem with saying that Engelbart “invented hypertext”, or “invented video conferencing”, is that you are attempting to make sense of the past using references to the present. “Hypertext” is a word that has a particular meaning for us today. By saying that Engelbart invented hypertext, you ascribe that meaning to Engelbart’s work.

The least important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What did he build?” The most important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What world was he trying to create?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to create that world yourself.

That to me says it all, what world was he trying to create? What is the destination that he, you or I  pursue? Or, how can one enhance and improve the human condition. Bill Bailey a comedian was once asked how he came up with his jokes, he said, ‘I start with a laugh (destination) and then I work backwards, what do I need to do to create that amount of laughter?’. Brilliant. This was Englebart’s goal, and technology was the tool to get us there. The other way of looking at this is through the lens of Craftsmanship – where the Craftsman asks is what I create for the collective good and to be in service to that principle. Something that Tim Berners Lee undoubtedly was committed to, and returns us to the idea of what type of world are we trying to create.

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