Douglas Engelbart

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Having read Bush's article as an army recruit in the Phillippines, in 1951 Doug Engelbart foresaw that the digital computer technology, when equipped with interactive facilities and interconnected into a network, cold provide exactly what Bush envisioned. Such technology could lead to a quantum leap in the evolution of our businesses and institutions. By evolving "a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms", we could vastly augment our "collective intelligence", and become capable of understanding and resolving our increasingly complex issues. Doug instantly decided to dedicate his then beginning career to the realization of this vision. On December 9, 1968, in what is now called "The Mother of All Demos", he and his SRI-based team showed the core elements of the computer technology with capabilities that are now common – created as building blocks for realizing his overarching goal.

In December 1950 Doug was 25 years old. He had just finished his engineering education, he had an engineering job and he'd just been engaged. He was driving back from work, and thinking about the shape his life had taking. Still so young, and the course of his life all but determined!

Doug did not want it to be that way. He wanted his life to have a purpose.

And so he made up his mind, during that drive, to consciously choose a purpose — so that it maximizes the benefits its career will have on mankind.

And being an systemic thinker and an engineer, he devoted full three months to finding out how.

Then he had his 'epiphany'.

Here is a summary of Doug's thought process, as he later described it in an interview.

“I remembered reading about the people that would go in and lick malaria in an area, and then the population would grow so fast and the people didn't take care of the ecology, and so pretty soon they were starving again, because they not only couldn't feed themselves, but the soil was eroding so fast that the productivity of the land was going to go down. So it's a case that the side effects didn't produce what you thought the direct benefits would. I began to realize it's a very complex world. [...] So then I put it together that the product of these two factors, complexity and urgency, are the measure for human organizations or institutions. The complexity/urgency factor had transcended what humans can cope with. It suddenly flashed that if you could do something to improve human capability to deal with that, then you'd really contribute something basic. That just resonated. Then it unfolded rapidly. I think it was just within an hour that I had the image of sitting at a big CRT screen with all kinds of symbols, new and different symbols, not restricted to our old ones. The computer could be manipulating, and you could be operating all kinds of things to drive the computer. The engineering was easy to do; you could harness any kind of a lever or knob, or buttons, or switches, you wanted to, and the computer could sense them, and do something with it.”

Here is how Doug recalled this in a 2005 interview, for the book Engelbart Hypothesis:

I dreamed that people were talking seriously about the potential of harnessing a technological and social nervous system to improve the IQ of our various organizations. What if, suddenly, in an evolutionary sense, we evolved a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms? Then I dreamed that we got strategic and began to form cooperative alliances of organizations, employing advanced networked computer tools and methods to develop and apply new collective knowledge.

As shown on his Wikipedia page, Doug ended up receiving an impressive collection of honors, medals and honorary degrees for his contributions to the development of information technology. And yet his technological contributions were intended to be only building blocks in the pursuit of this much larger vision, which, to his chagrin, he did not live to see fulfilled.

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