Douglas Engelbart in a Flow of Inspirations

Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925-2013) is cited most prominently for his 1968 “Mother of All Demos”. He introduced his team’s research program by using of an early time-sharing computer system, what he called an “oN-Line System” (NLS), that used a “mouse” to support human interaction with the computer. For example, as you can see from his demonstration, he showed his audience how he could cut and paste words he highlighted with his mouse and how he could create a shopping list and so on. He was decades ahead of his time.

Douglas Engelbart’s NLS – History Computer

The mouse was one concrete invention that arose from his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center – later called the Augmentation Research Center –  based at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where he and a small group of colleagues began developing the NLS. This was in line with his focus on the use of computing to complement human intelligence, what he called “augmented intelligence” rather than artificial intelligence (AI). He credited Vannevar Bush for inspiring his vision, such as through Bush’s paper ‘As We May Think’. When he visited the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2004, he told us about how a member of his team thought the device they were using looked like a mouse, with tail and all, so they used that term as a placeholder until they came up with a proper name for it. The mouse stuck.

Just as Engelbart was inspired by Bush, Engelbart inspired many others, such as Ted Nelson (1987), who coined the concept of hypertext and his visionary work on the Xanadu project. Ted was with us at the OII in 2004 and helped host Doug Engelbart’s visit. The concept of hypertext was clearly an influence on the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland. The Web’s development in the open innovation culture of CERN has been critical to countless other developments of the Internet and Web and related digital media (Dutton 2013: 9-10).

Arthur Bullard photo of Bill Dutton, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson in 2004, courtesy of the OII

Many colleagues are beginning to document and archive the course of developments and their interrelationships in the short but incredible history of information and communication technologies (ICT) like the internet and web, such as the Engelbart Archive and the UK’s Archive for IT, as one I have only begun to follow more closely. It may be too early, but perhaps we can someday begin to track the course of innovations in Internet studies as well, as I began to describe in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Dutton 2013).

References

Dutton, W. H. (2013; 2014 paperback) (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, T. (1987), Literary Machines. Swathmore PA: Mindful.

Could History be the New, New Thing? Archiving

Could History be the New, New Thing: Archiving

Could it be that the digerati are beginning to wonder about the origins of such ‘innovations’ as video communication, AI, remote work, and more? Are they discovering that all these innovations have a long history in the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs)? 

These questions arose as I’ve become aware of a variety of initiatives to better document the history of communication and information technologies and the people associated with the communication revolution. It is arguable that most individuals focused on new advances in media and ICTs have no historical perspective at all. I’ve called it ‘innovation amnesia’. Some think video is new, for example, but have little or no knowledge of the many efforts to launch video communication since the late 1960s. 

Pre-IT Archives

Most recently I was interviewed by the individuals behind the development of Archives of IT. These developers are realizing that many of those associated with the emergence of information technologies have either passed away or may not be around many more years. The Archives are collecting oral histories of those closely associated with IT and the IT industry in the UK and worldwide. As they began to look at those studying the societal implications of IT, they interviewed me, as the founding director of the OII, among a number of others to begin tracking its study. See: https://archivesit.org.uk/interviews/professor-bill-dutton/

This experience reminded me of my own work in archiving the papers of James H. Quello, one of the longest serving members of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). When I was Director of the Quello Center at MSU I put together the James H. Quello Archives, which is being supported and up-dated by the Quello Center.

Similarly, an old colleague from my USC days (A. Michael Noll) has assembled an archive of William O. ‘Bill’ Baker, who was the vice president for research at Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1955 to 1973, retiring as Chairman in 1980. Bell Labs was critical to the revolution in communication technologies.

Teaching and research could be supported by new materials such as these. Might these be traces of a new interest in the history of ICTs and their implications for society? Possibly, and for two basic reasons.

First, there is an increasingly interesting and cumulative history to document.

Secondly, the gathering of information and conduct of interviews, for example, are increasingly possible anywhere in the world. ICTs have democratized the process of archiving so we no longer have to rely only on special collections in libraries. Individuals and civic minded associations have the wherewithal to archive.

So, as we see people talking about old enduring topics as if they are genuinely new, more of us can see the value of better documenting and preserving the social dynamics of past successes and failures – and we have the means to do it – archiving.  

Links:

Archives of IT: https://archivesit.org.uk

Interview with me on the Archives: https://archivesit.org.uk/interviews/professor-bill-dutton/

James H. Quello Archive: https://quello.msu.edu/quello-archives/

William ‘Bill’ O. Baker Archive: http://williamobaker.org