Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On the Death of Douglas Englebart

Last night Douglas Englebart died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 88. It is hard to think of any major aspect of how we now do our work with computing resources than cannot be traced back, one way or another, to the pioneering insights of Englebart's Augmentation Research Center at what was then called the Stanford Research Institute. If, at the beginning of his fundamental textbook, Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers, R. W. Hamming had declared (in capital letters, no less):
Englebart followed through by asking how computer hardware and software could be designed in such a way as to augment our capacity of insight (what Englebart called, in his own words, "augmenting human intellect"). It was that motivation that led to the naming of the research he both pioneered and supervised.

We do not hear the word "intellect" used very much these days. It tends to get drowned out by those who persist in shouting "innovation." However, intellect involves far more than the ability to reinforce innovation by establishing its independence from prior art. It involves going beyond asking:
What can we do that is new?
to asking:
What will be served by doing it?
It also involves the ability to think dispassionately about consequences, rather than concentrating only on promotion. As a result, the world the Internet made has become a world in which unintended consequences blow back (with a nod to Chalmers Johnson) in our faces when we least expect them to do so.

The last time I heard Englebart speak was about fifteen years ago. He was as enthusiastic about augmentation as he was in 1968, when he was first beginning to show concrete results from his Augmentation Research Center. I am glad he died peacefully. Perhaps age had taught him to be philosophical when informed of all the ways in which his visions had been compromised.

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