Interview with Doug Engelbart

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Posted by Newsroom on February 27, 1997 at 11:54:34:

The Third Part of Doug Engelbart: The Interview.

This is the last section of an interview I conducted with Douglas
Engelbart. In this discussion, Doug Engelbart discussed how to foster
creativity in computing, and why he created an organization called The
Bootstrap Institute to recreate the kind of "out of the box" thinking which
led to a series of computing breakthroughs in the late sixites and early
seventies, one of the most fertile periods of computing invention to date.
Since government-funded research is not a viable option in the USA, Doug
proposes means by which private institutions can recreate the research labs
of yore.

At this point in the conversation, Doug had declared that private
enterprise could not be expected to produce unexpected, paradigm-shifting
work. Here Doug expands on why this is so...

DOUGLAS ENGELBART: Let's assume that the vendor world has to be driven from
profits and market share: when you find the right hill you're going to
climb, it can help you climb better and better towards cheaper and better
product. But, hell, it's not going to be what helps you find the right
hill. What you have to have is real experimental working groups. This is
going to take a new kind of institution. So we ended up formulating -- for
the last thirty years -- this bootstrapping consortium.

DAVID BENNAHUM: The Bootstrap Institute (

DE: The Institute is there to say: "Hey, people, what you really need is a
bootstrap alliance and the right kind of consortium." There's beginning to
be movement about that now, which is very exciting. We're actually getting
a not-for-profit corporate setup for a Bootstrap Alliance; a formulation
for it and how it's going to do; and a conduit through which member
organizations can participate.

DB: So Bootstrap is a kind of private initiative to recreate the kind of
research and development that's no longer funded by the government?

DE: It's the kind of thing that's pretty hard to fund directly by the
government. It's sort of like saying: if you want to find out how you can
colonize the floor of the ocean, the government will subsidize quite a lot
of the endeavor. Pretty soon, if you're serious, you've got to go into
combination with the government -- because it gives the subsidies that
support it. But someplace, you've got to find communities of intrepid
people who'll say: "We're ready to go down there and start living now."

DB: Is that what happened in the late sixties at the Augmentation Research
Center? -- did you guys totally live this system?

DE: That made a big difference. Then in the mid-seventies we started
saying "Hey. Now we're ready to reach out to other organizations and start
giving support to those who want to change" -- that's the way the Alliance
is planned to be: it's there to find how you can give the best support to
member organizations trying to improve their capability. Our web site has
an increasing number of things that elucidate the stance and the goals, and
some of the dialog that'll be on Electric Minds will be helping to develop
those thoughts.

DB: What role do you see for everyday people in the attempt to design
these tools for the future? Is that something we can all participate in? Or
is it mostly up to the scientists?

DE: It depends on what kind of scientists you're talking about. But to my
mind, it's a lot more pragmatic than that. If you really start looking at
the way people can shift the way they think and work and collaborate, you
might say: "If we had skills and new methodologies and new conventions
between us like this and this and this, we could employ tools that would do
this and that" -- for which there's no market yet today, because there's
nobody doing this and that.

DB: What's one of the biggest things that's missing right now from the web
and from our computers? If there was something you could fix tomorrow,
what would you do?

DE: There are several categories here. One category are the things that we
evolved in the Augment system. We found they were very, very valuable, and
yet they apparently haven't shown up.

Look: it's stupid to have a separate editor and a separate browser. In
the beginning, we envisioned reintegrated editing browsers. Then you say:
the moment I create any fragment of a document, I want to be able to let
people point to it. So I want every object in a document, at every stage
of its evolution, to be addressable by a link-server, so you could cite it
and talk about it from anyplace.

DB: So in a way it would be like having a domain name-server that would
name every document separately.

DE: That's just a start. Every object in a document intrinsically has a
name and an address. Several categories of addressing came about. One: it
was given an independent identifier number as it was created; no matter
where it was moved in the document, it still could be addressed by that
number. Another was that we learned that the documents had a lot of payoff
if you structured the document explicitly -- basic hierarchy was very

In any event, a document would also have a location indicator. So you
could use either one. If the document was still evolving, the location was
a little bit shaky. So then we said, there ought to be all sorts of
optional ways in which to view a document. This is something where WYSIWYG
was totally in the wrong direction. You don't want it to look like what it
does on paper. Maybe that's one of the views you want, but you want
optional views. The very simple ones, like folding up at the first line of
every paragraph: boy, that was really neat! And you said: well, also I
could control according to how many levels I want; then I can also filter
by content. You could say these things have properties that I may want
shown or not shown. These are other optional views.

The journal system that we built was very powerful. It circumvented the
issue of somebody saying: "Yes, I can cite it, and yes, it would be very
nice to cite each passage of something where I want to talk in detail about
it and discuss that with you. But what if you modify that document or it
goes away? Then my document that points to passages in yours will look
stupid, because people will need the reference, and I didn't supply a
greatDEal of context because you could go look." We figured that it was
important to be able to consign documents to a frozen state (which was to
be called published tape), and we had this publication environment called
the Journal where you could set up any number of journals, each of which
was like a library that guaranteed it would give it a unique identifier
forevermore; and forevermore, a link to that library would get you that
document as it was published, with the date, hour, minute of publication on

DB: That's crucially important now, because on the web stuff disappears
and evolves. You can't really have an established research base or dialogue
because the context keeps evaporating beneath your feet.

DE: We installed that system in 1970 -- the first year we had our email
with hyperlinks in it. It took a year or so for people to feel comfortable
using it, but boy, it just got so important.

So there are still things in our web site, from 1970 on, that have
journal numbers we put there. When we put them out, every paragraph can
automatically have its location number target tag on it. Those are just a
few of the quite different things we implemented.

A paper, Authorship Provisions in Augment
(, gives a lot of those details,
and there's another paper called Collaboration Support Provisions in
Augment (; that also describes the

DB: What is your impression, right now, of where the web and the Internet
might be heading in the next few years?

DE: I think it's headed for a spiral of increasing utility and
utilization. It's going to be that new social nervous system, for sure.

DB: What would Licklider make of all this?

DE: Oh, he'd be delighted -- he used to talk about the Intergalactic Network.

DB: After he visited your lab, Licklider wrote this paper with Bob Taylor,
The Computer As A Communications Device ("
It predicts that by 2000, we'll have this online community--this world
of people who are online--and the big issues will be privacy and
security: who will and won't have access.

DE: We had one big difference in all of this that surprised me terribly,
in about 1976. He had come back to ARPA, and reviewing what we were doing,
I was telling him: we have this system now and we had it on a server that
was commercially run for us, and it was supporting customers out there,
and we had actually recruited and trained a set of young women who had
liberal-arts educations--who would be the sort of facilitator-trainers
out there in the field. That upset him badly.

He said, "You've just admitted that your system is no damn good." He
believed that that if the system were designed appropriately, it would
teach humans all they needed to know to harness it. And we couldn't get him
to say, "Well, at what time in the future do you think that will be the
case?" In every installation we'd put in so far, you had to adapt and learn
and adjust both how the system worked and how the people worked in order
to comfortably get them started. He was adamant. He felt we had failed.

DB: Because it required too much training to use the system?

DE: Because it required any humans out there to help train. The computer
would be so smart. One of the paradigm things that delayed current usage a
lot was a belief that started in the artificial-intelligence world that
you'd be able to understand human speech and all kinds of stuff--how
humans are problem-solving--and make a model. The computer would watch
the human interact with it for a while, and make a model that could adapt
to the human.

DB: People still cleave to the "intelligent agent" metaphor. It seems a
similar idea: that somehow these agents sense what we want and the computer
adapts to our needs.

DE: Smart agents are going to play a good part in the future. But it's
like automatic pilots in airplanes. They play a role, but they don't yet
take off and fly the plane.

DB: There's a core debate in computer science that's been around for a
while. Some people (I guess Licklider was one of them) had this idea that
eventually computers would be very intelligent beings, able to anticipate
our needs. The other side thinks that will never happen. The issue is the
interface between the person and the machine, more than the hope that the
machine will ever become able to think for itself or anticipate your needs.

DE: Well, there is the sort of in-between place where I fit. I say:
there's no way of saying that computers won't get as smart as we are, or
smarter. But if we as humans want a life and a society and all of that of
our own, we can't turn it all over to them. We have augment ourselves as
much as we can so that we can shape our own destiny. That has been my goal
all this time.

I tell people: look, you can spend all you want on building smart agents
and smart tools, and I'd bet that if you then give those to twenty people
with no special training, and if you let me take twenty people and really
condition and train them especially to learn how to harness the tools, the
people with the training will always outdo the people for whom the
computers were supposed to do the work. To learn what high-performance
human teams can do is, I feel, one of the really salient challenges to
which we should give a lot of attention and focus.

So much has come about. A lot of it is residue from the
artificial-intelligence image, but a lot of it is in the marketing world.
The idea is that simple and easy-tolearn-and-use are important when you're
selling to someone new. But I tell everybody, "Hey, look: if you really
believe that, I'd like to see the tricycle that you ride around on. Because
you'd never have learned to ride a bicycle." The value of learning to
handle special skills in order to harness some artifact -- a bicycle, skis,
a skateboard, a sailboard -- those are important examples of what you can
do if you coevolve your skills with what the technology can provide.

DB: I guess the tradeoff is that, down the line, a tool may not be that
useful when you've mastered it.

DE: Look, we can change the system so it requires more training. You don't
want to make it harder to learn than is necessary, but you don't want to
limit it. I use a little example: "That's like saying, 'I'm going toDEsign
my whole automotive transport system -- cars, the way they're controlled,
the way our highways are, the rules of the road, everything else -- in
accord with the views that people had about such a system in 1905.'" Think
of merging onto the freeway; you're going 60 miles an hour, and you've
got to check over your shoulder, and keep checking in the rearview mirror
and side mirror as you're merging, keeping track of stuff. If somebody in
1905 had said, "Well, yeah, drivers will be doing that every day," they
wouldn't have been believed. In the first place, no one would have
believed that people could handle stuff more than 30 miles an hour, and
nobody used mirrors for anything like that. And if you said, "Women will
do it too," you really would have been laughed off. So I'm trying to get
people to say: "Look, let's start putting some teams together and really
compete to get high-performance teams together." Then we'll find out the
kind of skills that people are willing to learn.

DB: I think our conversation will give people a much better sense of how
the tools they use came into being, and also of what some of the
challenges are facing us right now.

DE: I appreciate the opportunity.

You can join others in discussing Engelbart's work, and this interview in
the InterMinds section
of Electric Minds ( The topic area is called
Engelbart, The Long-Distance Thinker
( I am the host of
the InterMinds Conference Area. In order to join the discussion, you will
need to register with Electric Minds (free), and this can be done by
clicking on the "Join" button on the bottom left-hand corner of the frame
in the InterMinds discussion area.

The entire interview is assembled and on-line at MEME

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