July 26, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Unfinished Revolution

Howard Rheingold wrote an interesting piece in Tech Review about Engelbart’s Unfinished Revolution. It emphasizes the difficulty that Engelbart experienced in later years in finding support for his vision for using computers to augment human intelligence.

Engelbart’s pitches of linked leaps in technology and organizational behaviors probably sounded as crazy to 1980s corporate managers as augmenting human intellect with machines did in the early 1960s.

Rheingold goes way too far when he asserts that “Engelbart labored for most of his life and career to get anyone to think seriously about his idea.” In my experience, everyone took Engelbart very seriously indeed. I think Engelbart consistently received a thoughtful hearing. This was not always true of Engelbart’s colleague and fellow pioneer, Ted Nelson, who was less well understood by the research community and who rarely got along very well with IT management.

To adopt modern terms, Engelbart wanted (in 1964!) to accelerate the singularity and proposed that we set out to do it right away. This was an intriguing proposition but not a comfortable one. Doug never softened that message and I never heard him address the consequences. If the future is not evenly distributed, what will happen to the people who happen to be less augmented? If augmentation multiplies intellectual abilities, won’t natural disparities and injustices be magnified?

Dave Winer’s response is precise:

I read Howard Rheingold's piece on the Technology Review website, about how the revolution that Doug Engelbart envisioned has gone unfinished. To which I say -- not so. The work continues.

Fargo is tool for augmenting human intellect, as were ThinkTank, Ready, MORE, Frontier and the OPML Editor. As are WordPress, Tumblr and their predecessors. And Twitter.

The web certainly is an intellect-augmenting workspace.

This is absolutely true.

A frustrating fact of the first long generation of personal computing is that we have tended to use our new abilities not to learn more nor to think more, but rather to dress up our work in order to impress managers. We all typeset our memos, dress up our Web sites, and ornament our presentations.

But still, as Winer says, we’re getting there and the work continues.