The Engelbart Hypothesis

Doug Engelbart honored as NMC Fellow

Recently it was Doug Engelbart’s 85th birthday. I have had a wide-eyed schoolgirl case of fandom with respect to Doug ever since I read his Augmenting Human Intellect in the book The Growth of Knowledge edited by my mentor, Manfred Kochen [PDF]. The entire collection is still as mindboggling now as it was then. Actually, if you are geeky with respect to the origins of hypertext and collaboration technologies, you can have quite a lot of fun just browsing a Google search for Kochen and Engelbart’s names.

I’ve been doing a lot of explaining “Who is Doug Engelbart?” to folks to explain why I am so ripe with tremulous excitement and giddy with glee over the celebrations. Here is an intro to his thinking for kids, and here is an early article of Doug’s from the Stanford Research Institute. Best intro of all, if you have time, is to watch the videos from The Mother of All Demos in 1968.

As part of the celebrations, there was an amazing mural done by Eileen Clegg and Valerie Landau that is available online as well as in the Second Life version of The Tech Museum of Innovation, and probably the real museum, also.

Cool Toys pics of the day: Engelbart Mural

There was also a BIG celebration at The Tech Museum of Innovation, with the presentation of the Engelbart Prize for Future Global Design, which was won by HealthMap.

Engelbart Prize: HealthMap

But best, best, best of all (IMHO) is his new book, The Engelbart Hypothesis (Amazon).

The Engelbart Hypothesis

The official goal of the book is to put Doug’s concepts, for the first time, within reach of people who are NOT geeks.

A Celebration in Honor of Douglas Engelbart … and the Book … November 19, 2009:

I believe that this book is to strategic use and development of collaborative technology (and thus our future) what Sun Tzu’s Art of War was to strategic conflict. Like Sun Tzu’s book, it is short, aphoristic, quotable, and leaves you longing for more / richer / fuller / detailed descriptions and explanations. It provokes thought, and for me, leaves me a bit frustrated wishing for citations pointing to the technical articles in which his thoughts were originally explained. As I read the book, I want to push copies into my managers’ hands. I hear in their visions for the future of our work echoes of Doug’s earlier vision and find in Doug’s words evidence for their strategies.

Popular belief (at least a recent show on the History Channel) holds that Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War because he was disappointed with the uses and application of his work by unethical persons to whom he had previously been close. He wrote the book, in part to clarify the intended use of his ideas, and disappeared from public view. In the case of Doug Engelbart’s book, it is the book, not the author, that is disappearing from public view as a result of controversy and shifting alliances.

If you tried already to click on the link above to the book’s website you may have seen something like this.

Engelbart Hypothesis Controversy

You might think, “Oh, she has a typo in the URL,” but no, sadly, I don’t. It amazes me with as many screenshots as I do capture that I missed getting one of this site when I was there, but it is still in Google Cache, so let me give you an idea of what it *did* look like. Be very careful to notice the Creative Commons license in the bottom left corner.

Engelbart Hypothesis Controversy

The disappearance is, almost surely, related closely to this.

Engelbart Hypothesis Controversy
The Douglas Engelbart Institute: Unauthorized Book:

“What?!”, you might ask, “how did this happen? There were all those events. Doug signed copies of the book. He was at the parties. There are pictures of him with the co-authors. There are all those endorsements of the book from his friends and colleagues! What on EARTH???” Well. Yes. Exactly. That’s right.

So … things are a little complicated. There are always two sides to every story. Here is the other side – an audio recording of Eileen (name corrected, 2010-03-18) and Doug discussing what to do about the letter from the Institute’s lawyers.

I spoke with a friend who’s a friend of Doug’s and who wants very much not to be dragged into this. From little what was said, the impression I have is that there is some slight substance to both sides, although this really doesn’t warrant the sort of legal action that seems to be happening. Ultimately this comes down to a sad case of people trying very hard to do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons, and being caught in the middle by an old-fashioned feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. I am not a lawyer, I can only feel marginally safe putting up a blogpost on an obviously litiginous topic because I don’t know ANYONE involved with this, I am not involved with this, and I only stumbled into the information about it because I am such a fan and a really good (if trifle compulsive) Internet searcher.

What I am considering is not the legalities or facts of the case, but the underlying consistencies. Douglas C. Engelbart has spent the bulk of his adult life working to promote change and the development of technologies to augment and improve human collaboration and decisionmaking. His actions are consistent over time with a given message. According to a 1986-87 set of interviews with Doug, he actually chose his professional path with the intent to do as much good as he possible could, and that at the age of 26.

“For some reason, I just picked that as an explicit, conscious thing to do; I had to figure out a good set of professional goals. Then I said, ‘Well, why don’t I try maximizing how much good I can do for mankind, as the primary goal, and with the proviso that I pick something in there that will make enough livable income.'” Stanford Oral History Project: Doug Engelbart: Interview 1:

He started there. He didn’t stop there. It was part of everything he did – this overarching vision of what he was doing as providing a service to humanity.

“People felt outraged that they were researchers and that they were going to have to do a service business: to run a network information center. I tried to tell them, ‘Look, that’s an immensely important exploratory act. It’s a tremendous opportunity.’ That just didn’t go over with them. Finally, some of the really good, supporting people in my group were going around saying, ‘Good day, it’s better to give than to receive. It’s better to give service.’ … It was like the people who didn’t want to fall off the top of the world with Columbus, or who see a very interesting island with Captain Cook and would all want stop there instead of going on.” Stanford Oral History Project: Doug Engelbart: Interview 1:

In the context of his lifelong efforts of getting the word out, trying to change people’s ideas and behaviors, collaborating with others, which course of actions seems most consistent? Trying to get the word out, putting a Creative Commons license on it, sharing it, and collaborating with others on that work? Or saying something like, “No, I’m 85 years old, and this is my last chance to make sure it is all perfect before I let anyone see it.”

In the preface to the disputed book, Doug Engelbart is presented as saying, “I once got in trouble with librarians by predicting the end of the book because a book does not offer the capability for interaction. But it is a beginning.” That rings true to me.

Perhaps Doug should have applied the Art of War to his art of collaboration.


4 responses to “The Engelbart Hypothesis

  1. The website should be working now…and also just wanted to clarify that the phone conversation recording is between Eileen Clegg and Douglas Engelbart.


    • HURRAY!! This is a book I am waving and pushing at just about everyone I meet. Have work conversations, bus rides, at church … something comes up and I start telling people how this is relevant to the topic (and there are a lot of topics to which it is relevant). Thank you also for the correction – I will change that in the post. Much appreciated, and congratulations on a challenging job well done!


  2. Thanks for your kind words about the book. I am so thankful to hear that it is having an impact. We are almost sold out of the 2nd edition and we are looking for creative ways to sponsor the 3rd edition.


    • I know several people who bought copies following my recommendation, so going fast, and faster! I recommended it for our Open Education reading group, since I think the strategies and purposes in the book align closely with what will be required to make open education really work effectively.

      I’ve been thinking of things that would make the book more useful to me. For example, I would LOVE to have footnotes or annotations linking back to some of Doug’s original articles where these concepts were originally expressed or hinted at. Even a bibliography of suggested readings, pointers to some of the other online works about his life (like the SOHP interviews mentioned above). I know the book is for the general public, but folks who aren’t into the research won’t read the footnotes or bibliography. I’ve read some of Doug’s work, but would love to see pieces connected to points in the book.

      I know there was a wiki version of the book, but I couldn’t get it to load – – that sounds like it might be what I would like to see happening. Can’t be sure, of course, until I can see the wiki.

      Here is wishing you all the best. I look forward to the continuing development of the book and its theses.


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