Douglas Engelbart: Augmenting Intelligence

Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart (Photo credit: nilsohman)

It’s been a week since Doug Engelbart died. You may not know him as well as some of the other pioneers of personal computing, but he was an amazing person by all accounts.

I first learned about his ideas and life story in John Markoff’s excellent 2005 book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

In this book, NY Times reporter Markoff describes the competition between two technological world views represented in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early to mid-1960s. Engelbart led the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), “dedicated to the concept that powerful computing machines would be able to substantially increase the power of the human mind.” Across the Stanford campus, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), led by John McCarthy, “began with the goal of creating a simulated human intelligence.

“One group,” Markoff wrote, “worked to augment the human mind; the other to replace it.”

Engelbart was originally inspired by Vannevar Bush’s postwar essay, “As We May Think,” that, among other things, described the Memex, envisioned as a really smart piece of office furniture. This article from The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal tells you a lot about that encounter.

An illustration of Vannevar Bush's Memex, from Life Magazine
An illustration of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, from Life Magazine

At the ARC, Engelbart and his research team put together both concepts and devices that really form the basis of many of the bits that govern our technological lives today. Nearly all of Engelbart’s obituaries included the phrase “Inventor of the Computer Mouse.” But that was certainly not all he did. Take the time to watch what Steven Levy dubbed “The Mother of All Demos,” delivered December 9, 1968. You’ll be amazed, I think.

If you read some of these obits, you may actually conclude that Engelbart’s peaked some 45 years ago. This is not a completely unwarranted conclusion, I’m afraid. I will discuss this further in another post, as this one’s getting a little long. More links next time too!

For now, you can learn a bit more about Engelbart’s legacy in this very sharp piece from Bret Victor.

I got this Engelbart quote from Boing Boing. It’s a fitting epitaph:

“The key thing about all the world’s big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively. If we don’t get collectively smarter, we’re doomed.” – Douglas Engelbart (1925- 2013)
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Let us mourn for freshmeat.net

UPDATE 6/19/10: Lisa Hoover tweeted at me earlier this week “… Consider the source before you believe this crap.” I do plan to keep an eye on freshmeat; I sure hope she’s right. MM

Robin “Roblimo” Miller reported this weekend that the future looked bad for pioneering free software repository freshmeat.net.

Geek.net, the parent company of SourceForge.net, Slashdot.org, ThinkGeek.com, Geek.com, freshmeat.net, and ohloh.net, has told employees that it will be closing freshmeat.net and ohloh.net. This information has not yet been released to the public, but we’ve heard it from more than one Geek.net employee.

While not exactly shocking, it is a sad moment for many longtime Linux geeks. In the days before broadband Internet connections and automatic distribution updates, freshmeat (yes, it’s still there as I write this) was the go-to site for new and interesting open source software. A decade ago, when I was first getting acquainted with Linux, you’d read about assorted new projects to make a Linux version of, say, a desktop publisher. The article, whether it was online or in print (usually  Linux Journal), would invariably conclude with a link to the project’s freshmeat page. This is how I found the Scribus desktop publisher, among other things.

In those days around the turn of the century, you’d be lucky if the developer(s) made up an RPM package for easy installation into a Red Hat Linux system. Sometimes those RPMs would even work on SUSE Linux. More often, though, you’d just get a tarball; the source code bundled into a GZip archive with standard instructions to use make to compile the code into your system. Occasionally your idiot scribe would get these applications to work without breaking any other important piece of the system.

It’s not like Linux was brand new, but the idea of ordinary people using Linux and other free software for ordinary tasks outside of programming and networking was still a bit odd. That was also what made freshmeat exciting–Granted it was cooler to help develop it, but you really did feel like you were on the cutting edge simply downloading this stuff and trying it out.

Roblimo’s piece outlines the corporate history of freshmeat, and some of the changes that brought the site to this point. I’d guess that the development of ever-easier ways of adding software to a Linux system (including openSUSE’s zypper, and the always terrific and ever-improving apt-get) played its part too.

There are lots of projects that debuted on freshmeat that never became household names, but the site probably inspired more than a few of today’s army of software developers. For now, let us have a moment of silence for this fine project, and the people who have worked on it over the years. Many thanks!