Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Exclusive interview with seminal 1960s computer visionary Doug Engelbart -- he's still here and looking for funding

Posted by Tom Foremski - June 10, 2005

...and how the Sixties counterculture smashed the work of leading computer researchers.

"How do you deal with society when its paradigm of what is right is so dominant?" Doug Engelbart, the 1960s computer visionary asked me recently.

It's a question he has pondered many times over the past 20 years, ever since his research funding was taken away.

Mr Engelbart and his teams of researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) shaped the look and feel of the PC, as John Markoff chronicles in his latest book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

Mr Markoff's book raises the profile of Mr Engelbart, well known as the inventor of the computer mouse, and less well known for his seminal work in creating many of the concepts later found in the personal computer. Mr Markoff returns credit to where it is due.

What the book does not chronicle is how the rise of the PC killed funding for Mr Engelbart's work.

By 1979, he had lost all funding from SRI because of unfavorable peer review.

"The other research groups said what I was doing could be done better with microcomputers or through machine-based artificial intelligence. That was the dominant culture at the time. What people don't realise is that there are many different cultures and not one is right." Mr Engelbart told SVW.

As a result of his experiences, he questions whether the past 20 or so years of his life have been a failure.

That's how long Mr Engelbart has been trying to raise funding to continue his research into human machine interfaces and solving large, complex problems using networked software.

But the culture of our time has been unfavorable to his ideas of developing human-centric computer applications using one big powerful computer with many users. The paradigm of the PC revolution is that everyone gets to have a computer, no time-sharing needed.

PC emerged from revolt against institutions

Mr Markoff points out that the PC revolution grew out of the turbulent times in the 1960s, from the free speech movement, the anti-war protests, and the drug culture. The implication is that out of this internal societal war between the generations - the old and the young - good things emerged such as the PC.

At a recent promo event for Mr. Markoff's book at Xerox PARC, Mr. Engelbart and the pioneers at SRI and Stanford AI Labs (SAIL) described the events of those times.

Lee Felsenstein, one of the computer researchers mentioned in the book remarked "We were caught up with what was going on around us, we were against the institutions."

Personal computer concepts appealed to this generation because there was no centralized control; power would be brought back to the individual through a personal computer.

In fact, the PC would topple massive institutions, they believed, including the Soviet Union, because the power of the PC and desktop publishing would make it impossible to control the publication of information.

What the Dormouse didn't say

marchhare.jpgHowever, it is possible to take a different view, a counterculture view. I could argue that the turbulence of the 1960s, reached deep within the military research labs of SRI and Stanford university, and resulted in killing the development of advanced computer systems.

And it was because time-sharing represented the same model - central institutions mandating/controlling access to resources - that the campus protesters railed against in their political lives.

Within the computer research labs, power to the people was translated into power to the personal computer. And it is only now, 25 years later, that we are able to appreciate what was lost.

I could argue that the move to develop the PC smashed the work of leading thinkers such as Doug Engelbart, and set back the clock to near zero.

Power to the PC meant going back to square one, developing the languages, the operating systems, the applications, the user interfaces from scratch.

And now we are coming back full circle. Now, the paradigm has shifted again, and the big computer shared by many users is back. And it is better than the PC. What is Google?

Don't miss part 3 of the SVW Doug Engelbart story/interview series.

Part one is here:

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