The eulogising of The Mother Of All Demos at 50 is Silicon Valley going goo-goo for gurus again
Doug Engelbart retrofitted for mystical bullsh!t
Comment There was a time, happy days, when no one wanted to read about the titans of tech. Or so the editors at the newspapers thought.
When John Markoff and Gregg Pascal were doing the technology beat at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in the late 1980s respectively, they told me they found it impossible to draw a general editor's interest to the stories of founders or their companies. When they would suggest that Apple or Microsoft might make for an interesting profile, it was always rebuffed. The reply was always: Bill who? Micro-what? Steve who again?
It was only in the early 1990s, when giants like IBM and DEC were doing that impression of a cartoon villain who has run off a cliff but whose feet are still pedalling thin air, that the upstarts finally got some recognition.
Today Jobs (dead) and Gates (alive, we think) are secular icons, and the appetite for gurus is insatiable. Give us more gurus. One name thrust forward for contention is Doug Engelbart. Fifty years ago, on 9 December 1968, Engelbart MC'd the most startling computer demo of all time. A researcher at Stanford University's SRI, his presentation was described by one mesmerised attendee as "dealing lightning with both hands".
At a time when computing meant batch processing on mainframes using punch cards, Engelbart demonstrated the first GUI over 90 minutes, manipulating text via a mouse, hypertext, and video conferencing. In one aspect, two-way hyperlinks, what Engelbart showed was superior to the web we have today.
Several events have commemorated this "Mother of All Demos", all a variation of "The Demo at 50", and I was asked to take part in a day of talks and performances in London. The problem – and here it gets a little awkward – is that writing about Engelbart requires negotiating through a fairly extensive swamp of bullshit. It's Englebart's turn to receive the guru treatment, but he's no guru.
You see, apart from the demo and the computer mouse, Engelbart didn't leave us with much else to thrill or inspire. The "writing" consists of what were really funding applications: derivative and/or tediously dull. The nearest thing to a visionary statement regurgitated one made (by Vannevar Bush) 20 years earlier. Even as the PC revolution was taking place around him in the early 1980s, Engelbart stubbornly refused to acknowledge it was happening.
The hero of the demo is actually Engelbart's chief government sponsor, Bob Taylor. The fact any research was taking place at all in interactive personal computing was thanks to Taylor, who had convinced NASA and defence companies to loosen their purses and spend it on crazy stuff.
Silicon Valley is much more Gwyneth Paltrow than it is Ayn Rand.
It was Taylor who made the demo happen, rather than the MC, Engelbart. Taylor would go on to direct research at Xerox's amazing PARC research labs (he was the de facto head of the lab), which greatly advanced a lot of the work we'd glimpsed – and much more. Object-oriented programming (Smalltalk), Ethernet and the laser printer were all advanced under Taylor and then turned into real products, either by Xerox or others. The Alto, a real computer featuring all of these things, was working five years later. Famously Steve Jobs visited in 1979 and a deal was done to use the work at Apple – Xerox receiving Apple shares – and Apple simplified and polished the GUI for the Lisa and Mac.
Another key figure at the time, Wes Clark, foresaw something Engelbart never did: that there would be fewer big, but more small, personal computers. These would provide the operator with instant feedback and be used for communication too. At a time when time-sharing was new, this was completely unorthodox.
And as this New York Times obituary of the wonderful Evelyn Bezerin points out – no, not a name I'd heard before – cut-and-paste and word processing were commercially available the following year.
It gets trickier. "The Mother of All Demos" was largely fake too, a complex charade involving over a dozen people, as Markoff recounts in his book on the development of computing through the 1960s, What The Dormouse Said. The computers were at Menlo Park, while Engelbart and the audience were in San Francisco, communicating over two hand-built half-duplex modems and a microwave link.
All that said, you would think the demo is all you need for immortality. But that's not how Silicon Valley sells things – it needs mystical bullshit. And Engelbart's legacy is about the preoccupations of the bullshit sellers as much as it is about Engelbart. More so, if anything.
The "Engelbart Symposium" finds an agenda designed to sell Tim O'Reilly and friends than anything else.
Take a sampling:
... key insights that drove Engelbart – and those that he wanted us all to know in order to unleash the next dramatic leaps in human potential.
... the unrealized aspects of Engelbart's system and philosophy to our shared online world.
... Engelbart's business partner (and daughter), who will introduce his strategies for transforming your own organization as well as the future at scale.
Engelbart has been retrofitted with a vision. A guru with secrets and insights not yet implemented, perhaps not even discovered. Take the course, credit cards accepted. It sounds like the sales pitch for any early 1970s mystic, or personal transformation guru from the 1980s onward.
What a shame. The problem Tim "Collective Intelligence" O'Reilly has yet to confront is that Engelbart's world isn't the wonderful self-regulation hivemind he hoped it would be. Now we have the alt-right, Moldovan fake news farms and mass fraud. If Engelbart was truly the originator of such ideas – he wasn't, obviously – then Engelbart at 50 should be a rather different affair to Engelbart at 40 as quite a lot has happened since then.
At London's demo event, I focused on the New Age legacy of SRI, which isn't widely appreciated or known. There's a reason management jargon sounds like a hippy self-help class – words like "emergence" and "transformation" come from here, from under the same roof as Engelbart. Silicon Valley is much more Gwyneth Paltrow than it is Ayn Rand.
Perhaps the giant public demo has gone for good. In software an MVP gets thrown out and that's it. Many small interesting things just get posted on Kickstarter. You could argue Theranos did demos too, which were as fake as SRI's. Perhaps the true successor is the autonomous vehicle. Perhaps this is one giant multi-year demo, designed to convince us they're safe, or inevitable. Tootling along blithely on Californian roads as their makers grind down the resistance to regulators and persuade designers that cities are safe with them in them. Just a thought. ®