Doug Engelbart passed away yesterday, 2nd July, 2013. His influence on and creation of the modern world was immense. He was my one and only hero.
In early winter 2001 I was taking time off from working to reflect and decide what to do next. I got a bit bored and decided that I wanted to learn something so enrolled in the Information Science program at Indiana University. I started with the Spring 2002 semester with a course called The Organization and Representation of Knowledge and Information.
This course was excellent because of instead of spending a lot of time on how we organize and represent we instead read, talked and thought about why. One of our papers was AUGMENTING HUMAN INTELLECT: A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK, written in 1962 by a guy named Douglas C. Engelbart. I had never heard of him. I was well past my 20th year of using computers and had never heard of him.
The first paragraph of the paper is worth quoting in its entirety (my emphasis):
By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by "complex situations" we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers--whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human "feel for a situation" usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.
It took a while to digest, but that paper changed my life. After it settled in I wanted more. I read everything I could find about Engelbart. I found myself becoming an active member of various mailing lists associated with Engelbart and the so-called "Unfinished Revolution". My latent love of hypertext was rekindled. I was made hungry. I consumed information and created knowledge like never before. I wanted to get to the meta. Not make better things, not make things which make it easier to make better things. Make things which make it easier to think about making better things.
A few months later I joined with Eugene Eric Kim to form Blue Oxen Associates, a high performance collaboration think tank inspired by the work of Doug Engelbart. We established the Blue Oxen Way, built PurpleWiki and engaged with groups of all sorts wanting to do better.
There on our board of advisors sat one Doug Engelbart. I first met him in his office at Logitech. We had some lunch, he showed me his mouse, chording keyboard and a working version of his Augment system. I told him how he and his work had changed my life's direction and given me a sense of purpose and poise that I had never had before. He made a joke about making an old man cry to cover that I had made a great man cry.
We didn't visit for very long but I am glad that I got the chance to meet the man who made a very big difference. We all feel the difference every day in the global world and I feel it every day in my own local world. His presence will be missed but his inspiration will live on.