Tuesday, August 27. 2013
Computing pioneer Doug Engelbart’s inventions transformed computing, but he intended them to transform humans.
Peripheral vision: Engelbart rehearses for the “mother of all demos.”
Doug Engelbart knew that his obituaries would laud him as “Inventor of the Mouse.” I can see him smiling wistfully, ironically, at the thought. The mouse was such a small part of what Engelbart invented.
We now live in a world where people edit text on screens, command computers by pointing and clicking, communicate via audio-video and screen-sharing, and use hyperlinks to navigate through knowledge—all ideas that Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) invented in the 1960s. But Engelbart never got support for the larger part of what he wanted to build, even decades later when he finally got recognition for his achievements. When Stanford honored Engelbart with a two-day symposium in 2008, they called it “The Unfinished Revolution.”
To Engelbart, computers, interfaces, and networks were means to a more important end—amplifying human intelligence to help us survive in the world we’ve created. He listed the end results of boosting what he called “collective IQ” in a 1962 paper, Augmenting Human Intellect. They included “more-rapid comprehension … better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble.” If you want to understand where today’s information technologies came from, and where they might go, the paper still makes good reading.
Engelbart’s vision for more capable humans, enabled by electronic computers, came to him in 1945, after reading inventor and wartime research director Vannevar Bush’s Atlantic Monthly article “As We May Think.” Bush wrote: “The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”
That inspired Engelbart, a young electrical engineer, to come up with the idea of people using screens and computers to collaboratively solve problems. He worked on his ideas for the rest of his life, despite being warned over and over by people in academia and the computer industry that his ideas of using computers for anything other than scientific computations or business data processing was “crazy” and “science fiction.”
Englebart knew right from the start that screens, input devices, hardware, and software could allow the necessary collaborative problem-solving only as part of a system that included cognitive, social, and institutional changes. But he found introducing new ways for people to work together more effectively, the lynchpin of his overall vision, more difficult than transforming the way humans and computers interact.
Engelbart labored for most of his life and career to get anyone to think seriously about his ideas, of which the mouse was an essential but low-level component. Only for one golden decade did he get significant backing. In 1963, the U.S. Defense Department provided the wherewithal for Engelbart to assemble a team, create the future, and blow the mind of every computer designer in the world by way of what has come to be known as “the mother of all demos.”
I first met Engelbart in 1983 in his Cupertino office in a small building that was completely surrounded by the Apple campus. A company that no longer exists, Tymshare, had purchased what was left of Engelbart’s lab and hired him after the Stanford Research Institute stopped supporting the Augmentation Research Center due to the Department of Defense withdrawing funding.
Engelbart noted with dismay that although the personal computer was evolving quickly, the other elements of his plan weren’t. At the time, personal computers weren’t networked to one another—as terminals of large computers could be at the time—and they lacked a mouse or point-and-click interface.
Engelbart told me in our first conversation, as I’m sure he must have told many others, that the computer and mouse were just the “artifacts” in a system that centered on “humans, using language, artifacts, methodology, and training.”
In the late 1980s, Engelbart set up his self-funded “Bootstrap Institute” to try and get his ideas about working more effectively the acceptance his artifacts had. He developed ways of analyzing how people acted inside an organization and specific techniques that he claimed would boost “collective IQ.” A set of detailed presentations on those methodologies started with what he called CODIAK. “Collective IQ is a measure of how effectively a collection of people can concurrently develop, integrate, and apply its knowledge toward its mission,” (emphasis Engelbart’s).
Mouse manufacturer Logitech provided office space, but the Bootstrap Institute – staffed by Engelbart and his daughter Christina—never sold bootstrapping, collective IQ, or CODIAK to any funder, major company, or government department.
Engelbart’s failure to spread the less tangible parts of his vision stems from several circumstances. He was an engineer at heart, and engineers’ utopian solutions don’t always account for the complexities of human social institutions. He only added a social scientist to his lab just before it was shut down.
What’s more, Engelbart’s pitches of linked leaps in technology and organizational behaviors probably sounded as crazy to 1980s corporate managers as augmenting human intellect with machines did in the early 1960s. In the end, the way Silicon Valley companies work changed radically in recent decades not through established companies going through the kind of internal transformations Engelbart imagined, but by their being displaced by radical new startups.
When I talked with him again in the mid-2000s, Engelbart marveled that people carry around in their pockets millions of times more computer power than his entire lab had in the 1960s, but the less tangible parts of his system had still not evolved so spectacularly.
Like Tim Berners-Lee, Engelbart never sought to own what he contributed to the world’s ability to know. But he was frustrated to the end by the way so many people had adopted, developed, and profited from the digital media he had helped create, while failing to pursue the important tasks he had created them to do.
Howard Rheingold, a visiting lecturer at Stanford University, has written since the early 1980s about how innovations in computers and networking change peoples’ thinking. He profiled Doug Engelbart’s work in his 1985 book, Tools for Thought and is most recently author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.
Monday, August 12. 2013
... and now, the blog will slow down for some time while I'll go in the mountains & somewhere in the Atlantic! Or both, the moutains in the Atlantic.
Following all these recent posts aboutths nsa, algorithms, surveillance/monitoring, etc., I take here the opportunity to reblog what our very good friend Eric Sadin published in Le Monde last month about this question (the article is only in French, it was following the publication of a new book by Eric: L'humanité augmentée - L'administration numérique du monde -, éd. L'échapée). It is also the occasion to remind that we did a work in common about this last year, Globale surveillance, that will be on stage again later this year!
Le 5 juin, Glenn Greenwald, chroniqueur au quotidien britannique The Guardian, révèle sur son blog que l'Agence de sécurité nationale (NSA) américaine bénéficie d'un accès illimité aux données de Verizon, un des principaux opérateurs téléphoniques et fournisseurs d'accès Internet américains. La copie de la décision de justice confidentielle est publiée, attestant de l'obligation imposée à l'entreprise de fournir les relevés détaillés des appels de ses abonnés. "Ce document démontre pour la première fois que, sous l'administration Obama, les données de communication de millions de citoyens sont collectées sans distinction et en masse, qu'ils soient ou non suspects", commente-t-il sur la même page.
Wednesday, August 07. 2013
By Megan Treacy
Undeniably one of the biggest stories of the year has been the leak about the NSA PRISM program, which has been monitoring American citizens' communications. Many people have been appalled by this revelation, but it turns out there is an environmentally appalling part of this spying program too. More details have been released about NSA's new Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, otherwise known as that massive data center being built by the agency in Bluffdale, Utah.
Turns out that collecting tons of information in the form of phone calls, emails and web searches is an energy and water-hungry business. According to reports, the one million square-foot facility will house 100,000 square feet of data-storing servers and will use 1.7 million gallons of water per day to keep those servers cool.
The data center will account for one percent of all water use in the area and the city of Bluffdale is looking for additional water sources for when the facility is finished in September.
It won't be an energy-sipper either, but that was obvious from the size of the place. The facility will require 65 megawatts of power, which is the equivalent of 65,000 homes. It will have its own power substation and back-up diesel power generators.
The crazy thing is that this gigantic data center isn't quite enough. The NSA is also building another data center in Fort Meade, Maryland that will be two-thirds the size of the mega center, but that's still pretty darn big.
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fabric | rblg
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