The Mother of All Demos turns 50
December 9, 2018 3:45 PM   Subscribe

On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave a demo of NLS, the "oN-Line System", to the Fall Joint Computer Conference of the ACM and IEEE. Later dubbed The Mother of All Demos, it demonstrated many concepts that would later become fundamental elements of personal computing, including the mouse, windows, hypertext, graphics, video conferencing, and word processing. posted by ckape (22 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm a programmer, and every time I've asked another programmer younger than 30 if they've heard of Doug Engelbart, the answer has always been 'no'. I find it both amusing and depressing how much more widely known Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are than the dude who basically invented all the technologies they later profited off of. He's a sobering reminder that there's very little correlation between wealth, fame, and contribution to society, no matter what capitalism tells you.
posted by perplexion at 3:58 PM on December 9, 2018 [68 favorites]


Thanks for the reminder - it's mind-blowing that this is 50 years old. Great post.
posted by parki at 4:01 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


"I don't know why we call it a 'mouse'. Sometimes I apologize. It started that way, and we never did change it."
posted by condour75 at 4:07 PM on December 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


I have a half-formed lightning talk bouncing in my head where first, I list all of the technological successes of the last 25 years in this field (e.g. Linux, Python, Postgres, etc.) followed by the financial successes (Google, EBay, Facebook, etc.). The third slide shows the overlap (Google's Page Rank, and not much else.)

The point is that if you work in tech, you can either make cool things that empower people or you can get rich. You can't do both. Therefore, treating a startup as anything other than a business transaction that you engage in only for your own benefit is foolish. Take the money, job experience and free snacks as long as it's a good deal for you and then move on. If you want to do good, there are plenty of ways to do that that don't involve sacrificing your life on the altar of return on investment.
posted by suetanvil at 4:22 PM on December 9, 2018 [26 favorites]


An article from Ars Technica that I would've included in the roundup, except that they apparently hit post at the same time as I did.
posted by ckape at 4:27 PM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


I am grateful that CS61a at Berkeley had a ”culture day” on Fridays when prof. Harvey was teaching it. He showed a video of this and it really stuck with me even 20+ years later.
posted by migurski at 4:35 PM on December 9, 2018 [4 favorites]


The point is that if you work in tech, you can either make cool things that empower people or you can get rich. You can't do both. Therefore, treating a startup as anything other than a business transaction that you engage in only for your own benefit is foolish. Take the money, job experience and free snacks as long as it's a good deal for you and then move on. If you want to do good, there are plenty of ways to do that that don't involve sacrificing your life on the altar of return on investment.

I think lots of counterexamples to your thesis readily come to mind just taking from the set of things I use every day, e.g. smartphones, e-readers, Google Maps, AWS, Unity.
posted by value of information at 4:57 PM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


All of those, with the possible exception of Unity (which, if I remember right, came to prominence by virtue of Apple's sponsorship), are products of large and established companies, and that's without digging into whether the products in question extract more value from the economy than they supply to their customers. I think suetanvil's point should be understood in the context of VC culture, where wealth creation and dollar value have little or negative correlation with each other, since VCs are mostly in the business of artificially inflating the value of startups built around mediocre ideas and then cashing out before the market truly absorbs the uselessness or infeasibility of the product in question. So, the point holds: either you're making a product that (maybe) really creates wealth and not getting rich, at least not in the sense that a startup founder gets rich, which is to say that you remain in the labor class, however egregiously well-paid; or you make bank by making a product whose value is predicated on the size of its daily active user base and little else. There are occasional exceptions, but they're both extremely rare and effectively impossible to distinguish a priori from all the nonsense bids.
posted by invitapriore at 5:38 PM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


Every couple of years I steer friends and co-workers towards this presentation. I tell them to look up "The Mother of All Demos". The point I try to make is that in order to know where you're heading it is important to know how you got there. Doug Englebart, J.C.R. Licklider, the team at Xerox PARC & a host of oters @ M.I.T. got us where we are today. I recommend reading the following books:

posted by lotusstp at 5:58 PM on December 9, 2018 [9 favorites]


Cool! Just after 6 minutes into his demo, he also demonstrates collapsible and expandable outlines/headers for a document!
posted by darkstar at 6:09 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm with you, perplexion. I keep telling people about Engelbart. Educators usually don't know him at all.
posted by doctornemo at 6:44 PM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


So, the point holds: either you're making a product that (maybe) really creates wealth and not getting rich, at least not in the sense that a startup founder gets rich, which is to say that you remain in the labor class, however egregiously well-paid; or you make bank by making a product whose value is predicated on the size of its daily active user base and little else.

This is only true if you're considering consumer products. There are a ton of business/enterprise products out there which are both legitimately inventive technically (and empower people) and also made a bunch of people very rich. You just don't hear about them because they do really boring stuff that people don't talk about that much, comparatively.
posted by asterix at 8:35 PM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


Sweet! I went to the related symposium today! It wasn’t livestreamed, but videos will be posted. I think some of the other events will be streamed.

It was inspirational.
posted by Pronoiac at 8:36 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


I wasn’t even a programmer at the time someone first played me a (VHS) tape of the demo. (That would come a couple of years later.) I had absolutely no idea exactly what I was looking at, but I remember being entirely gobsmacked by the whole thing, particularly the hypertext part. Never forgot it. All those *concepts* all brought together at once, *concepts* that would only fully play out years later. Just wow, even now.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 8:42 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


From my notes, some themes of today's symposium, including demos:
* enabling annotation, and content remix and creation and editing
* decentralize and distribute and federate
* interdisciplinary synthesis
* allow for serendipity
* there are lots of machines for readers; try to make machines for writers
* think long scale, like the next generations
posted by Pronoiac at 9:16 PM on December 9, 2018 [5 favorites]


I had always thought this demo was super famous, and Englebart well known as its presenter if not recalled by name.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:16 PM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


I've had the pleasure/honour of meeting him at ACM Hypertext conferences, and he was incredible nice and humble in person. He gave a keynote, which left me with the impression that he was saddened and disappointed that we as a field had not progressed further. His vision was the augmentation of the human mind with computers as tools, and the way modern social networks et al steal our attention could not be closer to an anti-pattern, if it tried.
posted by bouvin at 1:50 AM on December 10, 2018 [4 favorites]


The Inventor of the Future's own Inventor of the Future...

The Hut Where the Internet Began: When Douglas Engelbart read a Vannevar Bush essay on a Philippine island in the aftermath of World War II, he found the conceptual space to imagine what would become our Internet.

Here's that essay: As We May Think
posted by fairmettle at 2:34 AM on December 10, 2018 [7 favorites]


50 years in which we could have gone so far to create truly cooperative tools for learning, understanding, cooperation and problem solving... and have done so little, in fits and starts and bits and pieces. Glad this and other inspiring work is still somewhat known and talked about.
posted by thefool at 3:43 AM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]


Not only has our progress been very limited, but most of the "advancements" have actually dragged the dream of the Memex (or the Dynabook, or Xanadu) farther from possibility, with endless effort invested in things like DRM and extending copyright indefinitely. While we easily have the computing power and engineering talent to create intelligence-augmenting programs, devices, and interfaces, we are stuck in a world where knowledge is a commodity, and the benefits of commoditization accumulate to those with the opposite of a vested interest in opening things up. Xanadu could be a weekend project if the raw material (a machine-readable universal library, and a legal regime that allowed citizens to use it) were there, but it never will be without a massive outcry, and no one is even talking about this issue in the mainstream culture. Even in the narrow world of academic papers (or law proceedings, or engineering standards, or any of dozens of actually-rather-limited collections of data that would do wonders if they were freely available and hyperlink-able), we've run headlong into a world where rent-seeking "publishers" keep knowledge locked away rather than disseminating it, the exact opposite of their supposed social purpose. Amateur archivists have to put up FTP sites of government climate data because they fear a new administration will simply destroy it. All of this is madness.

Another way of stating the same thing is to point out that, as the costs of duplicating, distributing, and organizing information have fallen by many orders of magnitude, the gains of doing so have not mainly accrued to end users, and certainly not to society. Instead, they're scooped up by a socially useless class of rent-seekers who use their collected rents to defend their ability to continue doing so. Now, as always, the problem of improving the world is political, not merely technical. Even the best printing press is useless when it is illegal to teach peasants and slaves to read.

Vannevar Bush's fear -- that our ability to wreck things and kill each other will far outpace our ability to cooperatively come up with new ways to avoid doing so -- is even more poignant now, in that stopping climate change is a much more difficult collective action problem than simply not deciding to start a nuclear war.
posted by LiteOpera at 7:41 AM on December 10, 2018 [16 favorites]


As I understand it, Xerox eventually tried to commercialize Engelbart's team's ideas in the Alto and Star products, but they were so ridiculously priced that no one bought any (which is often the case at the bleeding edge of technology). There are some good Alto restoration blogs from the Computer History Museum, Y Combinator and Ed Thelen
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:38 PM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]


What's the sound that leaks into the presentation when he works with the interface? Little high-frequency blips and hums? They seem to be directly related to his actions.
posted by odinsdream at 9:14 AM on December 13, 2018


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