Of mice and men

Publication Date: Wednesday Dec 23, 1998

Of mice and men

Inventor of computer mouse says technology is growing faster than our ability to handle it

by Loren Stein

When he invented the mouse in 1963, Doug Engelbart hoped his innovation would make technology more accessible to people. Nearly 36 years later, Engelbart says the challenge is to help people catch up with the technology. This was the consensus earlier this month when several hundred computer enthusiasts gathered at Stanford University to salute Engelbart for his groundbreaking accomplishments as a computer inventor and visionary.

"Technology is now exploding at a much greater rate than ever before," Engelbart told the crowd. "But the rate of change in our prevailing paradigms is not changing fast enough to keep up, creating a real social hazard." Engelbart fears that the unabated commercial and competitive uses of technology will splinter society and create more social strife, rather than foster a global village working together to solve shared problems.

Sponsored by Stanford University's Silicon Valley Archive and the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto think tank, "Doug Engelbart's Unfinished Revolution" marked to the day the 30th anniversary of Engelbart's landmark 1968 demonstration of his inventions to industry colleagues in San Francisco.

There, Engelbart and a small team of researchers from Stanford Research Institute stunned the computer world by unveiling the first computer mouse, graphical user interface, display editing, integrated text and graphics, two-way video conferencing, and the hyperlink--a way of jumping from document to document now used on the Internet. Engelbart offered a vision of how interactive, multi-user computers would work, and in doing so launched the personal computer revolution.

According to Engelbart, the demonstration forever transformed the way people viewed the potential of computers. "It signaled a radical shift in what we thought computers were for, that they can be used to change the way we think about solving intellectual problems."

Although it took decades for Engelbart's radical ideas to make their way to the marketplace, the 1968 demonstration energized many of the nation's top high-tech luminaries participating in the event to devote their lives to popularizing the personal use of computers, which previously had been the province of large corporations, government and the military.

"The demo was one of the greatest experiences of my life," said computer pioneer Alan Kay, a co-founder of Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, where some of the industry's most important innovations were born. "To me, it was Moses opening the Red Sea. ... It reset the whole conception of what was reasonable to think about in personal computing."

It was also something of an evolutionary leap forward. "It was the romance of humanity thinking its way out of its genetic structure," Kay said. "The ideas invented were about superceding what our genes and mammalian brains want us to do."

What has driven Engelbart during his long career is his deep belief in the value of community computing--"the immense potential of computers to improve humanity's ability to collectively solve complex global problems." Now 73 and founding director since 1989 of the Bootstrap Institute, which pushes corporations toward collaborative computing, Engelbart insists that humanity must evolve in new ways to keep pace with rapid advances in technology. Only then will computers achieve their full potential to "augment the human intellect."

This remains the "unfinished revolution," according to the two dozen renowned computer visionaries who spoke at the symposium. While offering concrete ideas of computer innovations just beyond the horizon, they expressed doubt about humanity's ability to use the technology wisely.

"We have these miraculous tools, but what's missing is what it all adds up to and how those tools have changed us," said Howard Rheingold, a former executive editor of HotWired and a veteran industry observer. "What we're really lacking is foresight. In Darwinian terms, on the social side we're still waiting for the animal to crawl out onto land."

Tim Lenoir, professor of history at Stanford and chair of the program in history and philosophy of science, said that in his view the unfinished revolution is "essentially stalled," due to a "fundamental overemphasis on technological development."

"In 1998, the road to collective wisdom is zigzagging and wandering," Lenoir said. "The computer has transformed the ways we communicate with others, but we need a co-evolution in our organizational structures to master the new technological capability, which will stress a different type of values. This means a change in the notion of authorship and in sharing information, requiring a different form of trust."

With the advent of speech recognition and "context computing," Paul Horn, senior vice president of IBM Research, predicted that computers will become ubiquitous and behave more like intelligent companions. "Computers will be invisible in the environment, with people interacting with them in seamless ways," he said. "I really believe the age of the PC is over," he added.

A new type of mouse soon will hit the market, according to Guerrino de Luca, president and CEO of mouse-manufacturer Logitech, a sponsor of the event. The new mice are designed for three-dimensional image manipulation and will provide tactile sensations, de Luca said after the conference. Eventually, he said, mice will be replaced by voice navigation.

"Engelbart was never in it for the money or for the technology itself," said panelist Terry Winograd, Stanford professor of computer science. "He sees technology as a vehicle for social good; he's a social visionary, a utopian. The computer revolution's unfinished business is, how do we create social change?"

Technology can either be a "finite game or an infinite game," said Jaron Lanier, the creator of virtual reality and lead scientist for the Tele-Immersion Initiative. "The drive to reach others is powerful, perhaps even more than the drive to compete with each other. ... Rather than a finite game where technology destroys us, technology has to become an infinite game, a way to reach out, to connect." 

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