Augment: The Rise and Fall of Doug Engelbart, an Outline

26 October, 2010

In my last post, I made a case for myth making as an important role for art which has once again become possible after a long absence during the modernist period. "Could art actually be important to how a group of people define and understand themselves?" I asked.

So, what group of people, what myth to tell, and how to tell it? As an answer, here's the start of a manifesto or mission statement:

The mid-century American techno-cultural movement which created the personal computer and internet industries is beginning to enter history. As the internet grows towards ubiquity, the ideas, artifacts, and culture of the small group of people involved in this movement become massively influential on the larger society. It is time for an art that addresses that history, an art that will tell its story, explore its material forms, and investigate its way of seeing the world. This art should use tools of representation appropriate to the mid-century technological milieu as well as contemporary tools sympathetic to its aesthetic and descended from its ideas. These include special effects (miniature photography, compositing, etc.), rapid prototyping and fabrication, motion control, computer graphics.

Who created the personal computer? What were they trying to achieve in doing so and what became of them? It is amazing that, in contrast to other technologies with equal impact on our lives, we have no shared myth to answer these questions. What's personal computer equivalent to the story of Ben Franklin with his kite or Alexander Graham Bell with his wire?

The answer lies in the biography of Doug Engelbart, a World War II radio operator and early computer engineer who is the first person to have conceived of the computer as a device that could be used by individuals to aid in their own personal work for memory recall, information organization, communication, etc.

Sculpting the rich facts of Engelbart's life into a story that has the shape and impact of myth is a challenging prospect. As a way into that problem, I've been employing the process used by screenwriters in developing movie scripts: trying to boil down the events of Engelbart's life into a three act outline that focuses on the ways in which Engelbart and a small number of supporting characters around him were changed by the events that took place. As an artistic choice, emulating the "pre-production" process of a major motion picture seems especially appropriate for this subject matter as I intend to use many of the techniques and materials of movie special effects to create the images and objects that will be the final result. As I understand it now, the final result will not likely be a big budget blockbuster, but I'm treating the storytelling and design process as if that was what I was working towards.

So, here's my current draft outline for a three act story that could be called something like "Augment: The Rise and Fall of Doug Engelbart."

Act 1

  • Engelbart ships out on VJ day. The end of the war is declared as his ship pulls away from the dock
  • Engelbart is bored in a grass hut in the Phillipines on radio duty. Someone drops off a copy of the Atlantic Monthly with Vannevar Bush's As We May Think in it. He dreams of Memexes.
  • Engelbart, returned to California, happily married, and bored, pulls over on the side of the road suddenly and realizes he's achieved all of his dreams. He has a vision of using computers to help people better understand their complex world.
  • Now, having finished grad school, and working as a junior researcher at the Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart meets Bill English, a well-liked fellow researcher who has a knack for actually implementing things and getting people to follow him. Doug tells Bill about his Augment dream.
  • Bob Taylor from NASA hears about Doug's Augment idea and decides to support it with its first real funding. Doug gets a lab for the first time.

Act 2

  • Engelbart has 2 LSD experiences at the International Foundation for Advanced Study. In the first one he is by himself and stares catatonic at a wall for 8 hours. In the second one, he's with other engineers and co-workers and has a vision of a "tinkle toy" for helping potty train young boys.
  • Engelbart and English build the first mouse prototype and it performs extremely well in early tests of input devices
  • Augment people visit the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Labratory and play Space War
  • Augment participates in sending the first ARPAnet communication to UCLA, the command "LOGIN", which causes the system to crash after "LOG"
  • Stewart Brand helps Augment prepare the Mother of All Demos presentation, their public triumph

Act 3

  • Stewart Brand brings Ken Kesey to the lab to use the Augment technology and he says "It's the next thing after acid."
  • Augment researchers visit Lama, a hippie commune in Taos, New Mexico with Brand and live temporarily amongst the Bucky domes and hippies.
  • Augment researchers become obsessed with Est, a pseudo-psychological cult of 'interventions'; members of the lab are caught doing a drug-fueled, computer-enhanced encounter session while Engelbart is giving a tour to pentagon funders
  • Bob Taylor recruits Bill English away to Xerox PARC; he's the first of many top Augment staff to leave.
  • JCR Licklider returns to ARPA and cuts off Augment's funding
  • Engelbart tries to convince Bob Taylor to bring all of Augment over to PARC, but Taylor refuses
  • Engelbart is left alone, using NLS by himself in a closed-down Augment lab.

Now, with the story in mind, let's return to the question of what group of people mind find this myth important to their self-definition and identity. (Note: every point in that outline is true insofar as it supported by one or more party in the current historical record of this period as it is available to us; it is a myth solely in the sense that I've tried to reduce a complex and multifaceted story into a linear one with a clear and iconic shape.)

At the broadest level, Engelbart's story is important to all of us who live surrounded by personal computers, smart phones, social networking sites, and the other media through which we conduct contemporary life, all of which have their root in this encounter between the military industrial complex and the counterculture in the bay area in the 1960s.

At a deeper level, this myth is vitally important to people who work in these fields: making websites, designing and building computers and the next generation of technology. It puts their work in context and gives it a sense of importance and tradition. From the founders of Google, Apple, and Microsoft to the young engineers and designers working on Twitter and Facebook, this story is at the heart of the battle over the meaning of what they do.

Even more specifically, this story is a matter of active concern to the older generation of technologists who were actually part of it and who are now entering the phase of life where they find themselves concerned with their place in history. Many of them have specifically dedicated their energies to ensuring that aspects of the history of technology, from Andy Herzfeld's work at folklore.org documenting the creation of the Macintosh to Vint Cerf's role at Google as Chief Internet Evangelist, which often includes memorializing and storytelling.

I want all of these groups to be the audience for this work, especially that latter two who are not especially well-known as patrons of the arts and who have a particular interest in the meaning and interpretation of this story. In my last post, I described the "complex terrain of political and aesthetic geography" provided by princely patrons as being creatively stimulating for artists as they tried to work "within and against it". Similarly, I want these people as patrons because they have powerful opinions about the meaning of this story in itself. The friction and feedback they provide as I attempt to render it into meaning and myth will make for better art and a more lasting monument to this story of invention.