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Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing

Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing

by Thierry Bardini


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Bootstrapping analyzes the genesis of personal computing from both technological and social perspectives, through a close study of the pathbreaking work of one researcher, Douglas Engelbart. In his lab at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s, Engelbart, along with a small team of researchers, developed some of the cornerstones of personal computing as we know it, including the mouse, the windowed user interface, and hypertext. Today, all these technologies are well known, even taken for granted, but the assumptions and motivations behind their invention are not. Bootstrapping establishes Douglas Engelbart's contribution through a detailed history of both the material and the symbolic constitution of his system's human-computer interface in the context of the computer research community in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.
Engelbart felt that the complexity of many of the world's problems was becoming overwhelming, and the time for solving these problems was becoming shorter and shorter. What was needed, he determined, was a system that would augment human intelligence, co-transforming or co-evolving both humans and the machines they use. He sought a systematic way to think and organize this coevolution in an effort to discover a path on which a radical technological improvement could lead to a radical improvement in how to make people work effectively. What was involved in Engelbart's project was not just the invention of a computerized system that would enable humans, acting together, to manage complexity, but the invention of a new kind of human, "the user." What he ultimately envisioned was a "bootstrapping" process by which those who actually invented the hardware and software of this new system would simultaneously reinvent the human in a new form.
The book also offers a careful narrative of the collapse of Engelbart's laboratory at Stanford Research Institute, and the further translation of Engelbart's vision. It shows that Engelbart's ultimate goal of coevolution came to be translated in terms of technological progress and human adaptation to supposedly user-friendly technologies. At a time of the massive diffusion of the World Wide Web, Bootstrapping recalls the early experiments and original ideals that led to today's "information revolution."

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804738712
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 12/01/2000
Series: Writing Science
Edition description: 1
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Thierry Bardini is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal.

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Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing


Copyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-3871-2

Chapter One

Language and the Body

If we "think" verbally, we act as biased observers and project onto the silent levels the structure of language we use, and so remain in our rut of old orientations, making keen, unbiased observations and creative work well-nigh impossible. In contrast, when we "think" without words, or in pictures (which involve structure and therefore relations), we may discover new aspects and relations on silent levels, and so may produce important theoretical results in the general search of similarity of structure between the two levels, silent and verbal. Practically all important advances are made that way. -ALFRED KORZYBSKI, Manhood of Humanity

Engelbart's "weird stuff" was in fact not weird at all. Instead, it was thoroughly grounded in what at that point was some of the most advanced thinking about how people think, act, and live in the world. It reflected what many influential thinkers-many of them also "outsider" free intellectuals-had been saying about language, thought, and reality, to use the terms that Benjamin Lee Whorf used to frame a book that helped blaze the path that Engelbart followed.

It is difficult to remember the time when computers could not deal with what is called "natural language," the ordinary, everyday language in which people speak and write. As strange as it can appear now, however, the notion of a natural-language interface between the computer and its user is a relatively new idea. The evolution of human-computer interfaces from specialized, artificial computer languages such as FORTRAN and COBOL to a natural-language interface was the result of a slow process of teaching both the user and the computer how to talk to each other, to find a common language. How that process worked out had significant consequences for the way the personal computer developed. The most significant consequence was Douglas Engelbart's inclusion of the body of the user in the interaction between computers and their users.


The history of how the computer and its relationship to its human users was imagined is a dance of metaphors. For Engelbart, as we have seen, the computer was to be less like a locomotive and more like a bulldozer or automobile, or more like a "slave" and less like an autonomous thinking machine. For Licklider, it was to be an artificial "colleague" with whom the user could "interact" in a "conversation." Engelbart, in his effort to develop computers as a kind of prosthesis, and those trying to develop them as a form of artificial intelligence, both agreed, however, that in one sense, the usual way of representing human-machine interaction was misleading. The user of a computer should not be thought of as "operating" it, the way a construction worker operates a bulldozer. Instead, the user and the computer should be thought of as "communicating" with each other.

Prior styles of interaction between people and machines-such as driver and automobile, secretary and typewriter, or operator and control room-are all extremely lean: there is a limited range of tasks to be accomplished and a narrow range of means (wheels, levers and knobs) for accomplishing them. The notion of the operator of a machine arose out of this context. But the user is not an operator. He does not operate the computer, he communicates with it to accomplish a task. Thus we are creating a new arena of human action: communication with machines rather than operation of machines. (Card, Moran, and Newell 1983, 7, emphasis in the original)

In both the AI community and in Engelbart's lab at SRI, much effort was devoted to figuring out what this metaphor could mean in actuality and to making it work with real people and computer hardware.

As Engelbart saw it in 1962, the interaction between users and computers is a process of information exchange that is not necessarily unique to humans using computers. All such exchanges take place within a larger framework. He called the larger framework as it operates with respect to computers the "H-LAM/T System" for "Human using Language, Artifact, Methodology, in which he is Trained." In this scheme, arrows represent flows of energy between the "outside world" and both the user and the machine, the "artifact." A caption in the original representation refers to the shaded areas, the defining element of the "Man-Artifact Interface" shared by both humans and machines, as "matching processes." Whereas these processes for computers heretofore had been the domain of a few programmers and depended on artificial languages to provide the computer with input, instruct it what to do with it, and obtain usable output, for Engelbart, they were ubiquitous, part of the givens with which humans interact with their environment:

Where a complex machine represents the principal artifact with which a human being cooperates, the term "man-machine interface" has been used for some years to represent the boundary across which energy is exchanged between the two domains. However, the "man-artifact interface" has existed for centuries, ever since humans began using artifacts and executing composite processes, exchange across this "interface" occurs when an explicit-human process is coupled to an explicit-artifact process. Quite often these coupled processes are designed for just this exchange purpose, to provide a functional match between other explicit-human and explicit-artifact processes buried within their respective domains that do the more significant things. (Engelbart 1962, 20-21)

For Engelbart, what seemed promising about computers was that for these "artifacts," the processes that match human and machine to the outside world and to each other could be found in natural language, understood in both its physiological and its social dimensions, a language available to all. Of all the tools humans use to construct and modify the machines they use to transform themselves and their environment, language clearly seemed the meta-tool, the one that made all the others possible.

"I remember the revelation to me when I was saying, 'Let's look at all the other things that probably are out there in the form of tools,' and pretty soon focusing on language; realizing how much there was already that is added to our basic capability.... It amounts to an immense system that you essentially can say augments the basic human being" (Engelbart 1996). Because of the use of natural language in the matching processes connecting not just the user, but the computer with the outside world and with each other, the computer could appear both as an extension of the brain, in its physiological dimension, and as a medium, in its social dimension.

What Engelbart meant by "language" was "the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of his world into the concepts that his mind uses to model the world, and the symbols that he attaches to those concepts and uses in consciously manipulating the concepts" (Engelbart 1962, 9).

A natural language provides its user with a ready-made structure of concepts that establishes a basic mental structure, and that allows relatively flexible, general-purpose concept structuring. Our concept of "language" as one of the basic means for augmenting the human intellect embraces all of the concept structuring which the human may make use of.... The other important part of our "language" is the way in which concepts are represented-the symbols and symbol structures. (Engelbart 1962, 35)

Language thus was conceived as operating at two levels: it structures concepts, but it also structures symbols in order to model and at the same time to represent "a picture of the world." The evolution of this definition of language during twenty years of Engelbart's publications shows that the meaning of the term remained constant in Engelbart's work, as one of its most constant assumptions. In Vistas in In formation Handling (Engelbart 1963), the phrase "the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of his world" be-came "the way in which the individual classifies the picture of his world," but the rest remained unchanged. In "Toward High-Performance Knowledge Workers" (Engelbart 1982), the definition of "language" simply became "how we conceptualize, attach labels and symbols, externalize, portray, model, communicate."

As Engelbart himself pointed out, this understanding of what language is and does derives from the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf, and it both mirrors and extends the famous Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis:

The Whorfian hypothesis states that "the world view of a culture is limited by the structure of the language which this culture uses." But there seems to be another factor to consider in the evolution of language and human reasoning ability. We offer the following hypothesis, which is related to the Whorfian hypothesis: Both the language used by a culture, and the capability for effective intellectual activity, are directly affected during the evolution by the means by which individuals control the external manipulation of symbols. (Engelbart 1962, 24)

In his extension of the Whorf Hypothesis, Engelbart postulates a dialectical relationship between the two sublevels of natural language, a relationship in which the symbolic representation of concepts can affect the way these concepts structure the world. It is not simply the case that language structures our world in a given way, without our having any influence on the matter. The computerized display of new symbols should therefore allow us to affect the way we conceptualize our world. The computer thus could become an open medium that could be used to "make sense of the world," to map the structure of the world as information flows in order to manage their increasing complexity. The computer medium would change intellectual activity radically. It would not just improve its efficiency, make it faster, more economical, and so on, although it would do these things, too. The basic means to augment human intellect would lie in the simultaneous development of computer and user in a way that would exploit the potential of natural language to reconfigure our concepts and change our world.

The key to this reconfiguration lay not in any single concept itself, but in their being already configured-already given in nonlinear relationships that could be identified, mapped, and changed. As Whorf himself put it in one of his last statements on the issue, "Every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationships and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness" (Whorf 1956 [i942], 252). Engelbart thus decided to focus on the configurations themselves, the "pattern-system" or "network" ordering the concepts that make up our world, rather than on the linear expression of those concepts, the way in which they usually are communicated:

With the view that the symbols one works with are supposed to represent a mapping of one's associated concepts, and further that one's concepts exist in a "network" of relationships as opposed to the essentially linear form of actual printed records, it was decided that the concept-manipulation aids derivable from real-time computer support could be appreciably enhanced by structuring conventions that would make explicit (for both the user and the computer) the various types of network relationships among concepts. (Engelbart and English 1968, 398)

Engelbart proposed to use this pattern system as a way by which computers could become devices that would allow humans to expand the house of their consciousness. When one stretches the notion of technology to include the way humans use language-as Engelbart realized very early, according to his own account-it becomes clearer how it was the influence of Whorf-and beyond that, of a nexus of independent thinkers like him-that was central to the development of the personal computer. The origin of the basic notions underlying hypertext offer one example.


As the personal computer has evolved, the one important way of employing "the various types of network relationships among concepts" has been the development of hypertext, "a style of building systems for information representation and management around a network of nodes connected together by typed links" (Halasz 1988, 836). Because of how he conceived of the way that natural language could function in the human-computer interface, Douglas Engelbart, along with Ted Nelson, often is credited for pioneering work in the field of hypertext or hypermedia. Many, however, trace the genealogy of hypertext not to Engelbart and his extension of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but to the work of Vannevar Bush.

In a famous article called "As We May Think," Vannevar Bush, who had done some pioneer work in analog computing in the 1920's and 1930's while he was a professor at MIT, proposed a new kind of electro-optical device, the Memex, "an enlarged intimate supplement of an individual's memory." The result of "utopian fiction and speculative engineering," the Memex was an imaginary machine that existed entirely on paper and that never was constructed (Nyce and Kahn 1991b, 45). Bush was very close to the cybernetics project, and accordingly conceived his Memex on the basis of analogies between brain and machine, between electricity and information. Most authors dealing with hypertext or hypermedia systems usually refer to the following quotation, representative of this analogical thinking, as the conceptual origin of hypertext:

The human mind ... operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.... Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it.... The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized. (Bush 1991 [1945], 101-2)

Some critics realized very early, however, that relying on such an individual process could create problems. For instance, in a private letter to Vannevar Bush sent on August 27, 1945, immediately after "As We May Think" appeared, John H. Weakland offered two main objections: "(1) Wouldn't the fact that association patterns are thoroly [sic] individual make a general use of the Memex difficult? (2) How would the tremendous bulk of information already recorded be made usable, especially for a searcher who wants to branch into lines of thought and knowledge that are quite new and unfamiliar to him?" (quoted in Nyce and Kahn 1991b, 60).


Excerpted from BOOTSTRAPPING by THIERRY BARDINI Copyright © 2000 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Douglas Engelbart's Crusade for the Augmentation of Human Intellect....................1
1. Language and the Body....................33
2. The Chord Keyset and the QWERTY Keyboard....................58
3. The Invention of the Mouse....................81
4. Inventing the Virtual User....................103
5. SRI and the oN-Line System....................120
6. The Arrival of the Real User and the Beginning of the End....................143
7. "Of Mice and Man": ARPANET, E-mail, and est....................182
Coda: Where Hand and Memory Can Meet Again....................215
Appendix: Personnel at Engelbart's SRI Lab....................233
Works Cited....................263

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