Normally, on the weekend, we look back at what we wrote about on Techdirt five, ten and fifteen years ago, but I’m going to pre-empt at least a bit of that with this post. Ten years ago, we wrote about the 40th anniversary of the famous and iconic “Mother of All Demos” by Doug Engelbart on December 9th, 1968. A little over five years ago, we wrote about it again, unfortunately on the occasion of Engelbart’s passing.
It’s interesting, in Silicon Valley, how much disdain some have for the past. After all, it’s here that we’re always talking about inventing the future. Engelbart’s demo, 50 years ago, was exactly that. Before even the idea of a graphical user interface for a computer, or the concept of a wider internet, was conceived of, Engelbart was literally demoing a ton of ideas, products, concepts and services that we all use regularly today. Even the demo itself (let alone what he was demoing) was somewhat historic, as the demo showed what was happening on his computer on-screen, but part of it was done via teleconferencing and video sharing (again before most people even had the foggiest idea what that could mean). It demonstrated, for the first time, ideas like the computer mouse, a word process, windows, a graphical user interface, computer graphics, hypertext linking, collaborative editing, version control, dynamic linking and more.
I watch the entire 90 minutes every few years, and it’s amazing how inspiring it is. How miraculous it is. Every time we link to it, it ends up moving around or appearing in different chunks online, but the Doug Engelbart Institute now has it in three separate parts (each about 30 minutes) on YouTube, so I’ll post that version here:
Or, if you really don’t want to watch the entire thing, there’s a nicely done “interactive version” that breaks it down into sections and sub-sections, so you can just watch the clips that are of most interest to you (though, I still recommend watching the entire thing for context).
Part of what’s so inspiring about the demo, of course, is that we’re watching it in retrospect. We now know what transpired over the next 50 years. If none of what Engelbart had presented became common, the demo would probably just be seen as quirky nonsense, a la predictions of flying cars and moon bases. But, that’s not what happened at all. Instead, we know that watching Engelbart’s demo is watching real history in action.
It’s watching the impossible, the magical, become reality. It’s the very thing that has made Silicon Valley so much fun for the past 50 years. Making the impossible not just possible, but everyday. Enabling people to do amazing things.
Of course, we’re living now in an age where the narrative on technology has shifted. People are recognizing that innovation and advancement isn’t always all good for everyone. People are recognizing that it has consequences and creates problems — sometimes serious ones. And those conversations are vital.
But as that narrative has shifted, I worry tremendously about throwing out all of the good things that have come with innovation in our rush to prevent any possible downsides. I’m glad that there’s some level of reckoning happening, and people are proactively trying to think through the impact (both good and bad) of what they’re creating these days. But, I worry that the narrative has shifted so far that in order to prevent “bad” we’re going to end up tossing out much of the good that is set to come as well.
I’m not quite 50 years old yet, but the amount of technological change and innovation in my lifetime has been amazing — and I’d argue that the vast majority of it has been good. It has opened up new worlds. It has enabled new ways to communicate. It has brought knowledge and information to far flung corners of the globe. It has enabled people all over the world to have an impact. And it continues to change as well.
Watching the Mother of All Demos once again lets us wonder about what will happen in the next 50 years. And it gives us a chance to appreciate all that has happened (and has been allowed to happen) over the past 50 years. Engelbart didn’t lock up his ideas. He didn’t block others from using them. There aren’t stories of nasty patent fights (even if he had a bunch of patents). He shared these ideas for the world to see, and the world took these ideas and ran with them, built on them, improved on them and created the amazing world we now live in. This should not be the end of the history of innovation, but a sign of what happens when people do allow for great innovation, and seek to make the impossible, possible.