straight up
Douglas Engelbart at the oNLine System (NLS)


Click to play video Coping with the urgency of complexity


The story of my involvement with on-line workstations begins in early 1951, with a vision and a life-time professional commitment. Over thirty-four years of pursuit have created a lot of personal history, and the object of this historical exercise, the workstation, occupies a unique place in it.

For me, a workstation is the portal into a person's "Augmented Knowledge Workshop" – the place in which he finds the data and tools with which he does his knowledge work, and through which he collaborates with similarly equipped workers. And further, I consider that the large system of concepts, skills, knowledge, methods, etc. on the human side of the workstation has to be taken into account, in a balanced way, when pursuing increased human effectiveness.

What really launched me years ago (early 1950s) was the thing that the world needs: humans need to be able to do things better, and the collective coping with complexity and urgency.

I had an interesting, steady job. And I was going to get married and live happily ever after. And suddenly I just realized I didn't have any more goals than that professionally. And I was really embarrassed.

So one Saturday morning in all that stewing around it just dawned on me. Hey, you know, the world is really complex. And a lot of the big problems can only be dealt with collectively. And they're getting more and more urgent and more and more complex. And mankind's ability to cope with complexity and urgency isn't keeping up with the degree of increase in those factors. So here I come. I get on my white horse and I can do that for mankind. See?

So I somehow fit that together with a picture of computers working interactively. Now that was the days in which the nearest computer was on the East Coast someplace, M.I.T. or Bell Labs or something like that.

So I'd been an electrical engineer for quite a while. I'd been a radar technician in World War II. I'd seen what they could do for radar displays, etc. So I knew that a computer could punch cards or print things out. It can make whatever you want on a screen. So it was no trouble at all to say I could have characters and symbols and stuff on the screen.

And then I knew it could actually watch whatever you do so I could pick up and affect what it's going to do in response to your movement, including typing on a keyboard. And I said, "Oh, once you get the computer support and you're interactive and helping you think and put on the symbols, you could potentially have a whole new symbolic language, because the language we'd been using in the past in order to externalize our concepts had been limited by our means of expressing it.

So when you get into graphic arts you get beautiful expressive things, but the time and effort to make those beautiful graphics didn't sort of match the time concept in your doing your thinking. So what if you would be able to create a computer and it could create all these new things? You could actually formulate a potentially new language to express your concepts and results of analyses, etc, that could be a lot better matched to the way your brain really works.

So it soon comes to be that what I feel is the performance level for individuals doing knowledge work and collectively for organizations doing knowledge work, the potential is much higher than we're used to thinking of. And then going after that potential would be one of the most important things we could do. And, for me, the whole multimedia stuff, fits in with the world wide web orientation, goes off in that direction.

So the way of describing it in the last few years had been "boosting collective I.Q." And it's something that you can sort of get an instinctive feeling for just by the term. So you can look at any collective body, whether it's a corporate thing, a university, a city, company, a country, etc, and you look at: what's the collective activity and action and results of what they're doing? So how much does it give you a sense if you understand the environment and the future that's there? How much does it give you a sense that they can really pool and do an intelligent choice of things they're going to do? And when they do make a choice, how smart are they about formulating it, getting resources, coordinating the resources to perfect that? How quick are they about seeing changes in the outside world to reorient what they're doing?

But anyway there are some really bad dreams that are potentially there. It's like saying you're in a vehicle all together and you're not quite sure who's steering it or who has the brakes or who's looking ahead very far or whether the headlights you have shine far enough ahead for the speed that you're building up. And the terrain you're going through is getting rougher and more complex with more traps. And the brakes aren't really coping with it, but somehow you're building up more momentum because you're going downhill or something. So, my God, how do we get – so it's that collective-I.Q. feeling – seeing farther ahead. Having a much better sense of where you ought to go and a much better sense of controlling it so that you can do it – a more rational, intelligent, sort of collective entity.

Texts by Douglas Engelbart
Edited by Randall Packer

Culled from the following sources:

• Workstation History and the Augmented Knowledge Workshop; Douglas Engelbart; 1985

• Demonstration of the Fall Joint Computer Conference; 1968

• Lecture by Douglas Engelbart at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; 1996