Keeping Doug Engelbart Alive.

In the summer, I reached out to Alan Kay again. This time, I wanted to know which companies Alan thought would be good for an investment. He told me about Croquet, run by David A. Smith, and Dynamicland, run by Bret Victor. Croquet describes itself as the the driver of the ‘next generation of real-time collaborative apps and games,’ and Dynamicland describes itself as ‘a computational medium where people work together with real objects in the real world, not alone with virtual objects on screens.’ David and Bret seemed to take very different approaches to the same idea: collaboration.

Alan said that both companies were working on the most forward-looking processes in computing that he knew about, and had the kinds of researchers that he really liked. I wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘forward-looking processes,’ and it would take me several months to learn that these processes weren’t new at all. Their roots were planted in the 1960’s by Doug Engelbart, an inventor whose ideas would remain largely ignored by the technology world for half a century. Except by Alan, David, Bret and likely only a few others.

After my conversation with Alan, I emailed David (and Jeffrey Smith, David’s business partner) and Bret, and expressed my enthusiasm by sharing my vision of the future. David replied, and we agreed to catch up a few months later, after he had finished preparing for the release of the Croquet SDK. When we reconnected, I had a Skype call with David. I asked Omar Rida, a friend and programmer, to join me on the call and discuss with David some ideas for demos that could be built with Croquet. David was also working on other ideas. He shared with us a paper he wrote describing ‘a new class of wearable computer that dynamically enhances the real world to enable its wearers to see the currently invisible digital space that surrounds us.’ I realized that Croquet was just a small piece in David’s much larger vision. We scheduled another call, and agreed to meet early next year.

Bret, however, hadn’t replied to my email, and I later understood why. I had foolishly ended my pitch with “Let’s build the Apple of the next 100 years, together.” I didn’t understand that Bret wasn’t trying to build the next Apple. He had already articulated a 50-year plan and a 5000-year vision. He was trying to realize Engelbart’s vision of augmenting humanity’s collective intelligence, with collaboration as the centerpiece. Apple –– and most of the industry –– had failed to understand that vision, and they excluded Engelbart’s ideas of collaboration from their products. Also, my comparison of Dynamicland to a profit-seeking company like Apple had probably disenchanted Bret, because Dynamicland was a non-profit. I had to find a better way to start a conversation with him.

Several months after my conversation with Alan, I still couldn’t understand why Croquet and Dynamicland were important. I hadn’t been able to connect their ideas with anything of historical significance. I needed to justify to myself why helping these companies would be worth my time, or else I wouldn’t find the energy or enthusiasm to do the work. Viscerally though, I knew Alan was right, but I didn’t know why he was right.

I found the first clue in one of Alan’s talks at the ATLAS Institute in the University of Boulder in Colorado. About a quarter of the way into the talk, Alan plays a portion of Engelbart’s ‘Mother Of All Demos’ video from 1968. Alan says, after playing the video:

“Engelbart is known, generally, for being one of the inventors of the mouse, and this allows me to make a point about these people from the past, which is generally, people look at the work done in the past as a cruder version of what we have in the present…and this is to miss the context that these guys were operating in. It actually makes our present more important –– because we’re here –– than it might have been. And Bret Victor, who is kind of the modern Engelbart, had a great comment when Engelbart died. Bret Victor wrote a great obituary, which is worthwhile reading.”

Alan then reads an excerpt from the obituary:

“When I read tech writers’ interviews with Engelbart, I imagine these writers interviewing George Orwell, asking in-depth probing questions about his typewriter,” Bret writes.

Alan then explains: “The mouse is the equivalent of the typewriter, it’s not the most important thing that Orwell did!”

“Almost everything that Engelbart did, except for the quality of the graphics –– which improved over time –– was actually a richer past for a cruder present, in almost every case,” Alan continues.

Alan then quotes Engelbart: “Why are people so excited about the mouse? That’s just the button on the radio. We invented a whole car!”

It seemed that Engelbart had been discouraged by the world’s reaction to his vision, and Alan knew why:

“The car is the thing that’s hard to understand, the mouse is easy to understand. So this is how journalism works,” he explains.

My mind started racing. I paused Alan’s talk, and searched for Bret’s obituary of Engelbart. Bret writes that the collaborative video conference in the ‘Mother Of All Demos’ from 1968 is different from the way computers have evolved, which isn’t collaborative. He explains the difference:

“If you look closer, you’ll notice that there are two individual mouse pointers. Engelbart and Paxton are each controlling their own pointer.”

He later summarizes:

“If you attempt to make sense of Engelbart’s design by drawing correspondences to our present-day systems, you will miss the point, because our present-day systems do not embody Engelbart’s intent. Engelbart hated our present-day systems.”

Bret ends the obituary with:

“The most important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What world was he trying to create?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to create that world yourself.”

Then it struck me. David’s words on the Skype call: “What you see is what I see.” I had been furiously trying to understand the bigger vision behind Croquet’s demos for months. They showed an ability for multiple users to interact in a shared screen experience. Similarly, Dynamicland was a computer that allowed people to work together with real objects in the real world. Their work was a manifestation of Engelbart’s ideas of collaboration. The two individual mouse pointers on the shared screen in Engelbart’s demo had somehow inspired David and Bret to think of new ways for people to collaborate using technology. They were keeping Engelbart’s vision alive.

And so the puzzle started to come together, and I had found the context I was looking for. I could connect David and Bret’s ideas with specific events in the past, and I could see the future more clearly. The industry hadn’t understood what collaboration meant, so David and Bret were taking it upon themselves to help the industry understand.

I was inspired. For years, I had dreamed of seeing a modern-day Xerox PARC or ARPA come to life. I dreamed about what it would look like, what kind of ideas would be worked on, and what kind of people would work at these places. I dreamed about the next computer revolution. And now, I could see it slowly unfolding in front of me.

Alan, David and Bret would need a lot of help to keep Engelbart’s dreams alive. I was sure they had some of the best minds in the world working with them, but I knew they would need the help of many more pioneers who saw the future like they did. They would also need lots of funding – billions of dollars.

There was no question about it, the computer would have to be reinvented. This was not going to be business –– or research — as usual. The industry would have to move in a new direction if Engelbart’s ideas were to develop, mature and survive. It would take a radical new way of thinking to create a computer that would augment humanity’s collective intelligence. Humanity would have to catch up with its past if it wanted to invent the future.

Keep pushing the edge.