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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Wednesday Night at PARC: Together Again

Last night was an amazing experience. John Markoff's new book "What the Dormouse Said" has stirred up a lot of memories and passion of the early days of personal computing. At the (formerly known as Xerox) Palo Alto Research Center Auditorium, a crowd gathered that may never get together in one room again. Many people from the book just turned up - it was a combination of holding the event at PARC and also seeing that some of their friends would be there on the panel: Bill Duvall, Lee Felsenstein, Larry Tesler, Dennis Allison.

It all started the day before, Tuesday morning, when Pam Cleveland from the Computer History Museum sent a note from the SD Forum organizer, Sandy Rockowitz inviting Doug Engelbart to attend. I'd been Doug's business partner for a couple years in 2002-2003 and we still get together to eat salmon together about once a month. Doug was open to doing it and so by 6 pm we were rolling up Coyote Hill Road towards PARC.

First we see Adele Goldberg speaking on her cell phone, then on the way up from the parking lot, Harvey Lehtman comes up to say hi to Doug. As we go in, people who know him or have heard of him come up for Doug's autograph - it's not easy for him to write these days, so those who got Doug's autographs are lucky!

Dan Gillmor, well known as the San Jose Mercury Technology Columnist introduced John Markoff, saying lots of normal nice things. Most memorably, that John was responsible for the most Holy Crap moments, when late in the publishing cycle, they'd see the latest article by Markoff and found they the local Silicon Valley paper been scooped again by the New York Times. As of May 13, Dan has landed in www.Bayosphere.com - a place for citizen journalism.

John Markoff talks and shows photos of folks - young, beautiful, handsome, intense from the '60's. Gosh, many of them sporting really large beards! He said, quoting someone, he felt as if he was giving a lecture on Catholic Theology in front of a group of Popes..... Technology happens through the prism of Culture and Economics, that the 1960's is echoing in the politics of today.

Ted Nelson, the "Don Quixote" of modern computing has not been widely known outside of computing circles. The book is about the People of that age, stories that must be set down before they are forgotten. John told how he'd met Ted at Doug's 79th birthday party and with no preamble Ted said (something like) "I can conclusively prove I invented backlink".

The 2 myths of the personal computer:

1. Two Steves and a garage (Jobs and Wozniak and the Apple computer)
2. Alan Kay in the early 70's.

Markoff has written a Revisionist history about the fact that the ideas that mattered more than this were created at two labs: Doug's at SRI - the Augmented Human Intellect (later known as Augmented Research Center - ARC) and John McCarthy's Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) at opposite sides of the Stanford Campus. The ideas were synthesized at Xerox and then went out to the computer hobbyists.

He's saying that the context and milieu of the times - psychedelic sociology, not psychology were responsible for what emerged. In the collision of the sub groups - Grateful Dead, People's Computer Company, the Microprocessor - something happened. The licensing of the transistor at nominal fee was the key to the emergence of Silicon Valley, together with Xerox's decision to not enforce their patent ownership of the LCD, spread the technology widely. Sutherland's Sketchpad and Link were precursors. It was this moment that the universal media machine combined with the idea of computing which up to then had been for numerical analysis.

Within a circle of 5 miles around Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park - it all happened, and not by any coincidence, John Markoff himself grew up.

As the second node on the Internet (ARPANET as it was known then), Doug's NLS (oNLSystem) was the killer app that allowed people to send messages, communicate, access information on remote computers. Before that moment, computing were not seen as intuitive.

McCarthy's AI Lab was on Arastradero road. John McCarthy was Father of Time Sharing. My partner RC was McCarthy's PhD student in the mid 80's and caught up with Les Earnest who was also there at the event. When RC told Les about working at Cisco, Les reminisced with stories about Len Bozak who had worked at SAIL before leaving to found Cisco.

Markoff said he'd noticed that the ones whose ideas had lasted, were the ones who realized that Scaling made a difference. That Doug had satisfied himself that computers would be able to scale down in size and increase in computing power to be able to augment human capability. That others who's concepts took root similarly were able to project trends.

Later when the panelists spoke, Larry Tesler talked about discovering the power of personal printing in this way: That in order to get student leaflets produced for a protest at Stanford, they'd made them in the basement at SAIL. Later he and others were talking and extrapolating what this meant to have anyone be able to print whatever they wanted.... anyway, they kept going and by the end of the conversation, they realized that the Soviet Union would fall. They wondered who they should tell? So they talked some more and decided they shouldn't tell anyone because otherwise the Soviet Union would take steps. So they kept quiet, and the Soviet Union fell.

Up to that point, computers had been used for numerical analysis. The political and social environment in the 60's and 70's provided the spark to shift out of numbers and into human stuff - Augmentation and AI.

Lee Felsenstein said it was not about counter culture, at least not in his circles, it was about the "Revolt against Institutions" - which in some way has it s roots back to the beginning of the Republic. That was the Zeitgeist. Free Speech, Community, Convivial Technology, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich.

Dennis Allison founded the People's Computing Company, and produced the Computer Music Journal and Dr. Dobb's Journal (among others). The Learning Exchange, Community memory, community search and access to knowledge.

Just behind us I saw in the audience Butler Lampson, Bob Taylor - characters in this book and also in the book about JR Licklider, the Dream Machine. In front of us Ann Duvall and Markoff's wife, Leslie. Some, no many of the people who care about Doug.

Dealing Lightning with Both Hands - that was the description of Doug up on stage at the 1968 demo http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/MouseSitePg1.html - Lee Felsenstein said that he'd heard about it 3rd hand and it made a huge impression on him, the vision of what computers could do - so completely different from anything. It was in the air - Andy van Dam and Ted Nelson (inventor of hypertext) had begun working on a system with similar characteristics and couldn't believe they'd been scooped not just in the idea but in the implementation.

Larry Tesler talked about "Questioning Everything". That whatever was there had to be challenged. He also told the story of calling Microsoft Tech Support in the very early days and being helped by Bill Gates.

Someone asked what are people on the panel finding interesting these days:

Markoff - file to file sharing lawsuit is in the news these days. But Peer to Peer sharing is moving below file level granularity... he expects a peer to peer application explosion - its all about sharing information - harks back to his earlier comment about NLS being the 'net's Killer App. Another thing, the massively single player game - SPORE - individuals create content, their content together makes for a complex world, a Multi-Verse (multiple universe) - a platform for sharing user generated information (my addition - that interacts, ie, acts on the information shared). Conflating (melding, fusing) Open Source, Content Sharing, Software Sharing.

Larry Tesler, Lee Felsenstein and Dennis Allison spoke about how much further computing had to go in enhancing education. Dennis believes children should learning programming. Larry said that the unsolved problem in computing is effective education. Lee said he's been working on the bicycle powered computer for schools.

Doug had been talking about the book for weeks. In fact he'd attended two other book tour sessions with John Markoff. He'd been telling me that there were things he'd wanted to say about the counter culture but not been able to before. So Ann Duvall got the mike and asked him a question: Tonight a young man came up and said he'd just seen the 1968 demo, and he saw things there that people still don't have today. Almost 40 years later, that demo is still amazing people and causing them to think about computers in new ways. Share your thoughts Doug.

Doug stood up from his aisle seat: There's a group of people running a conference in Copenhagen "reboot" - and they want to reboot. So they asked me to talk with them after they show that 1968 video. In preparation for that today, I watched the whole 90 minutes again, which I haven't seen for a long time.

I was stimulated by the book, it made me think about countercultures - it made me think about paradigm shifts among people involved that were quite different from those described in the book. Besides the revolutionary 60's spirit. For instance, personal computing vs personal computer - we had considerably more power back in the 70's via personal computing using NLS/Augment. Yet we went down the personal computer path, even though it took decades for the personal computer to catch up with what we had in the 60's and early 70's.

(Note from Mei Lin - if Larry Tesler had worked at Doug's ARC lab instead of McCarthy's SAIL lab, would he have accepted sharing computer resources? Larry said last night, he couldn't stand getting a message like, your 3 second program will take 2 weeks to run. Les Ernest stood up from the audience and said, you would rather boot up your personal computer and have it take 10 minutes than wait a few seconds to log on to SAIL. Larry said, at least its deterministic, and I could go get a cup of coffee. Someone I forget who, said, its just normal Territorial instinct to want your own access to power with no in-betweens.)

The other thing I wanted to bring up is that we focused on capabilities - we had the feeling that there were signficant potential increaases in capability - that pursuing those was very important and that exploration of how to attain these increases was very limited by the other current of the times: That things should be easy to learn.

My view has been and still is:

First find out how much capability to achieve and only then ask if the price of learning to achieve that level of capability is too high.

Definitely not arbitrarily setting limits on how easy to learn it must be.

We haven't done this in the past. If we did, we'd all be riding tricycles because bicycles are too hard to learn to ride. (MLF - not to mention learning to drive!)

One thing Doug did not get to last night was a third point: The perspective of computing supporting groups instead of computing supporting individuals - Doug thought about saying "We had email in 1970, collaboration in group was common, software code could be accessed and worked on by anyone, we could edit code and run it in the same window. Capability in PC's didn't have spreadsheets, file sharing systems where you could access information at very granular (word, character) levels

The clash in culture between office automation vs personal computing made a real difference in how things evolved. The difference in goal between Artifical Intelligence and Augmented Intelligence also had profound effects which we live with today. How we can boost the humans capabilities? The cultures were quite different. John wrote about some differences in culture, Doug would like to see someone writing a book about these specific culture differences - because we are still not done with increasing human capability.:

Samuel Hahn asked the last question of the evening - it was already 10 pm, 1 hour over the scheduled end.

"The technology is much more advanced now. So is the time ripe for Doug's quest to focus technology on Augmenting Human capability?"

Answer - was it Felsenstein and/or Tesler: The momentum and energy are slowly building. No one knows when the critical mass with be reached. The bubble of interest and available technology is continuing to grow.

Paraphrasing Markoff "sometimes it can take decades, even when all the pieces seem to be in place, for something to hit. I can't predict."

It was really a great night for Doug, he was happy to see everyone again and glad to be still around to remind everyone of how much work there still is to be done.


Tom Foremski felt the passion too, read his article on the event at
http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/mt/archives/2005/06/a_tribute_to_on.php

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