Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, of course. But just outside San Francisco on December 9, a group of erstwhile technology pioneers gave remembrance a real run for the money. And looking back with them on how far we’ve come just serves to remind us all of how far we have to go.
Digerati from far and wide gathered at Stanford University last month–in Memorial Hall, appropriately enough–to mark the 30th anniversary of the first public presentation of the computing tool the world has come to call “the mouse.”
The event was a sort of celebration of the contributions three decades earlier of Doug Engelbart and his team from the Stanford Research Institute. Englebart, who started work on human-computer interactivity in 1962, made his landmark presentation at a meeting of computer professionals in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968.
At a time when a computer was little more than a giant electrified abacus, Engelbart demonstrated not just the mouse, but also the graphical use interface, display editing and integrated text and graphics, hyper-documents, and two-way video-conferencing with shared work spaces.
Film footage of the 30-year-old demonstration showed Engelbart explaining the mouse to his audience.
“I don’t know why we called it a mouse,” he tells an auditorium of awestruck techies. “Sometimes I apologize. It started that way, and we never changed it.”
The reunion of Engelbart and members of his historic team, along with other computer visionaries, was an occasion to consider the impact of Engelbart’s work and to explore the promise of the next 30 years. On hand along with Engelbart were Netscape co-founder Mark Andreessen, who confessed he’d never heard of Engelbart when he started his browser company; Stewart Brand, who co- founded The WELL and created the Whole Earth Catalog; Alan Kay, a founder of the Xerox Parc lab who conceived the idea of personal computing; and Paul Horn, director of IBM’s research lab.
The presentation in 1968 was meant to show the world “the computer’s immense potential for improving our collective capability to solve problems,” said Engelbart. But as he reflected on it now, he revealed a tinge of disappointment: “I don’t think they really bought it.”
Society has yet to embrace his idea of a “collective IQ,” he said, where knowledge is pooled and shared through corporate and national computer networks, enhancing human efficiency and intellect.
People embraced the gadgetry, said Engelbart, but society is only just beginning to appreciate the grander vision. “The tidal wave really hasn’t hit us yet,” he said.
Who would argue with a visionary? Engelbart undoubtedly is right. The most profound changes are yet to come.
But as our special report on Distance Learning, as the Viewpoint on the Next Generation Internet, and as a dozen other stories in this issue of eSchool News make clear, Engelbart might soon find cause for optimism. In the nation’s schools, at least, the tide definitely is rising faster now.