The bitter history of collaboration's prophet


While collaboration tools may seem as common to your work day as cutlery is to your dinner, it hasn't always been so but one famous tech prophet foresaw the importance of using computers to work together.

Rather than being heralded as a genius, Douglas Engelbart was left "bitter" by researchers' focus on using computers purely for processing rather than collaboration, according to Professor Thierry Bardini, of the University of Montreal and the author of Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution and the Origins of Personal Computing.

The video conferencing, real-time shared editing, word processing and so on that are all key to office life were all presented by Engelbart in 1968 in his famous "mother of all demos", where he also showed off a prototype of the creation he's most famous for, the mouse.

He starts the demo by describing the modern office: an "intellectual" worker with a display and a computer for their own use, all day a groundbreaking idea at the time. Engelbert shows off working with documents, complete with revision history, as well as video conferencing with screen sharing, dynamic file linking, hyperlinks, and collaboration messaging tools, like a very early version of Slack.

"We have seen most of the way through here how this serves as a very powerful tool for an individual to work when he's studying, doing his planning, designing, debugging, documenting," Engelbart says in the video as he sums up the first hour of demos. "We also saw through the medium of leaving messages for each other and filtering them that people can collaborate quite well over a period of time by working on joint files. In fact, you can have a joint file and go leave a message and get a response, in a matter of minutes, because they're all available instantly by anybody from one of these terminals."

He goes on to show off real-time editing decades before Google Docs with a system that lets a remote colleague add markers to a document for commenting, before describing how it would all networked together.

"First there are all the tools of personal computing like real-time text editing, hyperlinks and paragraph-level addresses to get you to information quickly, and so forth," added Simon Buckingham Shum, director of the Connected Intelligence Centre at the the University of Technology Sydney. "Moreover, there were the revolutionary input devices like the mouse, the light-pen (now digital pen), the joystick (good for gamers), and the single-handed chord keyboard (which didn't catch on). All of them gave humans far more expressive power than punch cards or a keyboard, which was needed when the display could be so symbolically flexible."

Buckingham Shum added: "Collaborative computing applications obviously use, but then extend, these with shared editors (such as Google Docs and screen sharing), video conferencing (Skype and FaceTime), the joint construction of hypertexts (such as wikis and blogs), shared databases (GitHub)," he said. "Doug invented early versions of many of the tools that we now take for granted."

We take such technologies for granted now but imagining all of them was an accomplishment. "We have to work quite hard to imagine how revolutionary it would have been to see, for the first time, someone typing words onto a screen, deleting them, cutting and pasting," said Buckingham Shum. "Videoconferencing with a colleague whose face was in the corner of a shared document was astounding."

Augmenting humans

While the mouse was widely welcomed at the time, his other ideas won less favourable attention until decades in the future, said Bardini. "For Doug, the mouse was some of the least important work he did," Bardini said. "It was a little thing, it wasn't a challenge at all. The rest of the project was more important to him it was no less than augmenting the human intellect."

By that, he didn't mean an Elon Musk style human-brain interaction but using computers to help humans learn and communicate. "His idea was that computers should help us learn something, and the focus should be on the augmentation of the human intellect, not the computers'," Bardini explained. "To him, this augmentation of the intellect was a collective thing...He didn't care so much about the individual user, that's why he's credited with the invention of computer supported collaborative work as well as the mouse and everything else."

"He failed, he thought he failed," said Bardini. "He thought the world just kept the gadgets and not the overall framework."

While the idea that computers could be more than research-focused machines running calculations left him "totally at odds with his time," there were others who agreed. JCR Licklider and Robert Taylor wrote a paper the same year using illustrations based on Engelbart's framework called "The Computer as a Communication Device", which laid out ideas for a wider range of uses for computers, just as Engelbart foresaw.

Bardini said that in hindsight that paper was a "watershed moment" showing that "the computer wasn't just a calculating machine". Taylor, who passed away in April, worked at ARPA (the predecessor to DARPA) from 1965 to 1969, later setting up the famous Xerox PARC lab, and helped fund Engelbart's work at Stanford and develop the idea of computer networks.

"That was not appreciated at the time," said Bardini. "Most of the ARPA contractors thought it was trivial and uninteresting. Even in his lab, people rebelled and said it isn't research what sort of administrative work do you want us to do?"

Waiting on PCs

From our perspective now, it's easy to see how computers support collaboration. But at the time, computers remained tools used for big companies and organisations, Bardini noted. For others to see what Engelbart saw, we first needed the personal computing revolution, which was some 15 years more in the making.

Some of his ideas still aren't being used. "Why can't you link to a specific paragraph or line on any website?" asked Buckingham Shum. "Doug invented a link addressing scheme that allowed you to do this."

He added: "There are many ideas that are still not familiar today that are more to do with ways of using the tools, not tool features on their own. One that is beginning to gain traction is the Networked Improvement Community (NIC), as a disciplined form of distributed network committed to analysing a common problem, diagnosing its root causes, and then rigorously testing new ideas, sharing results. Many online communities do not have this rigour, but the concept has taken root in some sectors (eg. improving Healthcare, and School Education). Online platforms have been developed to support the specific needs of such initiatives, which go way beyond the typical website and discussion forum."

When personal computers did arrive, Engelbart was still disappointed. "He had this grand idea that the computer could be a hub that helped us increase our collective intellect as a species or a civilisation, through collaboration not through helping your user use a computer easily, like what Apple did," said Bardini. "When he saw the one-button mouse and first Macs, he thought they were toys, that they weren't going to do what he wanted to do."

Buckingham Shum agreed. "He was less interested in usability (the way Steve Jobs was) than in high-performance teams who had co-evolved new ways of working together with powerful tools," he said. "These days, we only have to think about an expert team of creative digital designers, or a vibrant open source programmer community, to appreciate how shared fluency with tools makes it possible to craft and share ideas over time and space. An analogy is a band or orchestra, who have put in the time to learn their instruments to a high level of skill, and developed a shared sense of musicality."

Being understood

Engelbart realised users and developers needed educating on the potential of computers, and pushed his own programmers and lab staff into personal development programmes. They weren't keen, said Bardini.

"All this was not moving along because of human restrictions the tool is perfect, the system is done, but people don't get it," said Bardini, with Engelbart's staff not interested. "They didn't care [saying] I want to code, I want to programme, I don't want to programme myself."

The lack of progress on collaboration within his own lab and in the wider industry left Engelbart disappointed. "Doug was so bitter about it, when I met him in 1992, he was still very bitter that people didn't get it it was just at the beginning of the world wide web," Bardini said. "For most of the 80s, he was so bitter, as nobody got it."

Would he be happier now that we're all using computing devices to connect and collaborate? As the web shifted computing more towards Engelbart's vision, he did become happier, Bardini noted. That was helped by one grand gesture by his colleagues and peers. At a party in Engelbart's honour, they revealed to the father of collaborative computing that they'd nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

"Of course he didn't get it, but we made the argument that his work transforming the computer that was basically a war machine like most information technologies, it was mostly developed with ideas of war in mind and making it a medium that allowed people to communicate better was a movement for peace," said Bardini, who was in attendance. "I remember it really well, how happy he was that some people had got that, had understood."