Technology

The Other Revolution of 1968

Friday A/V Club: The "mother of all demos" turns 50.

|

"I'm going to do something called 'jump on a link,'" the man tells the audience. "And the link is something that'll go between files."

It's hard to remember that there was a time when someone would have to explain what clicking on a link entails. But 50 years ago this week, a Stanford engineer named Doug Engelbart made history doing exactly that. For roughly 100 minutes, at a presentation that the tech journalist Steven Levy later dubbed "the mother of all demos," Engelbart demonstrated the tools that he and his colleagues had been developing, including such then-alien concepts as hypertext, videoconferencing, file sharing, and the computer mouse. ("I don't know why we call it a mouse," he comments. "Sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it.") The digital era was in utero, and Engelbart's audience was peering at the sonogram.

Most of the demo was captured on video. (The videographer was Stewart Brand, who had just founded the Whole Earth Catalog.) You can watch the recording below; if you want to search for particular moments, a transcript with timestamps is here.

Even then, the audience knew it was watching more than just a new set of technologies. "For the first time," the Stanford historian Fred Turner writes in his 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, "they could see a highly individualized, highly interactive computing system built not around the crunching of numbers but around the circulation of information and the building of a workplace community." That in turn reflected Engelbart's social ideals. Influenced by the cybernetic visions of Norbert Wiener and Vannevar Bush, Engelbart was aiming, in Turner's words, toward a system where "each individual's comprehension would be increased by the participation of others through a process of collective feedback facilitated by the computer." Such bottom-up feedback systems, he felt, could "facilitate not only better office communication, but even the evolution of human beings."

At the risk of proving him wrong, I invite you to discuss the demo in the comments.

(For some excerpts from an opera about Engelbart's demo, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another edition with a Stewart Brand connection, go here.)

NEXT: Mueller Mulls Middle East Meddling: Reason Roundup

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. What time in the video does he get to social media? The monster.

  2. “Such bottom-up feedback systems, he felt, could ‘facilitate not only better office communication, but even the evolution of human beings.'”

    You said “bottom-up”

    1. FDAU FTW.

  3. “At the risk of proving him wrong, I invite you to discuss the demo in the comments.”

    Even the trolls and the ones who are just failing miserably at being funny are smarter than they would be for participating in this medium.

    I’m old enough to remember before people could fact check each other with their phones. Arguments used to be won by the person who could speak his facts with the most confidence. If he was full of shit, how would we know?

    Those days are over forever.

    1. Even the trolls and the ones who are just failing miserably at being funny are smarter than they would be for participating in this medium.

      For the record: I think this is largely true. I just couldn’t resist the line. Maybe I’m a bit of a troll myself, and/or failing miserably at being funny.

    2. This is the 21st century. Now you fact check people by citing fake news. Your fact check links to cyberBS. Arguments are won by citing tweets, and facebook posts that clearly demonstrate that your opponent is a racist, xenophobe, shitlord.

      There is nothing new under the sun.

      1. Bullshit.

        1. Kyler Murray might disagree.

  4. I remember watching this when I was young (not when it was released– I’m not THAT old), but I remember being fascinated with the mouse portion of the video.

  5. Where is Al Gore? I didn’t see him in the video anywhere.

  6. had a surgery game on a mac-II in maybe ’85(?) and the mouse was the new deal – my atari 800 didn’t have one – conducting “open heart surgery” w/a mouse was a blast

  7. Oh darn, I thought he was going to sing “Please Release Me.”

  8. Such bottom-up feedback systems, he felt, could “facilitate not only better office communication, but even the evolution of human beings.”

    At this point, I certainly won’t disagree. It seems clear that the computer, vis-a-vis the internet is evolving western society. Whether that evolution is all good? Only history can say. I’m still positive about the internet as a platform, I’m not particularly happy with what everyone is doing on it, but in the end, that hardly matters. It’s not all bad, it’s not all good, but I would still argue that most of it is in fact good. It’s tempting to get caught up in the awfulness of social-media and networking, but it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that there’s so much more that’s going on that has nothing to do with tweet storms.

  9. I remember the expectations of the first Mac, especially after the Lisa bombed so terribly. Bought that first one, 128K and mono, and only three programs that I remember — paint, spreadsheet, and word processor. Played with it for several weeks, brought it in to work so others could play with it. But it was so limited in what you could add to it that I sent it to my little sister, and she used that danged thing for probably 20 years, until some bozo at her church decided to upgrade it and ruined it.

    It was fun, compared to just typing, but only for certain things, and I detested the one button mouse. Such hypocrisy — “We only have one button because we’ve simplified it” — and no mention of all the CTRL SHIFT APPLE combinations to simulate the missing buttons.

    1. and I detested the one button mouse.

      I’m going to admit that because it was the only game in town, I don’t remember detesting the one-button mouse because until then, we hadn’t seen otherwise. It wasn’t until some time later that the two button mouse, then three etc. was introduced. NOW I would detest a one-button mouse.

      1. Work had Sparc stations, I think, with proper three button mice.

        1. Although now I am confused as to the timeline. It was a long time and many computers ago. The only thing I remember for sure is it was the very first Mac, the little thing with the carry handle/slot in the back of the top, the monochrome screen, and the floppy; don’t think it even had a hard disk. That must have been before the Sparc pizza boxes. Maybe I had read about mice in Byte magazine.

          Too long ago.

  10. A just machine to make big decisions
    Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
    We’ll be clean when their work is done
    We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

    What a beautiful world this will be
    What a glorious time to be free

  11. Uh, because it looks like a little animal with a thin tail, ie a mouse?

  12. Norbert Wiener and Vannevar Bush

    Oh come on!

  13. I sure miss the Whole Earth Catalogs… and Provision Company, dipping toothpicks, and Captain Amerika’s I Ching…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.