Inventor, Invention and Intent – Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart passed away on July 3rd 2013. The father of the “Mother of all demos“, he was a visionary inventor. In response to obituaries from popular news sites, Brett Victor digs into what tech writers get wrong about Engelbart’s work. Here are some quotes. 

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

Brett has a point. Tech writers are prone to simplify. Constraints of getting message across to a wider audience, lack of time, or even lack of comprehension all manage to simplify the message to the extent of saying nothing. The point is that the larger motivations of an inventor are drowned out. As Brett so eloquently states,

This is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil. 

Engelbart’s vision was to build systems that augment human intelligence. And again as Brett states,

Engelbart’s vision, from the beginning, was collaborative. His vision was people working together in a shared intellectual space. His entire system was designed around that intent.

Intent of an inventor is nuanced by necessity. If you read the paper by Engelbart you understand the depth of this thinking. It does take time to explain anything of value. Besides an online journal or tech blog is not usually a place for nuance or depth.

That said, I do understand the constraints of tech writers or journalists. Visitors to their portals don’t have time. The header has to capture attention. The body has to communicate the message as briefly as possible. Attention is a scarce resource.

I face these issues when talking about our product CollabLayer to potential customers. Articulating the proposition, and our intent to amplify collaboration & insight discovery takes a lot of work and time. Reducing it to small sound bites eats away the nuance. Elaborating leaves the customer with too much detail or just plain bored.

I try to understand context and constraints of audience to adapt my pitch. In the last few weeks, my pitch has gotten refined but there is a long long way to go before we can emulate the “Mother of all demos”. Don’t miss that demo, you will learn what a ‘visionary inventor’ means. Check out our baby too. Doug would have understood where we are headed, we hope you check us out and agree too  🙂

The Parable of Churning of the Ocean

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It was the perfect parable and myth. To be listened to at the foot of a beloved grandparent under the moon light. The tale itself is quite simple. 

Two mighty groups. Devas and the Asuras, the forces of light and darkness respectively. The Devas and Asuras desired immortality and headed up to Vishnu, the grand Godhead. Who directs them to the one Ocean and asks them to churn it up. Just as clarified ghee, or butter, would rise up when churning butter-milk, so too would the sweet nectar of immortality rise up in this churning.

The Devas

Clothed in their mystic mantras and equipped with unheard of weapons. Smug in their invincibility, in their almost automatic assumption of virtue. They were livid at being expected to co-operate with these barbarian hordes. How dare Vishnu ask this of them!

The Asuras

The forces of darkness and ignorance. They were elder to the Devas, after all before there could be light, there was absence of light. They were the older race, hence expected the nectar to be given to them by rights of lawful inheritance. Here too were weapons, crude and effective. Not here the shimmer of steel and mantra. The grease of blood and lives had smoothened the weapons to deadly perfection.

The Arbiter

Vishnu, the arbiter in this collaboration between sworn enemies, suggests the apparatus, the configuration of it and lets the churning commence.

The Churning and its Effects

Out come magical glories, weapons of immense power, beauty that would bind the heart for every eternity, every sort of desire found manifestation.

And so did evil, the poison of the world, suffused in every hidden intent, thought and manifest action gathered too.

Interpretation

Of late the meaning of this myth has become intimately clear to me. Not as in something understood mentally, but lived, endured and felt with every fiber of this being.

The myth was a symbol. The forces of light and darkness stood for the higher and lower tendencies within man. Life and all its outcome, the varieties of our existence was the result of the churning between these two opposing powers, who were actually kin in the appointed task. One could not live without another.

To use a contemporary analogy. The scientist who slaves over an obscure medicine to cure AIDS is not probably doing it out of altruism for the dying millions. Perhaps he loves the problem of defeating the virus, almost drools at the challenge of taking on a force of nature. To ease the suffering of millions will be a pleasant bonus.

Outcome, Secondary to Intent

The outcome, the act of acquiring and using knowledge to understand the working of a deadly virus so as to eradicate it can be the working of light. The motivation behind it could easily be the workings of lower impulses.

Regardless, the outcome is of importance. And it would not be possible without the cooperation of both these forces.

So it is with each of us. The impulse to be religious or spiritual could, and mostly does, border on the mundane. But the outcome of this impulse is often noble – poetry, devotion, zeal, sacrifice..all high traits flower out from an apparently ugly seed.

Picture courtesy my friend Babu who visited the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. The picture triggered this post!