Tom Foremski Interviews Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart is a computer legend, but he is also still very much alive and has plenty to say. Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher had a poignant chat with him. The upshot – have the last 20 years been a failure?

Some snippets from Tom’s excellent interview:
” ‘How do you deal with society when its paradigm of what is right is so dominant?’ Doug Engelbart, the 1960s computer visionary asked me the other evening. It’s a question he has pondered many times over the past 20 years or so, ever since his research funding was taken away.

Mr Engelbart and his teams of researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) shaped the look and feel of the PC, as John Markoff chronicles in his latest book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

Mr Markoff’s book raises the profile of Mr Engelbart, well known as the inventor of the computer mouse, and less well known for his seminal work in creating many of the concepts later found in the personal computer. Mr Markoff returns credit to where it is due.

What the book does not chronicle is how the rise of the PC killed funding for Mr Engelbart’s work.

By 1979, he had lost all funding from SRI because of unfavorable peer review.

‘The other research groups said what I was doing could be done better with microcomputers or through machine-based artificial intelligence. That was the dominant culture at the time. What people don’t realise is that there are many different cultures and not one is right.’ Mr Engelbart told SVW.

As a result of his experiences, he questions whether the past 20 or so years of his life have been a failure.

That’s how long Mr Engelbart has been trying to raise funding to continue his research into human machine interfaces and solving large, complex problems using networked software.

But the culture of our time has been unfavorable to his ideas of developing human-centric computer applications using one big powerful computer with many users. The paradigm of the PC revolution is that everyone gets to have a computer, no time-sharing needed.”

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