Reflections on the 50th anniversary of Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos

An Essay by J. Paul Duplantis 

Maybe the symposium wasn’t the line in the sand I was hoping for but could it have been the primer to bring the fathers of the information age together with the future mothers and fathers of the next evolution in communication technology?

Mother of all Demos ~ Douglas Engelbart
I recently attended the 50th anniversary of Douglas Engelbart Mother of all Demos at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where the pioneers of the internet and the world wide web looked back to look forward to re-imagine a web more representative of the interests and capabilities of the user. In attendance were Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, Ted Nelson, Tim O’Reilly, Christina Engelbart, Brewster Kahle, Andy van Dam, Jeff Rulifson and Alan Kay via telepresence to name a few. A veritable who’s who responsible for ringing in the dawn of the internet age unpacking lessons learned and opportunities missed to help decode what went wrong on the path to an open and resonate web.
The reason I flew in from Phoenix to attend this symposium was my feeling this meeting of the minds could serve as a line drawn in the sand to usher in a new era of a connection more representative of the people than only for the people. Even though I truly enjoyed the event I came away missing a sense of a narrative on the path forward which is more a reflection on the current dissonance in the marketplace of ideas than any one symposium to answer. Personally the standouts to me were Tim Berners Lee’s Solid Framework to decentralize the web and Dan Whaley’s web.hypothes.is to highlight and annotate the web but taken as a whole through no fault of their own, the symposium seemed to highlight the gap between the theories and the current state of development honoring these theories.
To be fair Christina mentioned there was another conference planned a few days after the symposium to look at future applications of Douglas Engelbart’s ideas but based on the level of talent in the room, I wonder if there may have been an opportunity lost to solidify more of a message to rally users and providers in the technology, academic, and scientific communities as well as civic institutions around funding, experimentation, and building with today’s palette of technology to influence a more personal web. A potential story arc to rally the troops of the young and old to get to work on building a better web to not only improve a bottom-line but what will inspire users to work better to move the line.
It is my sincerest desire to not take these words as a form of complaint for the incredible symposium presented by Christina Engelbart and her team at the Engelbart Institute but might serve as food for thought as she and others continue to work toward moving beyond theories to building technologies where the user is no longer merely an asset for the connection but an asset to themselves. To build environments where user capabilities emerge from the connection into a decentralized web of secure interactions. Interactions where the user is in control of the experiences they create and consume while challenged to become more creative, aware, productive, and empathetic in the exchange. A connection fed from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
Tim Berners Lee seems to be on this track with his Solid Framework and Inrupt startup. Web.Hypothes.is seems to be in the fight. Dynamicland looks very interesting. But as I looked through the source material on the other demos, many were clearly struggling to find funding or an audience. Maybe the symposium wasn’t the line in the sand I was hoping for but it might have been the primer to bring the fathers of the information age together with the future mothers and fathers of the next evolution in communication technology?
After talking to a number of energized young women and men at the symposium, I walked away with a sense of wonder on the possibilities of a new era of theorists and technologists working side by side with those who carried the water to build a future built upon individual interests and capabilities more than commercial ones. What could be accomplished in an arguably more inclusive landscape to marry a contemporary toolset and mindset with ideas from the past to balance out the pull of artificial intelligence with the push of augmenting our own intelligence?
What is possible when we hand the wheel over to the user to more effectively collaborate and contribute on the experiences they create and consume? To be more of a participant than observer. To empower reason over reaction. To inspire deeper and more thoughtful interactions.
To some this might seem like either an impossible task or an unnecessary use of resources. To this I say do we really think a pop up laden, ad heavy, centralized collection of silos to track our behaviors to feed us relevancy is something that will scale to the favor of the user? Some will find comfort in the warm blanket of the status quo but there are others who will not. For this latter group, will the Mother of all Demos 50th anniversary symposium will be the spark to light this fire? Maybe not but could it be the kindling?

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