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A few words on Doug Engelbart (2013) (worrydream.com)
203 points by mpweiher 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

The failure to replicate Engelbart's vision of collaborative UI plagues me every day. I have to think of it every day I'm forced to use Skype, Lotus Notes, Excel and a bunch of different screen sharing services. Google Docs is probably the closest we got, but I'm not allowed to use it for my work anymore for now.

The fact that we have ubiquitous cameras, microphones, bandwidth, input devices and compute power, but can't even achieve the level of integration they had back in the 60s - it's just mindboggling.

60's research landscape and 2018 commercial landscape have different priorities. There is little economic incentive today for interoperability protocols for augmentation, yet even the biggest companies have only a partial data view and subset of UX talent. The closest we have is the web, which remains a battlefield between "old" and "new" media, e.g. DRM is a higher priority than augmentation.

It's not just that -- systems like the one Engelbart presented really benefited from all users essentially sharing the same memory space; everyone was on the same computer at the same time. As it appeared to the machine, there was essentially one user and that user was a gestalt of all the people using the system at the time. Now we have a web of different machines, which don't trust each other (because we don't trust each other); we haven't progressed in much the same way because we have much different constraints. In a sense, if Engelbart's system was a completely shared space in which everyone lived and was trusted, then of course our systems are inelegant by comparison. We're driving around in assault vehicles interacting with each other at a distance through signs, signals and the occasional open window. But then again, we're not solving the same problem Engelbart was solving. Can we emulate that experience? Of course we can, but we're going to have to change how it operates quite significantly, in order to have it fit with our differing, more complex, social requirements.

Essentially, we built personal computers -- single user, application oriented. Engelbart started with and imagined an interpersonal computer -- all users, data oriented. Those are fundamentally different approaches; one in which systems are isolated and the other in which there is only one system; one in which data is in a standard interoperable semantic format, and one in which files are bags of opaque bytes. It's going to take more than some time for the two to converge, if they ever do.

Beautifully put. We bootstrapped a global inter-network pretty far on the basis of the "Personal Computer" paradigm, but are running into the limits of that at every level.

Servers and server farms comprised of PCs are horribly complex to scale in a reliable way, and the programming models force programmers to have to either reason about complex "distributed computing" problems, or externalize state into a scalable "database" that has already thought about the problem.

End-user PCs act as Frankenstein contraptions, both containing private data for some applications, and containing no data for others. In the former case, the OS ABIs and application paradigms do not treat data security and privacy as a first-class concern, so ransomware and malware abounds. In the latter case, our PCs are brain-dead for most daily productivity without being tethered to a "cloud" (aka Mainframe) run by companies whose sole investor remit is to monetize our data and/or our interactions with other people via their free applications.

A revolution in computing is in the offing: one that is centered around users, their data, and their interactions with each other. Information is the privileged and important asset; not the APIs of the hardware that runs the compute. The topology of human interaction and human groups around that information system is far, far more important than the hardware network topology, which should be an irrelevant detail of routing.

Every output an input.

> A revolution in computing is in the offing: one that is centered around users, their data, and their interactions with each other. Information is the privileged and important asset; not the APIs of the hardware that runs the compute. The topology of human interaction and human groups around that information system is far, far more important than the hardware network topology, which should be an irrelevant detail of routing.

Which researchers or companies are working on this architecture, other than the negative examples of socialmedia/adtech, WeChat and China’s social credit system?

Tlon's Urbit is probably the best all-fronts attack on the problem I've seen.

Honorable mentions for tackling part of the problem go to IPFS and Scuttlebutt.

There's a lot of people who understand the larger vision around the decentralization crowd if you can find them in the haystack of hypesters.

It feels like the work we do at database companies. My earlier work on the Couch ecosystem was inspired by the goal of creating a universal data mesh, so user-driven applications could share data. Now with FaunaDB we are closer to the goal of one cluster for all applications, but with relational constraints and ACID transactions.

I like how you put it. Isn't this quite close to what Alan Kay's group is doing? I'm a bit sad that he doesn't embrace open development more, I feel we only ever get to see some side products like a parser / DSL framework, instead of seeing the whole picture, which is what I'm actually after.

Your keen analysis may be analogous to Jef Raskin's Canon Cat, replacing users with processes. Its shared state, non-modal architecture enabled interop as yet unseen else where. So I've read (I've never played with one).


IoT sensors + ML are trying to climb the steep hill of semantic interoperability, at least in specific domains. But even there, the information flow is not symmetric.

We have no holistic work systems, mostly special cased tooling. This manifests in our internal applications, open floor plans, poor meeting places, etc. Google docs is predominantly a pretty, low-quality wiki w/o any of the affordances for a wiki.

https://notion.so gets pretty close. They even cite Engelbart's demo as a main inspiration.

They're also a sponsor of Dynamicland [1], Bret Victor and Alan Kay's attempt to reinvent how humans interact with computers.

(I've been using Notion for the past few weeks and I love it)

[1] https://dynamicland.org/

How is this like the demo? This looks like "unify all N productivity apps; now I have N+1 productivity apps!"

wow looks promising, thank you!

The interesting thing about Lotus Notes is that it started out as something that wasn't that far from Engelbart's vision of a collaborative UI. Unfortunately, it ended up being predominantly used as a makeshift email client but it had a lot of potential.

Yes, I agree. Its core is quite powerful - like a way more powerful version of MS Access from back in the 80s. The problem is how it has been marketed and in what corner it has been pushed technologically. CouchDB/Couchbase is an interesting spiritual successor, but it misses a powerful application framework surrounding it (actually something we are working on).

Yeah, it's interesting that more dev folks don't know Notes as a powerful NoSQL technology but just as a crappy email client. Also, not widely known; Domino server was/is really good at clustering and data replication.

From a sysadmin and CIO viewpoint, Notes/Domino is a dream - because it's built for 80s servers, it's insanely cheap to run for large organisations (as long as you get user acceptance). I'd say the main thing people are missing though: Local replicas. Once you replicate the important DBs locally it's very responsive to work with, i.e. documents load without any delay. It just pains me that they never really modernised it. Should have switched to Couchbase, add their powerful permissions model, use continuous replication and a seamless switch to offline replica where already available, put a modern UI in front (but still with a drag-and-droppable designer) and bam - you have a programmable Evernotes on steroids.

Do you mean that you are working on Notes-like app frameworks at Couchbase? That's enormously interesting.

Not at Couchbase but with Couchbase (mobile):


Thanks, will take a look.

"Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can."

- "Zawinski's Law of Software Envelopment," Commonly attributed to jwz, but "I didn't make that up".

Combined with Atwood's Law [0]:

> any application that can be written in JavaScript, will eventually be written in JavaScript.

So a Gmail clone is the end of the line for all applications.

[0]: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/07/the-principle-of-le...

> I'm forced to use Skype, Lotus Notes, Excel ...

That's the saddest thing I've read for a long time.

Know what's worse? Of these three, Lotus Notes is probably the most productive to use nowadays. Reason being that its development has mostly stalled, i.e. they've stopped making it worse.

But I'm talking Lotus Notes here, so that's saying something...

I was fortunate enough to meet Doug Engelbart at a Hypertext conference years ago, where he was a keynote speaker. Very friendly and soft spoken man. From the his keynote, I got the distinct impression that he was disappointed and a little saddened that we had not progressed further than we have. His vision of augmenting the human intellect through the use of computers was both bold and hopeful, but instead we are barraged by click-bait, fake news, trolls, and social networking sites carefully engineered to keep us hooked—not much of an augmentation.

At least we know that negative augmentation (a) works, (b) is profitable. Now we need to show the same for positive augmentation.

Apple could develop privacy-oriented augmentation demos for their AR glasses, e.g. using local-only analysis of user data and preferences.

Should the recent focus on privacy be projected onto Doug Engelbart's aims on positive augmentation?

Can you have positive augmentation without privacy? In the demos it brings to my mind this idea where everyone's terminals are stitch-together as one massive desktop, rather like a pen-and-paper office you can go around browsing other people's desks.

And perhaps a lack of privacy helps in a corporate office environment?

ADD: it makes me wonder if my team couldn't have some kind of modern 'pc anywhere' where you can connect to each other's desktops. So people don't feel spied on you could have the camera feed of those who are currently sharing your desktop just like in the demo shown in this obituary.

While it's not the same, one of the best development setups I've worked with was really low tech, literally ssh-ing into commodity pc's running our app in a closet (production and staging were cloud hosted).

Because everyone was comfortable on the command like and connected via tmux sessions, we could attach to that session from any computer we brought our keys to.

We also had a couple pairing stations with one pc but two keyboard/mice and monitors so each person could take turns driving. The upshot of the tmux thing was that if we wanted to hop onto a pairing station it was as simple as taking a usb stick with your keys and then attaching to the tmux session you had at your desk.

Same went for interviews, we'd just have a candidate attach to a tmux session and we had an interactive collaborative editor.

There's some pretty obvious problems with this, but I think it's relevant since our setup used standard unix utils to achieve a modern 'pc anywhere' type setup, and if there's one thing I'll always think about when it comes to Doug Engelbart is how many of our new and shiny tools aren't really as new as we think. He really had it down with The Mother of All Demos way back in '68.

Even those unconcerned with privacy ("click-bait, fake news, trolls, and social networking sites") have not achieved augmentation.

Someone concerned with privacy could design a protocol for consent, to enable the secure information sharing required for augmentation.

> some kind of modern 'pc anywhere' where you can connect to each other's desktops

See LogMeIn which also owns GoToMyPC.

There is always this tension between idealism and realism within engineering. Victor descries the ignorance we show the idealism of Engelbart, and Englebart, in turn, expressed "sadness" at how little progress we've made.

And yet, consider someone else Victor considers a hero, Seymour Papert, inventor of the Logo programming language. When we learned it on the Apple IIe, it was without connectivity to any other device, and usually with just the manual to guide us.

Collaboration was happening, but on a much longer time-scale. It wasn't milliseconds, but rather months and years. It wasn't mediated by network packets, but by shrink-wrapped software boxes and expansion cards purchased at big-box retailers. A remarkable amount of progress happened on that slow, physical time-scale, but much of it was incompatible with shorter time-scales and global messaging. For example, Windows, having grown up in the slow time-scale, was hit hard by the fast time-scale, it's immune system non-existent.

It's too easy to wave away the problems we really experienced (and experience) with malware. Englebart made simplifying assumptions that people wanted to collaborate, and were not malicious and did not want to harm each other. But these assumptions are all false, and a large, possibly majority proportion of modern engineering effort directly and indirectly addresses these unfortunate realities.

Very well said.

Also just think about the open source community and how much of that is built collaboratively. Not by sharing a screen but by sharing a repository and developing ways to work on the same project.

The intent of Engelbart I still have been fully realized just in different ways.

This is a pretty fascinating set of videos from the 1995 Vannevar Bush Syposium [0]. Vannevar Bush's atlantic article [1] was one of the main inspirations of Engelbart.

It has Douglas Engelbart talking about 'The Strategic Pursuit of Collective IQ' and collective IQ seems like a good description for what Bret Victor was trying to talk about as one of Engelbart's goals.

However it also has presentations from Tim Berners-Lee and Alan Kay amongst others. It's at a cross over between the world that Engelbart and Kay imagined and what the internet and the web became as we know it now.

[0]: http://www.dougengelbart.org/events/vannevar-bush-symposium....

[1]: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-m...

Nice piece, but let me defend the headlines. Did Engelbart envision the computer mouse? Yes. Is he highly regarded as a public personality for that? Yes.

Hoping that a headline could convey the complexity you need an entire section of a blog post to explain in a complex way is never a good critique of journalism.

For that you need to run a special feature, or you promote a book. You can't expect the New York Times to illustrate the true nature of Doug Engelbart on the first three lines of his obituary.

Same applies for every scientist or "big mind" kind of person.

Engelbart did not envision the brain dead point and click thing apple introduced (with a single button[0]), or microsoft slightly improved version (with two buttons[1]) and that we have made ever so slightly better since then [2] [3] [4].

What he envisioned was a 32 state machine (or 256 if you count all the non-keyboard buttons) which could be positioned anywhere on a screen:


Something that would cause you to switch modes completely between typing and using it. A modal input mode for the gui, in the same way that vi is for the keyboard.

The closest thing today is the razer keypad for gaming [5], and even that is not integrated into the OS a tenth as well as what Engelbart had and by default barely supports chording.

[0] http://dynamis.no/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/1984-Apple-Maci...

[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0b/Mi...

[2] https://www.technologyuk.net/computing/computer-systems/imag...

[3] https://files.pccasegear.com/images/1459844620-RZ-NAGA-CHROM...

[4] https://www.wired.com/images_blogs/gadgetlab/2009/11/oomouse...

[5] https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/817GlmVDffL...

Well, are’nt you missing the point here? Conflating features with intent?


The mouse introduced in 1984 was philosophically incompatible with Anglebarts mouse like device. Watch the mother of all demos and see the difference.

Apple: https://youtu.be/S7AL7tkQ7d0?t=13m8s

Mother of all demos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJDv-zdhzMY

I recently posted Doug Engelbart's advice to a young software developer, with some links to interesting videos about his work on the chord keyboard and glove, and also a link to a new product called "Tap" that seems to be inspired by his work (more links and interesting stuff about Doug Engelbart's work in the discussion):


I just ran across a new device called "Tap", a wearable tap glove that functions as both a bluetooth keyboard and mouse! https://www.tapwithus.com/

I haven't had any "hands on" experience with the Tap, but it looks very cool, like a modern version of Douglas Engelbart's and Valerie Landau's HandWriter glove!

I asked Valerie Landau about it (wondering if it was her company), but she hadn't heard of it before.

They have an iOS, Android and Unity3D SDK that appeared on github recently, so you can look at the code to see how it works:


Valerie Landau interviewed by Martin Wasserman


Q: What did you find most impressive about him as a person?

A: His humility. He was such a humble man, and his steadfastness of keeping his vision. Often times leaders like Doug, who many people call a prophet... In our society, we tend to think of the leaders as these sort of charismatic, ambitious people, and I think that Doug really broke that mold, in that he was a very humble, really shy person.

Q: Do you have any last minute comments or observations about him to finish up. Or a good anecdote?

A: I think -- I wanted to say one thing that Doug told me many years ago. And this is really for the software developers out there. Once, this was in the 90's. And I said, Doug, Doug, I'm just started to get involved with software development, and we have this really cool tool we're working on. Do you have any advice, about ... for a young software developer. He looked at me and said:

"Yes. Make sure that whatever you do is very modular. Make everything as modular as possible. Because you know that some of your ideas are going to endure, and some are not. The problem is you don't know which one will, and which one won't. So you want to be able to separate the pieces so that those pieces can carry on and move forward."

Well I read the NYT article. It is not only the headline that misses the point. The whole piece does.

I agree that modern products are far away from the original vision of collaborative hypermedia. But it is important to remember that these are research prototypes and not popular commercial products; in that way they lack the finish and the real-life validation a commercially succesful product has.

Why has collaborative authoring not been taken further? As far as I can tell it is not for the lack of trying.

Maybe the vision of two people working simultaneously on the same document is wrong? In the way that is not actually what people do; rather if you do something together the natural process is splitting it up and delegating.

I'm on a team of 4 people working on a giant accounting spreadsheet simultaneously. It wouldn't be possible without collaborative editing. Previously, the same team has worked on white papers simultaneously. In theory, we could've done that by merging documents near the end, but we were adding, dropping and moving sections while writing everything, so the end result wouldn't have been the same.

There are other areas where I sorely miss collaborative editing. I want every piece of application software to support it. I hate transferring files. I love sharing live documents. My problem is that few people outside of this team I'm talking about seem to understand how powerful collaborative real-time editing can be. People of all ages are still emailing me Word documents like it's 1997. My head is in the future, the world is living in the past.

Same goes for smartphone usage, really. Try sending calendar invites to someone who's barely aware of the calendar on his phone because he only uses it for Instagram and calling his mates. Technologies to augment the human intellect are all around us, but most of us are really bad at using them.

Just to clarify; I am not saying that there isn't a use case. I am just questioning whether it is the general case that products should designed around and maybe that is the reason why we don't see more of it.

If you have 4 people writing a book together would you really sit there in realtime with 4 cursors and typing away on the same document? Or would you structure, delegate and spread things out across time and space (doing most of the work) and then later edit and merge it together.

I work in a team of 15 people where our last offsite was planned mostly on a single Google Docs document where we all edited sections, marked checklists, added comments at the same time. The other day I was in our company flat that doubles as occasional office, and three people in the flat and one remote all edited the same document at the same time. This is business as usual for us.

We'd still structure, delegate and spread things out across time and space, but why should we need to do it in separate documents? It adds effort to copy and merge things and shift things around. Sometimes one person writes a part and passes it off to another person (or three) to proofread and edit, and they may move paragraphs around, or copy in paragraphs from another section.

> Or would you structure, delegate and spread things out across time and space (doing most of the work) and then later edit and merge it together.

I tend to have the programmer's mindset about things like this. Put it in version control and let the VCS tool help you split and merge and fork and pull as well as track your changes over time and the reasoning behind them.

You tend to favor the workflow you know, after all.

> Our hypertext is not the same as Engelbart's hypertext, because it does not serve the same purpose.

Tim Banners-Lee is pretty upfront Engelbart's hypertext was a direct inspiration [1]:

> I didn't invent the hypertext link either. The idea of jumping from one document to another had been thought about lots of people ...

> Doug Engelbart in the 1960's made a great system just like WWW except that it just ran on one [big] computer, as the internet hadn't been invented yet. Lots of hypertext systems had been made which just worked on one computer, and didn't link all the way across the world.

> I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and -- ta-da! -- the World Wide Web.

1. https://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/Kids.html

I can't help but point finger toward academia - CS is concerned with intersection of technology and math and the result is "applied" to users. Augmentation of human intellect just won't fit into this paradigm.

? "Human Computer Interaction" is a subfield of academic CS.

"Human Computer Interaction" != "Augmentation of Human Intellect"

Your comment says that nothing in academic CS would allow for such a study. Clearly HCI does. It has not yet achieved Engelbart's vision, and it might not be trying to anyway, but it's clearly a framework that cares about how humans can and should use machines, not simply math.

No, the comments don't say that. What I'm trying to say is: HCI has not yet _recognized_ Engelbart's vision.

Is there a way to get all of Brett Victor's blog posts? One's like this don't seem to be linked from his main page (unless I'm missing something obvious)

You can try a google search with:

  site:worrydream.com -vimeo -youtube

This post is linked to from the homepage, under the Chapter Two heading, under the Blurts sub-heading.

Tangentially related: Squeak has long included a remote collaboration tool called Nebraska (http://wiki.squeak.org/squeak/1356) that, if I recall correctly, supported multiple mouse cursors (referred to as 'hands' in Morphic).

This of course may be due the original development of Squeak as a direct descendant of Smalltalk-80 (via Apple) by Alan Kay and Dan Ingalls among others who were I'm sure more than familiar with the work of Doug Englelbart.

"Ah, so like Google Wave"

You know, I think google wave was so close to this augmenting human intellec thing, perhaps the product was killed because it threatened to cannibalize other segments of up and coming products from google, I have no idea.

But I clearly remember the feeling I had when discovering it.

I think they were a little ahead of the curve, it was a unique product and worked for me in a way little else does, interoperability has often been sacrificed for commercial reasons, look at the history of data formats, HTML succeeded because of it's slow growth. Take the flood of frameworks built on PHP and MYSQL to implement database driven websites a lot of wasted time. I think the lesson learnt is to look for an open source project that is closely aligned with your goals and fork it, I see many hundreds of hours of wasted dev on competing approaches to solve the same problems often because of an ideological or system/platform oriented opinion, the successful ones often seem to be a single designers vision who has done a great job of documenting the project with clear code structure to make the job of on-boarding new developers straightforward and make the product appealing to new users.

I think the idea was good, but it was simultaneously over-engineered and under-engineered. Over-engineered in that it tried to do too much in too complicated ways. Under-engineered in that they didn't then invest enough in evolving the technical solutions into something more reasonable.

I'd like to see someone try to simplify it into a more workable starting point.

Who knows what the political problems were (Wave was an acquisition), but technically I think it was held back by OT being a poor fit for the front end stack at the time: Google was making most of their webapps in Java compiled to JS.

The modern virtual DOM-diffing approach is a much better fit for OT, and I'd love to see someone try again.

It also didn’t really perform well at all.

This was the major barrier to use for me. Every new message in a thread made performance a little bit worse. A thread with 100 messages in it was distinctly laggy and unpleasant to use on my Core 2 Duo laptop.

Is that what Wave was trying to do? I could never figure out what it was supposed to be good for.

There's something very organic about the system in his demo that feels almost surreal

This is from 2013, if anyone else had a double take on "Doug Engelbart died today".

I almost had. It actually really hit me. Even though it was 5 years ago.

Thank you.

Coming down from the mountain with the tablets to find a brand new golden calf is not a new thing. And Engelbart, as good as he was, was still no Moses.

It's like, even if we had an actual implementation of his vision, what would we do with it? Cure cancer? Or, would a bunch of corporate d-bags use it to sell more opioids to people who don't need them? I'd put my money on the latter.

Not everything has to have an impact as grand as cure cancer to make peoples day to day lives better.

That is not the point.

Augmenting human intelligence, while leaving the hearts as they are, is a loss, not a gain.

@jstewartmobile wrote: "Augmenting human intelligence, while leaving the hearts as they are, is a loss, not a gain."

That is a brilliant insight that more intelligence may be a bad thing if your heart is in the wrong place. Sorry to see your comment being downmodded and greyed out. At the risk of the same happening to me, here is support for your point on "heart".

Albert Einstein said in the 1940s: "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

More by Einstein: http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/einstein/einsci.htm "But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends. To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly."

And Lewis Mumford said in the 1930s: "As a civilization, we have not yet entered the neotechnic phase: we are still living between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born, in a cultural pseudomorph.... Paleotechnic purposes with neotechnic means, that is the most obvious characteristic of the present order." (Technics and Civilization pp. 265-267)

Thus my own sig standing on the shoulders of giants: "The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those still thinking in terms of scarcity."

I participated in Doug Engelbart's Unfinished Revolution II Colloquium run by Stanford. I brought up some similar ideas there as well. Like in this email thread I started: "[unrev-II] Is 'bootstrapping' part of the problem?" http://www.dougengelbart.org/colloquium/forum/discussion/216... "This is one reason why I think just stating the Bootstrap's Institute's (or the colloquium's) goal of "bootstrapping" human or organizational ability as a goal is not adequate. It has to be a question of bootstrapping towards what end? There has to be an accompanying statement of human value."

I've continued to develop that theme elsewhere, like: "Recognizing irony is key to transcending militarism (2010)" http://www.pdfernhout.net/recognizing-irony-is-a-key-to-tran... "The big problem is that all these new war machines and the surrounding infrastructure are created with the tools of abundance. The irony is that these tools of abundance are being wielded by people still obsessed with fighting over scarcity. So, the scarcity-based political mindset driving the military uses the technologies of abundance to create artificial scarcity. That is a tremendously deep irony that remains so far unappreciated by the mainstream."

The dangers of increasing intellect unmatched by increasing heart was also a underlying theme in my book-length essay "Post-Scarcity Princeton, or, Reading between the lines of PAW for prospective Princeton students, or, the Health Risks of Heart Disease (2008)" http://www.pdfernhout.net/reading-between-the-lines.html

A lengthy extract from there:


Let's flip back to the beginning of PAW and try again to find a more challenging article that explains PU mythology.

Perhaps the president's letter on page 2, "A Library for Scientists" will do.

PU President Shirley Tilghman describes a new library that will replace several "isolated" departmental science libraries with one "scientific" library. According to her letter, the new library "will symbolize the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the work in these fields on our campus". The question is, where do you even begin to tell a university president so obviously proud of her new library that making science and engineering studies even more isolated from the humanities is the opposite of what Princeton University needs to do to survive as an ethically viable institution? And that splitting ethics from innovation was at the root cause of a lot of evil in the world in the past? There is a lot of talk of facilitating "interdisciplinary" work in her letter, but if you read between the lines, you'll see that the implication is it will be between different branches of science and engineering, not say, between biologists and sociologists, or mechanical engineers and historians.

In case Professor Tilghman has not noticed, there is a picture on page 21 of that same issue of PAW of a shark about to eat a Princetonian floating in DeNunzio Pool [...] Maybe she had better look into that? It can't be good PR under any circumstances, can it? I had not known PU's scientists had got that far in their shark breeding experiments as they are sometimes hard to keep in captivity (real scientists, not sharks. OK, that's just a joke, both are hard to keep in captivity. :-) [...] Still, are those PU scientists and engineers doing a good thing? Wouldn't it make it harder to recruit prospective talent for the PU swim team? Or are the sharks in DeNunzio part of some new training regime? Unless that is supposed to be a visiting Yalie about to get eaten? That seems a little harsh, even by intercollegiate competitive standards. :-(

Still, maybe rather that "make the world a better place through advances in scientific understanding", perhaps when you make an anti-social shark "smarter" (with or without the laser beam :-), what do you have except a bigger problem? :-(

For example from a review of "Deep Blue Sea": "So, in an effort to save their funding, they want to take one really good go at making this...serum? I don't remember, brain activating protein...stuff. So, they conduct their test on the shark. And it WORKS! Yay! Congratulations all around! These guys f--ing rule! And it's all parties and cupcakes until someone's arm gets eaten."

Also [from another review]: "Some scientists are out in the middle of the ocean, trying to reproduce proteins in shark's brains. These proteins are the cure for Alzheimer's, and one character even gives a half-assed speech about how she's driven by memories of her father's mental illness. Well, to harvest more protein, that scientist makes the shark's brains four times bigger than normal and now the shark's are super-smart and eat all the scientists. Hooray."

I'm sorry to say that the internet consensus on PU's smarter sharks is that they are not a good idea. :-( Or maybe "Deep Blue Sea" was just a poorly made horror film. :-)


To be clear, I feel Doug's heart was in the right place -- even if he maybe took that for granted in others.

This is why I post comments on hackernews. Love it! I'm going to have to read all of the posts on your website now. Thank you pdfernhout.

I am absolutely certain Doug was a fantastic human being, and completely agree that is probably why he didn't get an acute sense that most of our work--as fun as it is--often ends up like the passing of handguns to toddlers.

I disagree with nearly all of this post and its parent. It has much conflation of ideas, but I will argue that this is the thrust:

"When bad actors are made more capable they are made more destructive, therefore, no one should be made more capable."

This idea represents stagnation and fear of one's fellow man. We prevent ourselves from improving our understanding because we worry someone will use it against us. Today's society as an example, this is almost an inevitability! The comments above focus exclusively on the potential negatives. This is not a useful way of conceptualizing the problem.


Albert Einstein said in the 1940s: "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

The big problem is that all these new war machines and the surrounding infrastructure are created with the tools of abundance.

These are examples of intellectual augmentation by collaboration of scientists and engineers. However, the resulting destructive technology is made available by the concentration of material resources and therefore is wielded by a select few in powerful positions. Note that the former cannot easily create such technologies without the latter. Note that the former are nearly always NOT the ones operating the technology!

PU President Shirley Tilghman describes a new library that will replace several "isolated" departmental science libraries with one "scientific" library.

Well, to harvest more protein, that scientist makes the shark's brains four times bigger than normal and now the shark's are super-smart and eat all the scientists.

These are simply good intentions and unintended consequences. In the example of shark scientists, augmenting their intelligence by collaboration result in them getting eaten. However, in both examples, a sufficiently augmented intellect could have recognized and avoided the unintended consequences altogether.


Critically: do not conflate the consequences of acting on knowledge, with intellect or the augmentation thereof.

The material results CAN be negative. The phenomenon of intellectual augmentation itself is only of positive consequence: problems CAN be solved more effectively. Problems can be solved poorly and have unintended consequences but this is unrelated. The wrong problems can be solved and this is also unrelated. The problems solved can be for the sole purpose of killing and this is also unrelated.

The sentiment is that intellectual augmentation should be discouraged in general because The Few that have the resources to produce destructive results will be made that much more dangerous, by intent or by mistake. This is FEAR, not certainty. The far more dire consequence is that your fellowman, who wishes to collaborate and solve all sorts problems for the greater good and otherwise, is DENIED the tools to facilitate his problem solving. And subsequently, humanity is DENIED all the good that could arise from such a scenario.

I don't intend to deny those who are pessimistic about the overall effect of augmentation tools in the hands of present-day humanity, nor am I an optimist on the subject. But to state confidently about net loss or gain to humanity from such tools is FOLLY. I would say: make intellectual augmentation tools and have them available to everyone. Not because bad things won't happen, but because good things WILL happen. This is where the heart lies and where it GROWS. And don't we agree it's this that is lacking?

We apparently have two entirely different observations of reality. I will share a little more of mine:

Kay and Papert did fantastic research on computing and education. Apple takes the idea, and turns it into something that Kay describes as:

"Think about this. How stupid is this? It’s about as stupid as you can get. But how successful is the iPhone? It’s about as successful as you can get, so that matches you up with something that is the logical equivalent of television in our time."


"Yeah. We can eliminate the learning curve for reading by getting rid of reading and going to recordings. That’s basically what they’re doing: Basically, let’s revert back to a pre-tool time."

Or take the web. Berners-Lee. Smart guy, great intentions. Early days were just plain text or the MS Frontpage goodness rocked by our professoriate. Not pretty, but plenty of actual content that you could learn from. Contrast with today where all of that stuff is buried several pages deep. What's link one? Some bullshit content farm like WebMD full of popovers, dickbars, and ads for pills nobody needs. Then there's the Facebook/Twitter awfulness, where enumerating the breadth-and-depth of it would span several books.

Or television. Higher-minded early execs tried to use it as a tool for raising the cultural bar--operas, great authors, polite debates. Those guys got their clocks cleaned by the guy who put on "Gilligan's Island," and that guy would have had his clock cleaned by the assholes who made "Survivor" and "The Apprentice". How long before they just straight-up show porn on broadcast? I do not know.

Or automobiles. Very practical inventions. What did we do with them? Urban sprawl, 5-lane highways, white-flight, drunk driving, global warming, etc. Many Europeans lucked-out by lacking either the cash or the empty space to follow us in that particular mistake.

Obesity, opioids, mcmansions, etc. pdfernhout nailed it on the scarcity mindset in a post-scarcity world. There is a trajectory here. If you can show me how I'm wrong about that trajectory, I would love to hear it just for the sake of my own sanity.

I would also assert that will and analytic brain power are entirely different things. Take Kalanick. Obviously plenty of analytic intelligence. Technology is like steroids for analytic intelligence. It let him become tech-bro master of the universe instead of some two-bit engineer. It did not stop him from becoming a total asshole.

@jstewartmobile Thanks for you comments!

On "trajectory", books like "The Pleasure Trap" and "Supernormal Stimuli" discuss the theme of our scarcity-shaped inclinations being out-of-date for our world of abundance. http://web.archive.org/web/20160418155513/http://www.drfuhrm... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernormal_Stimuli

The Pleasure Trap in particular was the first book I read that for me connected health issues to scarcity/abundance themes.

Or also "Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age" and "The War Play Dilemma" specifically on media and kids.

And also Paul Graham on "The Acceleration of Addictiveness": http://www.paulgraham.com/addiction.html

Or on insights from "Rat Park" about how social isolation and excess stress are the cause of most addictive behavior: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of...

What to do about that is a big challenge though... There are some ideas in those various resources.

I agree and share the same sentiment about all your examples. And I would say the trajectory will get worse before it gets better. In fact, I feel collapse is likely.

But this is confusion of ideas once more. Your examples have everything to do with the relentless pursuit of money. This is a separate problem, and is directly related to heart NOT intelligence. Collapse will come to all degenerate societies regardless of intellect and technological prowess.

My examples are ones of technological society still making loaded 21st century weapons while the typical mindset (for both geniuses and fools) had already been baked-in thousands and thousands of years ago. Too much change, too much power, entirely without baked-in evolutionary heuristics for dealing with it.

(continued from previous reply -- see the one below first)

I proposed making a more resilient infrastructure (with little success) in the 1980s in my Princeton OR&CivE graduate studies: http://pdfernhout.net/princeton-graduate-school-plans.html

And here are some related ideas I developed around 1999 with "OSCOMAK": http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/oscomak/

And yes, cooperative technology could help with that as I explained in 2001: http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/oscomak/SSI_Fernhout2001_web.h...

And many other people have worked on such ideas earlier (E.F. Schumacher, John and Mary Todd, Amory and Hunter Lovins, and many more).

But cooperative technology will only help if our heart (and related mythology) is in the right place. Examples of discussion of economic mythologies: http://conceptualguerilla.com/essays/essays-on-economics-and... https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/03/the-mar...

But, instead of a system designed to be resilient what we got over the decades was increasing centralization and fragility and precarity because it maximized short-term profits for ever fewer people (e.g. the 2008 great recession). And those fragile results were in part from the short-term thinking praising financial obesity implicitly promoted (or at least not discouraged) by the same Operations Research department at Princeton and similar groups. But they are unfortunately in good company across the USA with so many people who ignore or dispute a key point made in the 1964 Triple Revolution Memorandum that: "An adequate distribution of the potential abundance of goods and services will be achieved only when it is understood that the major economic problem is not how to increase production but how to distribute the abundance that is the great potential of cybernation."

But now graduates of such groups like at Princeton seem to be doing it again but even bigger as discussed in "The Artificial Intelligentsia": https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16840438 "The clever boys (there were no women) were the engineers, most of them recent graduates of Princeton University’s program in operations research, responsible for designing the company’s tech “platform”".

That article is about a proprietary platform designed to predict and shape the future -- most likely essentially for the uber-wealthy to get uber-wealthier. (Even as the article's author questions the whole premise as far as whether the system will work as intended.)

I took a public policy class with Frank von Hippel when I was a PU grad student (a class I was strongly advised not to take by the then OR department director of graduate studies). Professor von Hippel made an important point that in cost-benefit analysis, what is often ignored is who pays the costs and who gets the benefits. (To be clear, there were several caring faculty in that department in the 1980s -- they were just enmeshed in the US academic/economic/military complex which limited what they could do or how they could do it -- and I myself made many mistakes back then.)

Call it "principles" or "compassion" or "enlightened self-interest" or "wisdom" or "heart", but that is something we greatly need in our society. And we need it now more than ever because our safety margins get increasingly small given ever more powerful technology and (relatively) an ever shrinking Earth's capacity to absorb human folly.

While intelligence can help with coming up with good ends, we also need a heart which often comes from our community and the genuine health-promoting stories in it. As Einstein also wrote: http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/einstein/einsci.htm "But it must not be assumed that intelligent thinking can play no part in the formation of the goal and of ethical judgments. When someone realizes that for the achievement of an end certain means would be useful, the means itself becomes thereby an end. Intelligence makes clear to us the interrelation of means and ends. But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends. To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly."

William Catton ("Overshoot") may have been deeply wrong about what defined the Earth's carrying capacity or what the risks were to it (like believing civilization would end with peak oil). But Catton was right in general in the notion that systems have a certain ability to absorb human activity (or folly) given a certain culture and certain technological level.

Doug had many of the same fears about Peak Oil as Catton, which I tried to help his UnRevII Colloquium move beyond, to mixed results. Example: https://www.dougengelbart.org/colloquium/forum/discussion/00...

But at least one can see that the process of his UnRevII colloquium -- presentation and response and dialog using computers (I attended the Stanford colloquium remotely from the East Coast) -- was a tribute to Doug's vision of collaborative problem solving (and I'd add, collaborative problem identification).

A deeper problem for Doug (as for many others) was that, when he was not ignored, he was funded directly and indirectly by a military-industrial complex in the USA that was increasingly being shaped by very misguided security principles and misguided economic principle (misguided relative to creating a healthy happy resilient society that works for almost everyone). He did as good a job as anyone could under the circumstances, but it was a complex dance which no-doubt constrained everything he did.

It's a huge irony that at the same time the USA has been spending on the order of a trillion dollars a year for "defense" and "security", much of that money has unfortunately increased our insecurity (e.g. Iraq II) and also ignored essentially the basics of creating a resilient US civil defense for unforeseen threats. For example of an alternative, here is an idea I proposed in 2010 towards US security to "Build 21000 flexible fabrication facilities across the USA": https://web.archive.org/web/20100809061159/https://pcast.ide... "Being able to make things is an important part of prosperity, but that capability (and related confidence) has been slipping away in the USA. The USA needs more large neighborhood shops with a lot of flexible machine tools. The US government should fund the construction of 21,000 flexible fabrication facilities across the USA at a cost of US$50 billion, places where any American can go to learn about and use CNC equipment like mills and lathes and a variety of other advanced tools and processes including biotech ones. That is one for every town and county in the USA. These shops might be seen as public extensions of local schools, essentially turning the shops of public schools into more like a public library of tools. This project is essential to US national security, to provide a technologically literate populace who has learned about post-scarcity technology in a hands-on way. The greatest challenge our society faces right now is post-scarcity technology (like robots, AI, nanotech, biotech, etc.) in the hands of people still obsessed with fighting over scarcity (whether in big organizations or in small groups). This project would help educate our entire society about the potential of these technologies to produce abundance for all."

Here is a poem I wrote about the general situation:

        On Information, Knowledge, Intelligence, Wisdom, Virtue, and Effectiveness

        Information is not knowledge, 
        Knowledge is not intelligence, 
        Intelligence is not wisdom, 
        Wisdom is not virtue, and 
        Virtue is not effectiveness.

        So, to have is not to organize, 
        To organize is not to embody, 
        To embody is not to value, 
        To value is not to act, and 
        To act (especially in ignorance) 
                is not necessarily to succeed.

One big problem of our age is a confusion between intelligence (the head) and wisdom (the heart). Of course, in reality all these things are interconnected. Ill-informed compassion has cause harm, as has uncompassionate intellect. And if we don't act effectively on our knowledge and wisdom, then what good is it?

Your strawman summary misses the point about all these interconnections. If we emphasize one of these aspects to the exclusion of the other the result is likely to be problematical. We need a better balance of all these things in our society -- and in the people and eventually human-like AI who comprise our society -- if we are to prosper together.

@aekotra You wrote a strawman point of "When bad actors are made more capable they are made more destructive, therefore, no one should be made more capable." That is not what I said.

Also, I have worked and continue to work on FOSS tools related to intelligence augmentation as on my GitHub site (mostly under the names of "Pointrel" and "Twirlip"). So I believe overall in the value of such tools if widely distributed. As I said here: https://web.archive.org/web/20130514103318/http://pcast.idea... "Now, there are many people out there (including computer scientists) who may raise legitimate concerns about privacy or other important issues in regards to any system that can support the intelligence community (as well as civilian needs). As I see it, there is a race going on. The race is between two trends. On the one hand, the internet can be used to profile and round up dissenters to the scarcity-based economic status quo (thus legitimate worries about privacy and something like TIA). On the other hand, the internet can be used to change the status quo in various ways (better designs, better science, stronger social networks advocating for some healthy mix of a basic income, a gift economy, democratic resource-based planning, improved local subsistence, etc., all supported by better structured arguments like with the Genoa II approach) to the point where there is abundance for all and rounding up dissenters to mainstream economics is a non-issue because material abundance is everywhere. So, as Bucky Fuller said, whether is will be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race to the very end. While I can't guarantee success at the second option of using the internet for abundance for all, I can guarantee that if we do nothing, the first option of using the internet to round up dissenters (or really, anybody who is different, like was done using IBM [tabulators] in WWII Germany) will probably prevail. So, I feel the global public really needs access to these sorts of sensemaking tools in an open source way, and the way to use them is not so much to "fight back" as to "transform and/or transcend the system". As Bucky Fuller said, you never change thing by fighting the old paradigm directly; you change things by inventing a new way that makes the old paradigm obsolete."

The concern that I, and many others, have raised is essentially that technology is an amplifier of the best and worst in us. So, as we amplify our desires, we need to be ever more sure that we are using them towards "good" ends (where "good" is itself open for debate). Essentially, we need to use more powerful technologies (our "head") informed by even more by wisdom and compassion (our "heart").

The movie "Forbidden Planet" is a cautionary tale in that direction given (spoiler) the Krell were wiped out by the unbridled emotions of their own Ids when they made a planet-scale system that could materialize their every desire. A sequel with Robby the Robot called the Invisible Boy has a single malicious AI which has an individualist drive to survive, expand, and control and take over the world for nefarious ends using the latest military technology -- and would have succeeded if not for the more compassionate AI that was embedded in Robby.

These are age-old themes of healthy balance (including of control versus community) -- like the seven deadly sins that are all exaggerations (or amplifications) of healthy impulses as the extreme opposite of the seven virtues.

Yes, as you suggest, collaborative technologies can be a good thing. And yes they are likely to be more of a good thing if distributed broadly given notions of the value of democracy and decentralization (as part of a balance with needed hierarchies, see Manuel de Landa's essay on Meshworks, Hierarchies, and Interfaces).

But, all that does not change the fact that there is an increasing risk from that potential amplification. We need to be conscious of that risk and ideally put resources into managing that risk. And we are putting resources into such risk management to some extent as a global community -- but certainly not to the degree we could.

And one reason we don't put more resources into managing that risk is a discounting of that risk by many who stand to make money by creating proprietary technology they can use to centralize wealth in their direction. There is a lot of money to be made in "picking up pennies before a streamroller" (as in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan). Various academic and economic cultures have become very good at providing intellectual justification for making money that way while putting other people's money at risk -- and even putting other people's lives at risk like with war profiteering as with the Iraq war "cakewalk" that has cost several trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives but made a few people very wealthy while destabilizing a whole region and leading to much blowback.

See also, from Wikipedia, "The Best and the Brightest (1972) is an account by journalist David Halberstam of the origins of the Vietnam War published by Random House. The focus of the book is on the foreign policy crafted by academics and intellectuals who were in John F. Kennedy's administration, and the consequences of those policies in Vietnam. The title referred to Kennedy's "whiz kids"—leaders of industry and academia brought into the Kennedy administration—whom Halberstam characterized as insisting on "brilliant policies that defied common sense" in Vietnam, often against the advice of career U.S. Department of State employees."

Our Earth has a certain scale which protected human survival in the past because people could always walk away from a bad city or bad region and live off the land. And people have done so for millennia as civilization after civilization has atrophied and collapsed (often under environmental stress or social corruption). See Daniel Quinn's "Beyond Civilization" writings for example or Wikipedia on societal collapse. In our interconnected world we now have nukes and engineered plagues. We also have total internet-based mobile surveillance (worse than "1984" surveillance) linked to massive compartmentalized "efficient" bureaucracy and corporatism that despots of the past could only dream about. And soon we may have "Slaughterbots". And most people have lost the knowledge to live off the land so they can't just walk away (and there are too many people and too little land for the old ways to support most of us that way anyway). So, this time it is different because we have a lot less potential resiliency in the face of mistakes.

But the fact is, the very same technologies that made it possible for humankind to act as a disruptive geological force (e.g. climate change,mass extinction of species globally) also make possible amazing responses. We could create ocean habitats making mid-oceans into productive fisheries, build space habitats supporting trillions of people and thousands of Earth's worth of biosphere across the solar system, make machines to remove the plastic from the oceans, proceed on insights into how humans can live healthy lives without massive factory-farmed meat consumption, expand our use of indoor agriculture, deploy more carbon-neutral renewable energy, put more R&D into hot and cold fusion energy, and so on.

To increase resiliency we could also actually study the topic more widely and shift our modes of manufacturing and agriculture and other aspects of living and economics. But that would require an ackowledgement of the risk and a deicison to prioritize managing that risk over short-term gains for a few (a complex political topic).

As I said in a Slashdot comment yesterday (made right after the one here, and drawing on similar sources) on the issue of Google and its ethical policy towards AI ( https://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=12172580&cid=56708188 ), an alternative for security principles for the USA in particular is to focus on mutual security through having friends and agreements and intrinsic security through having resilient hardened decentralized infrastructure and an educated capable affluent populace. But one difficulty is that those saner solutions are at odds with having a few financially obese people becoming even more financially obese through profits from the war racket and other monopolistic centralized rackets on the backs of uniformed disempowered impoverished workers and consumers -- and so there is fierce well-funded opposition to true security for the USA and the world (whether physical security or information security or progressive taxes or universal healthcare or a social safety net other than prison).

My concern is the "best and the brightest" putting 100% of their effort into pouring ever more gasoline onto the fire while putting 0% of their time into reflecting on what they are ultimately trying to accomplish for their community with that fire.

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