When Douglas Engelbart read a Vannevar Bush essay on a
Philippine island in the aftermath of World War II, he found the
conceptual space to imagine what would become our Internet.
start at the end point: what you're doing right now. You are pulling
information from a network onto a screen, enhancing your embodied
experience with a communication web filled with people and machines. You
do this by pointing and clicking, tapping a few commands, organizing
your thoughts into symbols that can be read and improved by your various
There was a beginning to all this, long before it became technically possible.
Well, actually, there were many beginnings.
But one -- maybe the most important one -- traces back to Douglas
Engelbart, who died last week, and his encounter with a 1945 article
published here at The Atlantic
, "As We May Think
," by Vannevar Bush, an icon of mid-century science.
The essay is most famous for its description of a hypothetical information-retrieval system, the Memex
, a kind of mechanical Evernote, in which a person's every "book, record, or communication" was microfilmed and cataloged.
"It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory," Bush wrote. "It
consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a
distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On
the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be
projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of
buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk."
Bush did not describe the screens, keyboard, buttons, and levers as a
"user interface" because the concept did not exist. Neither did
semiconductors or almost any other piece of the world's computing and
networking infrastructure except a handful of military computers and
some automatic telephone switches (the latter were, in fact, one of
Bush's favorite examples).
A crucial component of the Memex was that it helped the brain's
natural "associative indexing," so "any item may be caused at will to
select immediately and automatically another." The Memex storehouse was
made usable by the "trails" that the user (another word that did not
have this meaning at the time) cut through all the information, paths
that could later be refollowed or passed onto a friend.
("There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in
the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the
common record," Bush predicted. Consider for a moment that these
processes -- at scale -- are exactly what makes Google a good search
engine or Reddit a good social news site.)
Bush's essay was a groundbreaking ceremony for the information age. In
Bush's own terms, the complexity of the world and its problems required a
better system, lest our memories and minds become overwhelmed by all there was to know
And this was not merely a personal, lifestyle problem. The worst war
the world had ever known was finally coming to a close, and to a man
like Bush, it had begun because of a lack of human wisdom. This is how
his essay ends:
The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and
are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to
throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may
yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the
wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to
wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science
to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly
unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as
to the outcome.
What Bush knew when he wrote these words in the months leading up to
July 1945 was that the most cruel weapon had been invented: American
atomic bombs would not fall on Japan for two more months, but Bush had been intimately involved in their creation
and certainly knew their use was a possibility. With that knowledge in
his pocket, his answer to the prospective (and then real) horrors of
science-enabled nuclear war -- odd as it may seem -- was to imagine a
contraption to aid human knowledge acquisition.
For Bush, humans were racing against themselves: understand the complex
world or face extinction through war. Those were the stakes at the
outset of the information age.
Bush's article went far and wide, and if I can brag for our magazine a
little, is considered one of the most influential magazine articles ever
published about technology, and perhaps in any field. It even landed
inside LIFE Magazine in a condensed format in September of 1945.
The Memex as imagined by a LIFE illustrator.
Millions of copies of the September 10 issue were printed and distributed around the world. LIFE had established itself as the
preeminent photo chronicler of World War II and the Red Cross
habitually kept reading materials like it around for soldiers. And so it
was that a copy of that issue, containing most of Bush's article --
including the whole Memex section and conclusion quoted here -- made its
way to a Red Cross library on the (even now, still remote) island of
Leyte in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, young Doug Engelbart, a radar technician in the Navy who
never saw combat (the war ended as his boat pulled out of the San
Francisco Bay), was on his way to the Philippines, too. He was
transferred to Leyte, the island, and though the record is not precisely
clear on this point, perhaps to the little village called Leyte, too,
at the end of a long inlet. It was here that, in the words of John
Markoff, Engelbart "stumbled across a Red Cross reading library in a
native hut set on stilts, complete with thatched roof and plentiful
bamboo." Five years ago, a visitor to Leyte snapped this photograph of the the town of Leyte
In a hut like this -- and maybe even one of these huts specifically --
Engelbart opened up that issue of LIFE and read Bush's Atlantic article.
The ideas in the story plowed new intellectual terrain for Engelbart,
and the seeds that he planted and nurtured there over the next twenty
years grew, with the help of millions of others, into the Internet you
The Los Angeles Times obituary succinctly summed up his impact on the world
"Douglas Engelbart, whose work inspired generations of scientists,
demonstrated in the 1960s what could happen when computers talk to one
another." Steve Wozniak went further, crediting Engelbart's 1960s
research "for everything we have in the way computers work today." Yes,
he invented the mouse, but he also laid out the concepts we'd need to
understand the networked world.
So, in one tangible and real sense, the Internet we know now began in
that hut across the world. As Bush made new thoughts possible for
Engelbart, Engelbart made it possible for us to imagine the rest of it.
Engelbart wrote Bush a letter describing how profoundly he'd been
affected by the latter's work. "I might add that this article of yours
has probably influenced me quite basically. I remember finding it and
avidly reading it in a Red Cross library on the edge of the jungle on
Leyte, one of the Philippine Islands, in the fall of 1945," he wrote. "I
rediscovered your article about three years ago, and was rather
startled to realized how much I had aligned my sights along the vector
you had described. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the reading of this
article sixteen and a half years ago hadn't had a real influence on my
thoughts and actions."
What's fascinating is that Engelbart adopted Bush's frame for the key
problems and solutions of modern life. Bush worried that the world had
gotten too big to understand, and so did Engelbart. "The
complexity/urgency factor had transcended what humans can cope with," he
recalled in a 1996 oral history interview. "I suddenly flashed that if
you could do something to improve human capability with that, then you'd
really contribute something basic."
The problem framed in this way helped Engelbart stay away from the
artificial intelligence researchers like JCR Licklider. Instead, he
developed a framework for helping human minds to come together to
improve themselves. He did not think the machines could or should do the
thinking for us. Markoff, a long-time chronicler of computing, sees
Engelbart as one pole in a decades-long competition "between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation -- A.I. versus I.A.
That's because Engelbart's view of computing development retained a
privileged place for humans. His academic biographer Thierry Bardini
summed up his importance like this:
Many still credit him only with technological innovations like the
mouse, the outline processor, the electronic-mail system, or sometimes,
the windowed user interface. These indeed are major innovations, and
today they have become pervasive in the environments in which people
work and play. But Douglas Engelbart never really gets credit for the
larger contribution that he worked to create: an integrative and
comprehensive framework that ties together the technological and social
aspects of personal computing technology. Engelbart articulated a vision
of the world in which these pervasive innovations are supposed to find
their proper place. He and other innovators of this new technology
defined its future on the basis of their own aspirations and ideologies.
Those aspirations included nothing less than the development via the
interface between computers and their users, of a new kind of person,
one better equipped to deal with the increasing complexities of the
A new kind of person
. The words appear unseemly in a
reactionary age that reifies the "real world," but consider the root of
the desire for a new humanity: Tracing Engelbart back through Bush, we
find the horror of World War II and the nuclear weapons that put nearly
instant human extinction on the table for the first time in human
history. Mere tinkering around the edges of humanity would not have
seemed up to the task.
What emerged for Engelbart as a real answer to Bush's statement of the
problem was the co-evolution of humans and technology. Knowing that
machines could do some thing well, and humans others, Engelbart imagined
creating interfaces that would allow both to continue improving. It is
an optimistic and hopeful outlook, one that is less brittle than hoping
Watson will cure disease or that humans are deracinated by our contact
with the digital realm.
It seems to me that we may be sitting at a similar moment in history to
the one that Bush considered. Through the first half of the 20th
century, physics was generally lauded and assumed to produce societal
goods. Then came the bomb, and the field had a lot of questions to
answer about what its purpose was, and what its relationship should be
to the military-industrial complex.
And, perhaps I'm reaching here, but networked computing technology has
had a similar privileged spot in American life for at least 30 years.
Networked computers democratized! Anyone could have a voice! They
delivered information, increased the variety of human experience,
allowed new capabilities, and helped the world become more open and
connected. Computers and the Internet were forces for good in the world,
which is why technology was so readily attached to complex,
revolutionary processes like the Arab Spring, for example.
But a broad skepticism about technology has crept into (at least)
American life. We find ourselves a part of a "war on terror" that is
being perpetually, secretly fought across the very network that
Engelbart sought to build. Every interaction we have with an Internet
service generates a "business record" that can be seized by the NSA
through a secretive process that does not require a warrant or an
adversarial legal proceeding.
The disclosure of the NSA's
surveillance program is not Hiroshima, but it does reveal the latent
dark power of the Internet to record communication data at an
unprecedented scale, data that can be used by a single nation to
detriment of the rest. The narrative of the networked age will never be
as simple as it once was.
If you're inclined to see the trails of information Bush imagined future
scholars blazing as (meta)data to be hoovered up, if you're inclined to
see PRISM as a societal Memex concentrated in the hands of the
surveillance state, then perhaps, we're seeing the end of the era Bush's
At the very least, those with the lofty goal of improving humanity
are going to have to explain why they've chosen networked computing as
their augmentation platform of choice, given the costs that we now know
explicitly exist. The con side of the ledger can no longer be ignored.
Yet, it seems possible that we have not yet fulfilled the Engelbart's
vision. Bush and Engelbart did have distinct visions. For Bush,
scientific knowledge itself provided salvation, as if units of wisdom
could be manufactured for the preservation of the human race.
Engelbart's view was, befitting its time, more cybernetic: people and
technology fed one into the other in a spiral of improvement. The
Internet is still young, the web younger still. We do not know what form
they will take. The current externalities -- now that they are known -- are a new
feedback piping into the system, which means they can be accounted for
in law or code or both. The co-evolution continues.
And I hope that someone, somewhere heard Engelbart died and found his extensive archive
and found her mind aflame with new ideas for how humans, working
together, can improve themselves. It's been a rough couple of years for
technology, but to quote Bush, "It would seem to be a singularly
unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as
to the outcome."