A Computer Visionary Looks Back - and Ahead

THE changes in information technology come so quickly that most people see only a blur. One generation of computers quickly surmounts another; the software writers never rest. How can the average business executive, educator, or administrator keep up?

Such questions occurred to Douglas Engelbart long before the rest of us had an inkling that digital technology would alter our lives. And from his Bootstrap Institute, located at the Logitech Corporation headquarters in Fremont, Calif., Mr. Engelbart is trying hard to answer them.

His lifework as a navigator for the information age began a few years after he returned from service in World War II as an electronics technician in the Navy. He had been impressed by a marvel of those times, radar. It got him thinking about how information can be visually displayed. Years later, Engelbart would pioneer the development of two-dimensional screens for computers. He'd also stage some of the first successful experiments with communication between computers, conceive the use of ``windows'' to allow a greater diversity of information on a screen, and come up with that gadget for manipulating on-screen data, the ``mouse.''

But the heart of his work has not been the invention of new computer gadgetry. Rather, it has been the often Herculean task of harmonizing revolutionary new tools and often reluctant human beings. That critical interface of the user and the machine held his attention through years at NASA's Ames Research Laboratory, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and as a senior scientist with the McDonnell Douglas Corporation.

Colleagues sometimes thought he was nuts with his talk about interactive computing, screens, networking, and ``augmenting'' the human system. Now his solo voice has been joined by a chorus. But the work is far from finished in Engelbart's view.

Why is the process so slow? Engelbart explains that when he was at SRI, he drafted a ``think piece'' and shared it with a colleague. But the colleague was baffled. ``That,'' says Engelbart, ``was my first real awareness of what I've come to see as the biggest single problem'' - the lack of a ``vernacular,'' a way of expressing new concepts that have little connection to past experience.

The push toward a new paradigm - a model embracing the interplay of humans and computers - underlies Engelbart's efforts at the Bootstrap Institute. He consults with different organizations, holds seminars, and offers ``expeditions'' into the information frontier. His goal is to shape a consortium of ``knowledge workers'' - from business, government, education - who are moving toward an ``open hyperdocument system'' that allows users instant communication with each other and instant access to an array of ``linked'' information on any subject.

ONE problem, Engelbart says, is that people rarely appreciate the scale of the changes being wrought by information technology. He says that scale matters, pointing out that full-size airplanes don't fly like model ones, with gravity and other forces acting differently. The rapid expansion of information through digital technology brings a similar change in scale, according to Engelbart, and it requires adjustments throughout an organizational structure and in the way people think about their work.

Engelbart prefers to talk in broad terms about how the systems he envisions can ``boost collective IQ,'' but wryly admits that people are always urging him to get at ``the computer stuff.'' To him, human thinking and the tools that aid it are ``one continuum.'' What he comes up with in the way of new tools is only significant if it serves the larger goal of creating a more effective ``collaborative community'' of ``knowledge workers.''

An example is literally right at hand - a ``one-handed chord key set'' that allows a person to type efficiently with one hand while using a ``mouse'' with the other. Each of the five keys represents a number - 1,2,4,8,16. By adding those figures through combinations of strokes, a user can tap in 1 through 31, each number corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, plus a few punctuation marks. Engelbart says the technique is easy once you apply yourself. But a lot of people say it's ``too complicated'' and don't even want to try, he adds.

Once a tool catches on, it may still be used incorrectly, Engelbart warns. The personal computer was made possible to a large degree by the work he'd done on visual displays, but the introduction of PCs bowled aside the time-sharing concepts prevalent in the '60s and '70s. Everyone became an independent operator, and few machines could talk to each other.

Only now, with the emphasis on networking, are computers and humans getting back on track toward total interactivity.

Engelbart recently received the Price Waterhouse Information Technology Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement, but such laurels are tangential to his work, which he approaches with a unwavering sense of mission. He describes how he decided to push beyond the goals of every young man who grew up during the Depression - get a steady job, get married, and live happily ever after - and ``invest in a career to maximize my contribution to mankind.''

At midcentury, when Americans were launching into a decade of unprecedented prosperity, he recognized that ``complexity and urgency was growing faster and faster, outstripping our ability to cope.'' The first computers were just beginning to hint at their usefulness.

``Right there, in 1951,'' Engelbart says,``I had the idea of computing on a screen. Right there! Workstations, people working together.'' The inventor of ``groupware,'' whose computer at SRI was the second, around 1970, to hook into the precursor of the Internet, had set his course, no matter how many dumbfounded looks he received when he tried to explain the destination.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.