Small thoughts on Doug Engelbart

I just re-read “A few words on Doug Engelbart.” If you’ve been reading the news lately, you’re probably seen a headline like “Douglas C. Engelbart, Inventor of the Computer Mouse, Dies at 88,” or seen him referred to as the fellow who gave the “mother of all demos.” But as Bret Victor points out, to focus on the mouse (or “The Demo”) is to miss the point. The mouse was, in a very important way, a spin-off from his real work.

The work that Engelbart cared about was how to augment human cognition. By finding the right problem, at the right time, Engelbart found himself in a position where the spin-offs from his research agenda were, of themselves, tremendously important. (The formulation of “the right problem, at the right time” comes from Hamming’s talk, “You and Your Research“, which is well worth reading. It’s also clear from the Augmentation paper that Engelbart had a staged approach in which he could build towards his final goal, aligning with Hamming’s “right way.”)

So when you hear people talking about the inventor of the mouse, you might give some thought to the question of what you can do to conceptualize your work so that you get important results and impact.

To make that more concrete, in my own case, the way I’m approaching information security is to ask “why do things go wrong so often?” This forces me to think about the ways and frequency that they go wrong, and what we can do about them. It also led me into thinking about how we can make security thinking more accessible, resulting in some games and our NEAT advice on better warnings.