Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
Dr Douglas Engelbart is a softly spoken man. His voice is low yet persuasive, as though ‘his words have been attenuated by layers of meditation’, his friend Nilo Lindgren wrote in 1971 (cited in Rheingold 2000, 178). I struggled to hear him, being partially deaf myself, but that didn't matter; he has been describing the same vision in great detail to journalists, historians and engineers for over 60 years. The words change slightly in each interview, but the vision remains clear and sweeping, like a horizon line on a bright summer's day. Engelbart wants to improve the model of the human, to ‘boost our capacity to deal with complexity’ as a species (Engelbart 1999).
To get what he means by ‘boost our capacity’ as a species, we must first understand his philosophical framework. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, this framework profoundly influenced his own approach to invention in the '60s and '70s. Secondly, it represents a fascinating (and novel) theory of technical evolution, a topic we have already started to explore in this book.
Engelbart believes that human beings live within an existing technical and cultural system, an ‘augmentation’ system. We are born with a particular set of genetic capabilities, and then we build on these innate capabilities using tools, techniques, skills, language and technology. There is no ‘naked ape’; from the moment we are born we are always already augmented by language, tools and technologies.