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Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing

Author: Thierry Bardini
Publisher: Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000
Review Published: December 2002

 REVIEW 1: Julia Chenot GoodFox

In a year associated with the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, as well as with numerous moments of popular mobilizations of resistance, uprisings, and riots, it can be easy to overlook the occurrence of a quiet yet extraordinary demonstration -- a sedate event whose influence has become international in scope.

On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart and his Stanford University's Augmentation Research Center (ARC) colleagues presented a ninety-minute demo at the annual ACM-IEEE Computer Society's Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) in San Francisco. Although this "mother of all demos" did not make national headlines in that turbulent year, Thierry Bardini accurately points out that its occurrence has become a "foundational tribal" tale, a milestone event well-known to computer historians. This foundational tale of events and individuals may be little known outside of the narrow confines accorded computer history, but not so with the technologies which Engelbart debuted at the FJCC. These included the mouse, hypertext, user-controlled graphical interfaces ("windows"), and online video teleconferencing. (A film of this fascinating 1968 demonstration can be downloaded here.)

Like numerous computer developers and innovators who worked in the pre-personal computer era, Engelbart's name arguably does not generate the same level of public recognition accorded the Woz, Jobs, and Gates trinity. Yet as Bardini reminds the reader in Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing, Apple and Microsoft (companies that emerged less than a decade after the San Francisco demo) both built upon the technologies introduced by Engelbart. Less explicitly stated in Bootstrapping is the fact that arguably most personal computer users, indeed the communication and informational infrastructure of United States culture (and elsewhere), have sharply benefited from Engelbart's 1960s research as well as the work of his ARC colleagues. Bootstrapping provides an exhaustive case study of technical research and developments that quickly evolved into the production of a system -- the personal computer -- whose presence is as ubiquitous as its histories are invisible. Bardini utilizes oral histories (he conducted personal interviews with Engelbart, as well as with other computer luminaries including Alan Kay, Ted Nelson, and Jacques Vallée) alongside historical, literary, and theoretical sources to create a valuable, chronologically structured -- and at times meticulous packed -- multidisciplinary narrative of the 1960s and early 1970s ARC research in general and a much-needed extensive biography of Engelbart's professional career in particular.

How computer history is (and is not) explicitly constructed is outside the scope of Bootstrapping. Yet construction is very much a visible subject within the narrative. Bardini, an associate professor of communication at the Université de Montréal, situates Engelbart's research within the context of personal and professional relationships at Stanford, activities at other computer research centers (including entities such as ARPA and Xerox PARC), contemporary figures and movements (e.g. managerial guru Peter Drucker and est, a self-help group started by Werner Erhard), the politics of corporate and institutional funding, and Engelbart's own obsessive desire to significantly impact the framework of dynamics between the individual user and the electronic computer. Bardini's rich analysis of these particular interplays between societies, individuals, and technical developments -- relationships theorized by the (redundant) phrase of "social construction" -- is a central theme in his book. His meticulous multi-dimensional descriptions of Engelbart's research is suggestive of scholar Wiebe Bijker's (1995) helpful concept of utilizing a "technological frame" to understand production within the realms of science and technology. Such a frame encompasses social-psychological elements, artifacts, organizational constraints, and values. Bardini's application of such a theoretical frame in analyzing Engelbart's research assists in creating an engagingly accessible study of the emergence of various computer technologies vis-à-vis the representative, conflicting presences of virtual (the imagined) users and real users.

"Engelbart wasn't interested in just building the personal computer," writes Bardini. "He was interested in building the person who could use the computer to manage increasing complexity efficiently" (55). Engelbart, a World War II-era veteran who, in the pre-computer science days had earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, sought to significantly contribute to the emerging formulation of a "model of the human" (or individual user) who manipulated a computer-appendage. Like so much that happened in the 1960s, this was a revolutionary or radical act. Engelbart worked within the golden age of room-sized computer mainframes, the pre-personal computer era whose mysterious activity was dependent upon key individuals of whom many computer historian have called the "priesthood" of computer workers. Engelbart's research sought to replace these relatively scarce "priests" with multitudinous and autonomous "knowledge workers," individuals who could intuitively interact with much smaller computers. Bardini describes Engelbart's quest to augment the intellect of the "human model" via a computer as an act of creating "an integrative and comprehensive framework that ties together the technological and social aspects of personal computing technology" (1). Bootstrapping makes judicious use of diagrams and photographs -- not only to pictorially represent early computers and the book's cast of characters, but also to visually demonstrate how Engelbart conceptualized these future human models. Engelbart considered the materialization of the user-machine vision to be his lifelong, singular "crusade."

Over the years, many computer historians have tended generally to emphasize ARC's production of technical artifacts at the expense of a thoughtful discussion of the conceptualizations underlying Engelbart's augmentation project [1]. As the primary title of the book suggests, Bardini, in a deft shift of paradigm, argues that Engelbart's larger contributions are not the technical developments which came out of ARC. (According to Bardini, the term "bootstrapping" had evolved by the 1950s to mean the initiative (unassisted) effort involved in development or a self-directed mechanism on which activities are predicated; Engelbart began to use this term in the late 1960s to encapsulate his research objectives). Rather, according to Bardini, Engelbart's greatest innovation was his theoretical work in constructing a creatively integrative user-computer framework.

Thus, Bardini's decision to foreground Engelbart's theoretical research makes Bootstrapping perhaps the first published work of scholarship which provides an in-depth analysis of the ideas which were then in circulation at the Augmentation Research Center regarding the user-computer relationship. Bardini persuasive shifts Engelbart's primary contribution away from the sheer technical artifacts produced out of ARC, artifacts that have been itemized in numerous computer history books [2]. Instead, Bardini illuminates the theoretical innovations that he contends have been ignored or marginalized by several of Engelbart's colleagues, including key figures in computer research and development. Bardini does not utilize a misleading "augmented systems" vs. "the mouse" structure in which to relate his story; instead, he constructs a dual biography of sorts. Engelbart's bootstrapping crusade is presented as a series of conceptualizations based upon a perceived systematic process of coevolution (coevolution being an adaptive process necessitating actions from both the user and the machine). Bardini's critical readings of these conceptualizations, which have been reconstructed from interviews and Engelbart's papers and presentations, are interwoven with descriptive analyses of the technical artifacts produced at ARC. That is, both the material artifacts and the theoretical conceptualizations are presented as possessing equal historical validity. This inclusiveness critically illuminates the social as well as the technical mechanics of the relationship between idea-artifact.

Historian Paul Ceruzzi (1998) accurately notes that the progression of the computer from a strictly numerically computing machine to an entity of communication was a process of advancements on numerous fronts. In thoroughly expanding what he calls an "obligatory" moment in computer history (the 1968 demo), Bardini implicitly reassesses how computer history is constructed by focusing on one particular west-coast based "front," Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center. However Bardini is not only critically engaged with the successes of this front -- those ARC innovations that are well-known and utilized. He also examines Engelbart's ideas that eventually failed to overtly contribute to the emerging personal computer.

Certainly all developers, or "inventors" to use an increasingly archaic term, have to contend with the real consumer or user, an individual who might be very different from the developer's imagined (and idealized?) or virtual user. While the developer-oriented virtual user might initially inform the development, it is the real user who will assist in determining -- and even participate in constructing -- the actual uses (and non-uses) of an artifact. Bardini's analytical comparisons and contrasts of these conflicting users are, I believe, the strongest critical portions of Bootstrapping. The respective chapters "Inventing the Visual User" and "The Arrival of the Real User" are the highlight of a still otherwise valuable work of scholarship. Bardini's book would be noteworthy if only because of his decision to elevate Engelbart's conceptualizations to the status accorded the ARC technical artifacts. But it is this extensive look at the users themselves which I believe makes Bootstrapping a unique addition to the scholarship on computer history. Much of this history is oriented on the production and politics of technical developments; users and consumers are rarely present within these works. Bardini continuously reminds the reader not only about the local and national cultures and social moments influencing Engelbart's research at ARC, but he also explicitly reinforces the importance of the end-user on impacting computer technology.

Bardini's insistence on foregrounding the user is succinctly introduced in "Virtual User," a short chapter which provides commentary from scholars working in science and technology studies. In addition, Bardini describes the early ARC "focus groups" where users worked with various ARC computer technologies. It is a concise and accessible overview to design process -- in this case, a process occurring not as the coevolution as envisioned by Engelbart-the-developer but rather evolution as directed by a user-as-developer.

"Real User" offers a more detailed exploration of computer users as Bardini chronicles the post-1968 FJCC demo environment at the ARC. Bardini critically summarizes why some of Engelbart's research failed to have efficacy for subsequent personal computer development at Xerox PARC (a site where much of Engelbart's staff ended up after resigning from ARC shortly after the San Francisco demo). Bardini's contrast between ARC and PARC regarding the "average" computer users provides a helpful addendum to scholarship on Xerox's 1970s computer research; this chapter also highlights how users can further technical development in ways not always apparent to the original developers, including Engelbart. Bardini casts the contrasting virtual and real users as an interplay of negotiation, tension, and power between real users and, in this case, Douglas Engelbart. The consequences of this interplay are made clear when Bardini shifts the site of activity from Stanford to Xerox -- a location where most of this chapter is concerned. Yet Bardini's readings of some of Engelbart's "failures" enhances the constructivist theory underpinning Bootstrapping. By thoughtfully addressing research which was later abandoned, Bardini does not fall into the trap of utilizing retrospective distortion in recounting the origins of the personal computers. This distortion is a misleading point of view that is reinforced whenever a history proposes a neat and tidy (linear and erroneous) pathway of technical development, free of the complex and messy behaviors of individuals and cultures.

Bootstrapping is part of Stanford University Press's "Writing Science" series which publishes texts devoted to exploring the meanings, significations, and cultures of science. Thierry Bardini has published articles in communication journals and his research involves the relationships between communication technologies and society, the sociology of technical innovation, and the social history of information. His emphasis on computer users, social contexts, and Engelbart's theoretical concepts in Bootstrapping makes for an insightful companion to a genre of history which tends to overwhelmingly emphasize technical developments in hardware. By broadening the traditional boundaries of computer history, Bardini creates a narrative which would be of interest to a wide range of scholars, including those working in communication, business, and interdisciplinary studies. Interestingly, Engelbart's 1960s ideas of computer-oriented "bootstrapping" and "coevolution" predates the work of current scholars who are researching variations of these same ideas -- the most notable such theorist perhaps being Donna Haraway. Engelbart early on "envisioned instrumenting the body of the user" (217) and Bootstrapping would be a complimentary volume in an intertextual reading of such scholarship as Haraway's classic text, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989) or her more recent Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan© Meets_OncoMouse(TM): Feminism and Technoscience (1997). Bootstrapping provides a behind-the-scenes portrait of the circumstances in which a particular set of technologies emerged, while other scholars, such as Haraway, address the consequences of such technologies.

The 1968 demo, according to Bardini, was unfortunately "the apogee" of the ARC. ARC was shut down ten years later, and for quite some time it appeared that Engelbart would be denied respectability -- and resources -- as he continued his crusade to "augment the human intellect." Bardini recalls seeing Engelbart in the early 1990s, and describes him then as a little known man who was "desperately" working out of two offices given to him by a computer mouse manufacturer. Yet, as Bardini points out, the "basic issues" Engelbart raised regarding the dynamics of the user-machine remain a concern to developers, scholars, and users. And although his public name-recognition remains low, Engelbart's contributions (whether primarily technical, theoretical, or a mixture of both) are increasingly recognized within computer history.

Engelbart continues to be active with his Bootstrap Institute. He holds twenty patents (including one on the mouse) and has been the recipient of several technical awards. Perhaps the most symbolically important one to him is the National Medal of Technology which President Bill Clinton awarded him in December 2000, thirty years after the "mother of all demos."

1. For example, two of the most (justifiably) influential computer history books focus their respective discussions of Engelbart on his laboratory products. Most likely due to space considerations, both books only very briefly describe the underlying conceptualizations driving the laboratory work; these historians provide what I would call the lab's abridged "mission statement." See Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Machine (New York: Basic Books, 1996; pp. 266-267) and Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998; pp. 259-260).

2. In addition to Campbell-Kelly and Aspray and Ceruzzi, see Steven Lubar, InfoCulture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993; p. 368) and Michael Hiltzik, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (New York: HarperCollins, 1999; pp. 64 - 67). A computer history book which briefly discusses Engelbart's legacy amid the litany of his technical accomplishments is Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000).

Bijker, Wiebe E., Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MIT Press: 1995.

Ceruzzi, Paul E., A History of Modern Computing. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.

Julia Chenot GoodFox:
Julia Chenot GoodFox is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Kansas where she researches science, medicine, and technology of the Americas. Her current projects are (1) constructing the cultural histories of software development and use in the United States and (2) researching the relationships between the public health of selected American Indian Nations, federal policy, professional organizations (e.g. AMA), and educational institutions during the nineteenth century.  <goodfox@ku.edu>

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