Perspectives of Computer Industry Pioneers

One of the highlights of the PDA conference was a session in which 3 computer industry pioneers not only provided a look back in time but also gave their perspectives on some of the issues of today.  The pioneers were Ted Nelson, founder of Project Xanadu (the first computer hypertext project); Ed Feigenbaum,  often called the “father of expert systems”; and Christina Engelbart, appearing on behalf of her father, Doug Engelbart, inventor of the mouse.

Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson calls himself “the industry’s loyal opposition” and has strong opinions about today’s digital world.  He said that we are being assaulted by fads and inane technologies and that intelligent software means that it takes control away from the users.  Our worst problem now is the myth of technology.  Most things that people call technology are packages, conventions, and constructs.  E-mail is not a technology; the technologies making e-mail possible are TCP/IP and file transfer.  Windows, Macs, are just packaging; underneath they are all the same.

What convention should we have for documents?  In the Middle Ages, documents had writing in the margins.  Why is that in PDF and HTML documents, you cannot put notes in the margin? Because the developers thought that users would not need that capability, so they did not design for it.  Nelson is now developing a digital document browser that generalizes side-by-side views so you can see the connections between them.

The computer world is built on hierarchies and rectangular objects.  Where are the connects between them?  The initial file consisted of punched cards in a box with a name on the end. Then came a file containing the name of all files, which led to hierarchical directories.  Nobody foresaw that we would want to store photos, audio files, documents, etc.  The only thing we can count on being permanent is filenames.  Project Xanadu was an attempt to improve on paper and show the thoughts of the writers.  The structure of documents was lost when fonts were displayed on the screen.  All this was an imitation of paper and did not improve on it.

Edward Feigenbaum

Ed Feigenbaum is a pioneer in the development of artificial intelligence and has been called the “father of expert systems”.  He now Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and has continued working on knowledge systems.  His latest work is on the Stanford Self-Archiving Legacy Toolkit (SALT) project, now being developed at the Stanford University Libraries and Academic Institution Resources (SULAIR).  In this case, Feigenbaum defines “self” as “emeritus professors with archives worth preserving for scholarly use and doing the preservation with only a little help from professional librarians.  “Toolkit” means the software and web page formats to facilitate the process.  SALT has taken a “Janus” approach with two faces:  one facing outward toward the scholars, researchers, and scholars of today and in coming years, and the other facing inward towards the repository to facilitate the work of the scholars building it.  The inward face uses Zotero as a tool for entering the metadata.  The two faces communicate regularly to update the repository and synchronize it with the Zotero cloud servers.

SALTworks is the name of the experimental system supporting searching of the Feigenbaum Digital Archive which contains 15,000 documents.  It is also being used by other scholars on their own archives.  A major lesson for library archivists is to get to scholars while they are alive and can supply content, stories, and metadata for their archives.  It is much harder to compile archives after they are dead, and the archives will not be as rewarding for the scholars and students of the future.

Christina Engelbart

Christina Engelbart appeared on behalf of her father, Douglas Engelbart, with whom she still works.  Doug Engelbart’s strategic vision catapulted us into the information age.  The day after he became engaged, he started thinking about his life’s goals.  He wrote a report on human intellect, and then invented the mouse in 1964.  He made one of the first transmissions over the Internet in 1969 and was one of the first proponents of “boosting our collective IQ”.  He founded the Doug Engelbart Institute in 1988 to preserve the history of his work.


Engelbart began archiving his materials early in his career, and re-archived everything on the web in 1995.  The Stanford Mouse Site tells the history of his invention of the mouse and contains many original materials.  The Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley has a replica of the original mouse and other materials.  Many of Engelbart’s materials, including his early videos, are in the Internet Archive.

In developing a scholar’s archive, context is everything.  What is their story, and what were they thinking?  Archives can humanize history; people use things today that can be traced back to an idea (for another example, see the Harold Edgerton Digital Collection).  Technology supports how we work together, and everyone is part of the collective intelligence of the world.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

Comments are closed.