Tech’s Masturbatory Historiography

John Ohno
4 min readDec 10, 2018

There’s this approach to computing history where we focus on work that looks shallowly similar to current norms, claim that work was ‘prophetic’ or ‘ahead of its time’, & mostly ignore differences & intent except as quirks. Because of the recent 50th anniversary of the Mother of All Demos, we’re getting a fresh batch of them. Fuck that.

These folks weren’t trying to predict our current future. They were trying to create a future worth living in, & we failed to make that happen.

Engelbart could do the Mother of All Demos in 1968 because that was the state of the art in available technology. It looks familiar not because it’s ahead of its time but because we stopped progressing — and we stopped before catching up with Engelbart’s goals.

Technology’ does not have a teleology. Particular technologies have biases — particular behaviors they are a better fit for, which they thereby encourage but do not enforce. (This is what is meant by ‘the medium is the message’: any widespread technology applies its biases across all its particular uses.) We should be careful of naturalistic fallacies & technological determinism: when the biases of a particular tool don’t fit our desires, we should replace the tool, not the goal.

Doug Engelbart wasn’t trying to create Skype & Jira.

Ted Nelson wasn’t (and isn’t) trying to create the Web or CD-ROM.

Alan Kay wasn’t (and isn’t) trying to create the Macintosh.

A lot of these folks are still alive. The rest literally wrote about what they wanted.

Engelbart, Nelson, & Kay are part of a particular tradition: trying to use computers as an extension of human cognition. Not just memory, but imagination, & other mechanisms that we don’t have names for. They’re pretty unsatisfied by the tendency for progress in this field to go backward — for available software to gradually become worse along the metrics they care about.

Engelbart was (along with Sutherland & Licklider) interested in intellectual augmentation and symbiosis: the computer was to become an extension of the user’s mind, or failing that at least an active and trusted collaborator. The feeling of symbiosis with the machine is, even today, alien to most of us! Aside from a handful of people who have become very proficient with a command line or REPL, we have never experienced the computer as a seamless extension of the mind (as we frequently do with…

--

--

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net