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“Bootstrapping” front cover
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Thierry Bardini
Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing

Stanford University Press, 2000
284 pages
ISBN: 0-8047-3871-8

While possibly everyone even mildly interested in the history of GUIs will have heard of Doug Engelbart’s groundbreaking “mother of all demos” of oNLine System from 1968, there’s usually much less emphasis on its history, relevance and context. “Bootstrapping” provides this knowledge, giving a detailed history of Doug Engelbart’s “crusade” – starting with his studies and ending with the closure of Augmentation Research Center. It also positions NLS in a broader context of Engelbart’s vision of the symbiosis of the user and the system, which went much further and deeper than just the mouse and proto-hypertext (that’s not to say that these inventions do not get their fair share of attention in the book). Superbly researched, the book suffers from sometimes overly dry and scholarly tone, going into unnecessary details, and perhaps exhibiting too much sympathy for Engelbart. However, it’s worth its cover price, even if for accurate portrayal of the future that hasn’t been.
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Back cover blurb

The following paragraphs are quoted verbatim from the back cover:

Combining technological, social, and historical perspectives, Bootstrapping traces the genesis of personal computing through a close study of the pathbreaking work of one researcher, Douglas Engelbart. In his lab at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s, Engelbart, along with a small team of researchers, developed some of the cornerstones of personal computing as we know it – including the mouse, the windowed user interface, and hypertext. Since that time, all these technologies have become so commonplace as to be taken for granted, but the assumptions and motivations behind their invention are not. Thierry Bardini analyzes Engelbart’s singular achievement through a detailed history of his vision for a human-computer interface in the context of the U.S. computer research community during the 1960s and 1970s.

Engelbart felt that the complexity of many of the world’s problems was becoming overwhelming, and the time for solving them increasingly short. What was needed, he determined, was a system to augment human intelligence, co-transforming or co-evolving both humans and the machines they use. He sought a systematic way to think and organize this coevolution in an effort to discover a path on which radical technological improvement could lead to radical improvements in people’s capacities to work effectively. Engelbart’s project involved not just the invention of a computerized system that would enable humans, acting together, to manage complexity, but the invention of a new kind of human, “the user.” Ultimately he envisioned a “bootstrapping” process by which those who actually invented the hardware and software of this new system would simultaneously reinvent the human in a new form.

The book offers a careful narrative of the growth and decline of Engelbart’s laboratory at SRI, and it examines the subsequent translation of Engelbart’s vision. It shows that Engelbart’s ultimate goal of coevolution came to be translated in the less challenging terms of technological progress and human adaptation to supposedly user-friendly technologies.

At a time when the massive diffusion of the World Wide Web has spawned myriad pronouncements on our social and technological future, Bootstrapping recalls the early experiments and original ideals that led to today’s “information revolution.”

Thierry Bardini is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal.


Introduction: Douglas Engelbart’s Crusade for the Augmentation of Human Intellect1
1. Language and the Body33
2. The Chord Keyset and the QWERTY Keyboard58
3. The Invention of the Mouse81
4. Inventing the Virtual User103
5. SRI and the oN-Line System120
6. The Arrival of the Real User and the Beginning of the End143
7. “Of Mice and Man”: ARPANET, E-mail, and est182
Coda; Where Hand and Memory Can Meet Again215
Appendix: Personnel at Engelbart’s SRI Lab233

Page added on 26th May 2005.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.