28 Dec 2018 c.e.
The Demo at 50: Looking Forward

December 9th, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Doug Englebart's Mother of All Demos. (You can watch the actual demo on YouTube or read about it on Wikipedia). To commemorate the occassion, Doug Englebart's daughter and some of his long time collaborators pulled together an all day symposium for the still surviving demo crew members and other early Internet luminaries. I, like all the other lumpenproletariat of the modern Silicon Valley, bought a ticket to attend.

The day's festivities were held at the Computer Science Museum down in Mountain View, about a forty minute drive from San Francisco early on a Sunday morning. My friend and I arrived early, which gave us time to grab coffee, almost front-row seats at one of the twenty or so ten-person tables that filled the hall that the day's lectures would be held in, ogle the paper signs on tall cocktail tables that marked where the in-person demos of similar tech projects would be held, and traipse down to the first floor museum exhibit, one of Google's prototypes for a self-driving car.

It was mostly a day of reminiscing, with a few more modern speakers talking about projects they're currently working on to make the Web a more annotated and sourceable place. The main drive of most of the projects seemed to be HyperLinking. Ted Nelson, the closing speaker and an early Web researcher, is still going on about how HyperLinks should have been bi-directional.

On the System Itself

There was a panel discussion from a few original ARC researchers. We had a hardware guy, a couple of software guys, and Doug Englebart's daughter, Christina Englebart. The hardware guy, Martin Hardy, had created a hypterlinked diagram to show us all how the original demo computer system had been constructed. The demo itself was held at a hall in San Francisco -- the actual computer mainframe lived in a research center in Menlo Park, south of SF by a few tens of miles. In the demo, the computer screen printout and video feeds from several different cameras are broadcast onto the screen so that we can see researchers in Menlo Park, as well as a camera feed pointed at Doug's face, on stage. In order to get these video streams to show, they had to pipe all the data back to the mainframe in Menlo Park, where the computer composed the stream to feed to projector. They used a microwave tower to beam the feeds, as the Internet hadn't been invented yet. It'd be a few decades until fast speed Internet was installed between here there and everywhere.

Once the reminiscing and story recounting was done, they had a little bit of time to ask to audience for questions. There may have been a few, but the only one I remember was from a man who wanted to know, definitively, what room the Demo had occurred in. Given the spirited debate that follows, it seems that the biggest controversy surrounding the event was the actual location that it happened at. Good thing we have a video recording of it, otherwise we may not be sure that it happened at all.

Another gizmo that came up during the day was the projector machine that the group developed that could stop a film strip on a single frame. You used to not be able to pause film projectors because the heat from the bulb would burn the frame that you stopped on. Anyway, somehow the ARC research group was able to build a projector that would let you stop the film at any arbitrary point. One day, someone was showing the presentation to a group that wanted to know more about the project and happened to stop the film exactly on a frame that showed the computer had crashed. In the middle of the Demo. If you watch the film, you may be surprised to hear this, as you'd know that during the Demo, the whole project works pretty flawlessly. Well, it turns out that it did, in fact, crash. The reason you can't see it when watching the film is one that the digitization process probably lost that exact frame and two that the computer system they built was so incredibly quick to come back online that it restarted without anyone noticing. Turns out that the computer system crashed so frequently that they tuned it to come back so that no one would notice it had even failed. It's hard to square that with how slow my laptop takes to start some days.

Web Researchers, Then and Now

There were a number of great panel discussions about web technologies from a host of different web pioneers. Even Alan Kay made an appearance -- they put him on one of those teleconferencing robots and he beamed in from his home. He got up a few times to get a thing; I wasn't sitting quite close enough to get a good look at the books on the bookshelf behind him.

I think the rowdiest panel was probably the one with Wendy Hall, a UK researcher who's been working on web hyperlinking technology projects since the Demo, and Peter Norvig, the chief researcher for search at Google. There was a strange amount of hostility in the room towards Silicon Valley Money, chiefly coming from the people, a majority in the room to be clear, who had spent their lives in academia and decidedly not made it rich on the Internet and Software boom that came to be after their demos. Unfortunately, I don't remember the exact issues that showcased Hall and Norvig's ideological differences, but I believed it turned around a responsibility to filter out fake news and propaganda. Wendy had done a lot of work on being able to easily show provenance for information, so it was interesting to see her in conversation with Norvig, big wig of Google Search. As an aside, I'm not sure where the line on authoritarianism comes down between censorship and the promotion of truth, but we definitely seemed to be flirting with it. Even Vint Cerf had some strong things to say about the quality of information on the Internet.

Yet another presenter put up on the screen a Mosaic listserve email from Marc Andreesen, one that talked about how he had hacked into the browser the ability to add annotations to any webpage and asking for beta testers.[1] On page annotations seemed to be one of the biggest wishes from the bevy of Internet luminaries we heard from. Well, that and a way to get rid of fake news. Dan Whaley from Hypothes.is was on a panel as well. It was interesting, to me, to see modern efforts to bring annotation to the web. I'm not sure what every website would be like with a comments section, but it seems that the effort to find out hasn't died out yet.


One thing that Doug's daughter really brought home for me was the question of what the impact and legacy was of the Demo. The company that bought the technology wasn't able to turn it into a successful product. That wouldn't happen until later, much later, after Microsoft and Apple got their introduction to the mouse and such at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. In fact, Doug's ARC project was largely dismantled after the team was bought by Tymeshare. It seems that he had worked hard to open up the lab to researchers from other projects and universities -- almost everyone who was alive and working in the field at the time had, at one point or another, been to the ARC lab to see the software system at work in person. I can't help wonder if it as the collaboration and openness with the lab that led to some of the technological marvels that the group demoed that day in '68 to actually getting out into the world, in some form or another. Sure there were plenty of other insights and research that the team had done, but the reality is that annotations and bi-directional hyperlinks don't have mass adoption in the same way that the mouse and graphical user interfaces achieved.

How much of this idea leakage was due to the work that Doug did to make their projects available to others outside of their group? How much of it was a result of the same researchers ending up at Xerox's PARC which then let Steve Jobs and Bill Gates inside to see what they had built? It's hard to say, exactly.

[1] I wasn't able to find the original email, but Marc himself uses the feature to explain his investment in Rap Genius

#mother-of-all-demos #impressionism #conference-swag