Tech Anniversary

San Francisco in 1968 was littered with flower children, free love and dreams of utopia encapsulated in Timothy Leary’s exhortation: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” How wrong that was! But out of this purple haze rose that year’s Joint Computer Conference, where an assembly of geniuses wearing white short-sleeved shirts and pocket protectors convened 50 years ago this week. The event shined a guiding light on the path to personal computing and set the modern world in motion.

On Dec. 9, 1968, Doug Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute presented what’s now known as “The Mother of All Demos.” Using a homemade modem, a video feed from Menlo Park, and a quirky hand-operated device, Engelbart gave a 90-minute demonstration of hypertext, videoconferencing, teleconferencing and a networked operating system. Oh, and graphical user interface, display editing, multiple windows, shared documents, context-sensitive help and a digital library. Mother of all demos is right. That quirky device later became known as the computer mouse. The audience felt as if it had stepped into Oz, watching the world transform from black-and-white to color. But it was no hallucination.

So what have we learned in 50 years? First, augmenting humans is the purpose of technology and ought not be feared. Engelbart described the possibilities in a 1970 paper. “There will emerge a new ‘marketplace,’ representing fantastic wealth in commodities of knowledge, service, information, processing, storage,” he predicted. “In the number and range of transactions, and in the speed and flexibility with which they are negotiated, this new market will have a vitality and dynamism as much greater than today’s as today’s is greater than the village market.” Today Google is Memex 1.0, while Amazon and a whole world of e-commerce have realized the digital market.