The Mother of All Demos

On December 9th, 1968 Douglas Engelbart gave a 90 minute live public demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference at the Convention center in San Francisco. There they showed off many innovations including the public debut of the computer mouse. However the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface. This demonstration later became known as the “The Mother of All of Demos” because many of the innovations have become commonplace even today such as the mouse.

Doug Engelbart and his 17 researchers in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA were working on what they showed since 1962. Engelbart began the presentation by mentioning how valuable it would be if a workstation at your disposal all day that was perfectly…responsive” meaning he’s trying to find out how computers can make humans smarter. Now we know the value of what Engelbart said because everyone assumes you know how to at least work a computer mouse. The goal of the demo was to show what they were working on can do rather than explain it. Engelbart does word processing with a “blank piece of paper” and types in words, shows cut, copy, and paste. Also he shows how the many different levels and views a file can be given. While doing this a mouse is being used in the same manner we use the mouse today. These elements are extremely commonplace today.

“The Mother of All Demos” gave public the first glimpse of what Steven Johnson calls information-space. Information-space is the set of concepts and relations among them held by an information system. Also the demo gave Doug Engelbart the reputation of being the father of the modern interface. Steven Johnson says interface in its simplest terms “refers to software that shapes the interaction between user and computer (14). The relationship between the two is a semantic one. The interface is like a translator between the two entities making one easier to understand for the other. This is only capable in the digital revolution and for the “magic digital revolution to take place a computer must represent itself to the user; in a language that the user understands” (14) and I think Doug Engelbart was able to accomplish this.

This representation the computer does to the user takes its form metaphorically. The string of zeros and ones that most people cannot understand are replaced by a metaphor of a virtual folder on a virtual desktop. These metaphors are “the core idiom of the contemporary graphic interface” (15). The importance of interface design revolves around the paradox that “we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible outside our perceptual grasp” (19). I think Doug Engelbart was able to help people grasp cyberspace by what he showed at “The Mother of All Demos”.

Stream of Engelbart’s demo


2 responses to “The Mother of All Demos

  1. I think that the introduction of the concept of interface is closely related to one of the themes in Lev Manovich’s book, he was talking about 2 layers that digital media are consists of, cultural and computer layers. The introduction of user interface has changed our experience with computer, gave it more sense so that we do not need to operate binary code or command line as it was in DOS. Interface connects cultural and commuter layers of new media which affect one another.

  2. I think Engelbart’s demonstration, the introduction of Johnson’s definition of information-space, and the concept of the interface are all relevant today. In studying the history of new media it is important, especially for us born in the information age, to understand how it evolved so we can separate its basic concepts from what we find common sense and natural. This is the case with the mouse and concept of the interface because of how they shape our interaction as a user with the computer. No longer do we need to be programming “experts” in reading code in order to operate a computer, rather the interface allows us to navigate this computer “coded” world to one by a culturally coded one. This beginning allowed computer use to become more accessible to the public and non-experts which has lead to our computer culture today.

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