Monday, July 15, 2013

Doug Engelbart and ageism in Silicon Valley

Doug Engelbart's recent passing elicited glowing eulogies for the computing pioneer who gave "The Mother of All Demos" in 1968, introducing the mouse, videoconferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and real-time collaboration all in a single hour-long talk:

Amazing, right?

Yet lost in all the accolades was the fact that the industry he had created had largely ignored him (though not his inventions) for the past 40 years.  Longtime journalist Tom Foremski had the good fortune to meet Engelbart in 2005, and struck up an acquaintance with the pioneering genius:
"In 2005, Mr Engelbart confided to me: "I sometimes feel that my work over the past 20 or so years has been a failure. I have not been able to get funding and I have not been able to engage anybody in a dialogue."

Silicon Valley lauds its pioneers but doesn't know what to do with them if they keep living. Logitech, which made a lot of money from the computer mouse, one of Mr Engelbart's creations, gave him permanent office space. And some of his supporters have provided modest amounts of money to enable him to keep working, as part of the Bootstrap organization, recently renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute.

Almost a decade later following our conversation, nothing much changed for Mr Engelbart. A lonely genius wandering for nearly 40 years amidst a desert of resources.

He died in the belief that there is an unfinished computer revolution, and with important unfinished work that he wasn't able to complete.

Silicon Valley has lost not only one of its greatest computer pioneers, but also squandered an incredible opportunity to fund his work and see what else he could have created. What new platforms of innovation could have come from his work, what new hundred billion dollar industries might have emerged? It's a truly tragic loss."
Ageism is an ugly word, and when we're young, few of us think it will ever affect us.  But if one of the greatest minds in the history of computer science can be sidelined for two decades, what chance do the rest of us have?

I can't imagine how frustrating it must have been for Engelbart, to struggle for funding while seeing various consumer startups raise hundreds of millions to fund better sexting or tanning salon deals.

It's hard for individuals to change the system, but you can do your part by examining your own ageism, and trying to control your own irrational biases.

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