I was saddened to hear the news about Doug Engelbart’s passing. Although most famous for having invented the mouse (I once had the privilege of holding the original – in some ways it was even better than its successors, as its two beveled wheels allowed the mouse to easily be drawn in a straight line), his contributions to the digital world we now take for granted run much deeper than that specific innovation.
I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Engelbart on a few occasions, and in the wake of this news I’m prompted to repost something I wrote a few years ago following one of those encounters, something that contemplated how law and innovation so often seemed to collide in a way deleterious for the latter. As we take this moment to recognize the rich legacy Mr. Engelbart leaves the world it should remind us to never allow law to deprive the world of other such gifts in future.
In early December I attended the “Program for the Future,” celebrating the 40th anniversary of a seminal event in technological history: Doug Engelbart’s “mother of all demos.” While today the technologies he showed off in his 1968 presentation must seem ordinary and quaint, back then they were revolutionary and laid the foundation for what we now take for granted.
While perhaps most widely known for being the world debut of the mouse, which he invented, Engelbart’s presentation is most notable for how it advanced collective intelligence. What made the presentation so important weren’t the technologies themselves but the human problems they stood to solve.
So in celebration of Engelbart’s important contribution to the world, a group of futurists and technologists gathered together at The Tech museum in San Jose to contemplate the future innovations yet to come. Personally, for me, the event was a bit nostalgic. Before law school, as a technologist in Silicon Valley, I often attended such events. Sometimes they got a bit silly, as there’d be so much “blue skying” and thinking about what could be done that nothing would actually get done. But these kinds of events were still important and because they fostered an environment where the bolts of inspiration could be seized upon and fanned into exciting innovations.
I still gravitate towards technology-related events, only today they are invariably legally-related. At these events technology is always considered in the context of regulatory frameworks, and the people doing the thinking are always lawyers and policy makers. Notably, however, at this event I was only one out of maybe a handful attendees who was a lawyer. And therein lies the disconnect.