Concept, history, and purpose of Doug Engelbart’s iconic “Augment” system
By guest contributor Dean Meyer
The Concept of Tools for Thinking
We work with ideas in many forms, the most predominant of which is language. Much of the time, we think in words.
Thinking in words means that we:
- Brainstorm and sketch thoughts.
- Break apart thoughts into their elements.
- Structure ideas.
- Compare and merge related ideas.
- Reference other ideas.
- Draft prose.
- Refine and edit both content and flow.
- Format and publish documents.
- Reuse text.
Word processors were originally designed to help secretaries edit prose. But they weren’t designed to support the many dimensions of thinking — of composing, navigating, editing, and studying conceptual structures.
HyPerform is a writing tool specifically designed for thinking. It is rooted in some of the earliest research on interactive information systems, from the “Augmenting Human Intellect” lab at Stanford Research Institute — the group that invented the mouse, windowing, display word processing, electronic publishing, groupware, etc.
Many of SRI’s inventions have been commercialized. But until now, no one has put all the pieces together to make available a fully integrated online thinking environment.
History and Background
Pioneers often don’t get credit. They are too busy accomplishing their dreams to stop and think about whether others are following. Doug Engelbart was one of those pioneers — the father of end-user computing, an unsung hero of the computer industry. Doug invented the mouse, windowing, hypertext, electronic publishing, cooperative processing…. He designed tools to augment human intellect, not to simply move words around on paper.
I had the good fortune to work for Doug at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) while in high school and university. In the 1960s and 1970s, I found myself using tools that the world still considers leading edge. It gave me quite an advantage. I did my schoolwork in half the time of my classmates, and always got comments such as, “Very readable. Very well structured.” Doug Engelbart once called me “the first of a new generation.”
As a result of using the tools invented in Doug’s lab at SRI, I became very good at structuring ideas. I can brainstorm a number of unrelated ideas in random order, and then find the order in them. I can listen to a meeting, and then feed back to people their ideas in a logical outline. I can take apart a paragraph and put it back together in a way that flows better. I can merge two large documents into one, meshing ideas seamlessly. I can quickly decipher options and sort decision criteria under each. My speeches are easy to follow. What I have to say may be controversial, but it always comes out in an understandable, logical way.
When I left SRI and joined Xerox, I lost the advantage of these powerful thinking tools. I had to use a word processor much like today’s Macintosh and Windows products. I found myself stumbling over my own thoughts. My mind outpaced the machine. At first I thought it was just a matter of getting used to a new user interface.
“After Augment, when I had to use a word processor, I found myself stumbling over my own thoughts. My mind outpaced the machine.” — Dean Meyer
Later, when I joined the Diebold Group, I again gained access to Doug’s system. I realized that my mind had slowed to the pace of the primitive tools I had been using. It was like I hadn’t exercised in years…. My mind was rusty. I had to work to get it back up to speed.
Life is short. I can’t afford to run my mind at anything less than full throttle. When I figured out what was going on, I swore never to be without adequate thinking tools again. I invested a great deal of my own money and time to make these tools available to me and my organization, NDMA Inc.
Until now, these tools of the mind have not been commercially available. We’ve kept them for ourselves. But now, HyPerform offers you much of Doug’s original system on a modern platform. It is not just another desktop productivity tool. It can change the way you think.
People spend years learning to ski or play ball well. Will you spend a bit of time learning high-performance thinking?
What is HyPerform?
HyPerform is a high-performance thinking environment, based on decades of laboratory research on computer-based tools that augment human intellect. HyPerform is designed from the ground up to maximize human intellect, not to move words around on paper. This chapter overviews its capabilities.
HyPerform is an outline editor — like a word processor, but where paragraphs are structured in a hierarchy. For example, a document might be made of chapters, sections, paragraphs, and sub-points. This helps you not only to write, but also to organize your thoughts, ensure that they flow well, and quickly get perspectives on complex conceptual structures.
HyPerform is hypertext — that is, it permits “links” between paragraphs. This allows you to point at a reference and view the source text, or create directories of places in your files and quickly move to them, or build networks of related ideas.
HyPerform remembers where you’ve been — the last ten views within each of the last ten files you’ve been in. This allows you to follow a tangent (eg by following a link, moving around a file, or moving to other files), and then return to your original place to pick up where you left off.
HyPerform lets you view your documents in a wide variety of ways — to any level of depth in the outline, seeing all or just a few lines per paragraph, with or without outline numbers, etc. It lets you view through content filters (eg every occurrence of a given word or everything changed since a certain date). HyPerform supports multiple windows, with easy editing across windows.
HyPerform is groupware — that is, it supports collaborative authorship. It is network compatible with file-level locking. Every paragraph is tagged with the author’s name and the name of the person who last edited it. You can instantly view all of the paragraphs written or edited by a certain person, before or after a given date, to quickly see what’s changed since you last worked on the document.
HyPerform has electronic publishing capabilities — using the hierarchical structure, (eg to distinguish chapters from paragraphs), it can automatically format an entire document with a few commands at the beginning of the file.
HyPerform is programmable — all of its capabilities can be combined in “macros” by simply writing down commands. In other words, any command can be translated into a single keystroke. For applications developers, HyPerform also makes it easy to develop new software (sub-systems), since it handles the user interface and file system, and all of its power is available to the developer. At NDMA, we developed a prototype of a new management game in three months, compared to a prior effort of similar magnitude that took two years.
Why is HyPerform Important?
HyPerform began with the vision of Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart, the father of end-user computing and the inventor of the mouse, windows, hypertext, cooperative processing architecture, and many other innovations now coming into use (and some that have yet to be “discovered”). In the late 1950s, when most of the computer industry was busy automating clerical tasks and administrative processes, Engelbart viewed the computer as a tool for thinking and collaboration. His vision is inspiring:
Roughly 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, humans developed spoken language abilities. This allowed people to pass knowledge along from generation to generation. Thus, the species was able to accumulate more knowledge than one person could learn in a lifetime, and hence people were able to deal effectively with more complexity. This was an example of “technology” that significantly increased the intelligence of the species.
But the amount of information the species could accumulate was bounded by the memory capacity of individuals. Myths and ballads made memorization easier, and somewhat extended the intellectual capacity of the species. Nonetheless, the limits of memory constrained the evolution of intellect.
Over 6,000 years ago, humans developed the ability to write — not just ideograms (pictures that represent whole ideas), but logograms (pictures that represent simple nouns and verbs which were the components of ideas).
In 3100 B.C., the Sumerians in Southern Mesopotamia began combining logograms with syllabograms (pictures that represented phonetics, i.e. sounds) to represent abstract ideas. This phonitization, called the Rebus principle, represented a massive leap in human ability to express complex thoughts in writing. As a result, human beings were able to be more and more specific in their communication of complex, abstract ideas.
Writing developed into an infinitely recombinant structured symbology that matched spoken language in its richness. This allowed the species to save exponentially more information than could be remembered in stories and songs, and in turn expanded by orders of magnitude our ability to deal with a complex world. Once again, a technology led to a quantum leap in the intellect of the species.
However, it remained difficult to disseminate information — hand copying was tedious. Books were rare. Tribes and states tended to be relatively isolated, accumulating knowledge in parallel. The intellect of the species was, at this point, bounded by what each separate group of people could learn and understand.
Just over 500 years ago, Gutenberg developed the movable-type printing press, permitting the widespread dissemination of information. In combination with improved communications and trade, the printing press led to the spread of knowledge across social and political boundaries, and put books in the hands of the masses. When the general education level of the population increased, the intellectuals of the society could focus their studies on more advanced subjects.
Information dissemination permitted increased specialization — leading to the emergence of a great diversity of trades and professions. Specialization, triggered by the printing press, again permitted the species to accumulate significantly more knowledge and deal with greater complexity.
[as told in: Boone, Mary E., Leadership and the Computer.
Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing. 1993. pages 4-5.]
In each case, a new technology significantly increased the intellectual capacity of the species. Engelbart believed that computers could produce that next quantum leap in human intellect. In 1962, he formed the Augmenting Human Intellect Research Center at Stanford Research Institute. There, he spent decades researching human thinking and building the most powerful set of thinking tools to date — a system called Augment.
The original Augment software is not commercially available, and can only be run on the obsolete DEC 20 operating system. Some of the concepts (and research staff) found their way to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Apple, and many other “Silicon Valley” firms. While many of the features of Augment have been replicated in isolated systems — one system with this feature, another with that capability — until now, no integrated thinking environment of this power has been available to the general public.
“Dad’s contention was that IT has to be a super enabler for concurrently developing, integrating, and applying knowledge. HyPerform is strong on all of them.”
— Christina Engelbart, Executive Director & Co-Founder, Doug Engelbart Institute
HyPerform is a re-creation on a modern platform of the core capabilities of this never-matched classic.
[Note: HyPerform is based on the public-domain version of Augment built under government funding, and not any subsequent versions developed by Tymshare and McDonnell-Douglas. No original source code was used in its construction; it is based solely on public-domain literature and the recollections of Dean Meyer, a member of the SRI-ARC team.]
HyPerform is copyrighted by N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc. Your license is for use on a single computer. It is illegal to use this software on more than one computer at a time. You are free to copy it onto your hard disk and onto other floppies for purposes of backup. To purchase additional copies, call NDMA at 203-790-1100.
What’s Different about HyPerform?
It’s not the speed of your computer that allows HyPerform to move at the speed of thought. A number of subtle design decisions add up to an environment that supports high-performance thinking. This chapter describes a few of the major design principles, rooted in Engelbart’s research, that differentiate HyPerform.
Many systems ask you to mark text, and then specify a command such as “delete” or “move.” But people say, “Do this,” not “This do!” HyPerform follows the English imperative form: verb followed by noun. This is not only more intuitive; it’s much faster. Consider the following scenario:
Imagine that your eye sees a word you wish to delete. With the now-popular noun-verb systems, you would move your mouse to it, mark it, then either give the command from the keyboard or (worse still) move the mouse to a menu to specify the command. This is sequential, and quite slow.
In HyPerform, you move the mouse to the word, and in parallel specify the command with your other hand, and then with a final “OK,” you’re done. You will quickly feel the benefits in terms of the pace of your thinking.
A matrix of verbs and nouns is intuitive and easy to remember. For example, you can delete a character, word, string of text, paragraph, or whole branch of thought (such as a chapter). You can also move, replace, copy, insert, and transpose those same nouns. By learning a few verbs and a few nouns that can be mixed and matched, you will have learned a very powerful word processor and outline editor.
No matter what feature you are using, the interface is entirely consistent. Unlike some products that ask you to select from a menu for some commands, use function keys for others, and use the keyboard for still other capabilities, HyPerform always responds to verb-noun commands. It always lets you know exactly what it expects of you with consistent prompts and menus. Once you have learned to do anything in HyPerform, this consistency makes it easy to explore the rest of its capabilities.
Text is inserted after the place you mark, not before. Again, this is to match the way people think. Don’t you hate driving instructions that say, “Turn left a block before the fire station”!?
All features are fully integrated and can be used with most all commands in any sequence. Outlining is not an afterthought; it is the essence of the system. Hypertext links are not a special subsystem; they are part of the way you point at places in files (like a reference in a book). Groupware is not a separate tool; again, it is inherent in every file. Content analysis is not a special process; it is an aspect of the display system and can be applied to any file, on demand. Every feature works in conjunction with every other feature in a seamless set of thinking tools.
Windows are never overlayed; they are tiled to allow comparisons and cross editing of two places in the same file or two different files. If you want to return to prior views, you can simply ask for a list of prior views — without wasting precious “screen real estate” on overlapped past windows.
You may have as many windows as you wish, split vertically or horizontally. The windows can view the same file, or a variety of files. All features are equally available in any window.
HyPerform can be menu driven if you wish; but with experience, most people eliminate the menus and enter commands directly. This is faster, and it enlarges the file viewing area on the screen. Setting menus on or off is just one aspect of your user profile, a matter of a simple command.
HyPerform is not WYSIWYG (i.e. what you see is what you get). In HyPerform, the screen is not an image of paper; it is “information space” and the portrayal is designed to support thinking. Format is applied later, upon output.
HyPerform prefers a three-button mouse. It will work with one- and two-button mice as well, but you’ll work a bit more slowly. Early research found that three buttons are easily controllable, while four tend to induce errors. The design goal is not ease of learning at a cost of performance, but rather to maximize your thinking performance by optimizing the bandwidth between mind and machine. In this case, people who are not very experienced in using a mouse can learn one button, while more experienced people can use all three.
Warning: HyPerform is designed for performance. It is not for beginners; it is not a set of “training wheels.” It is for those who want to maximize their minds. In many systems, learning the first command is easy, but each new capability takes equal effort. In other words, the learning curve is linear. It may take a bit longer to learn the first command in HyPerform, but thereafter exploring new commands is easy. In other words, the learning curve is asymptotic, and the capabilities are far-reaching.
HyPerform is not “artificial intelligence.” It does not think for you. Rather, it is like an infinite, multi-dimensional scratch-pad that extends your ability to think. By using HyPerform, you can expect a steady improvement in the clarity, structure, and flow of your thoughts. And you’ll become accustomed to working online at a significantly increased pace — not because your computer is faster or the software runs more quickly, but because HyPerform is designed to match the way your mind works.
For Whom is it Intended?
HyPerform is designed for those whose success depends on the clarity of their thinking and communications.
It is especially useful to executives, consultants, professional writers, software engineers, and students.
The Online Environment
Thoughts are written in phrases or paragraphs. A series of paragraphs is structured, as in an outline, to comprise a document. For example, a book may be made of parts, chapters, sections, the text, and occasional sub-points and bullets.
In HyPerform, it is easy to add and manipulate thoughts at any level of the outline. You may edit characters, words, whole paragraphs, or entire blocks of structure (eg you can move a single word, a paragraph, or an entire chapter).
Your many documents, each of which is an outline, may be linked with hypertext pointers, like a footnote that you can point to and instantly see the reference.
Documents can be printed or exported to conventional word processors or publishing systems.
Viewing Information Space
You view documents through one or more windows. In addition to scrolling, there are a variety of commands to move your window(s) through documents by navigating the structure — as the experienced say, to “fly through information space.”
In each window, you may set filters to see a variety of views. For example, you may see:
- Truncated views — only to a given level of depth in the structure, or only one or a few lines of each paragraph — to help see and mold the flow of your thinking.
- Text-search views — only paragraphs that contain a given word — to find thoughts; examine your usage of a word; make changes in language or meaning; or track group activities by person, date, or project.
- What’s changed, and who changed it — to aid collaboration when coauthoring, an example of its “groupware” capabilities.
And since HyPerform remembers where you’ve been, you can follow tangents and then return to your original train of thought.
The Feel of High-performance Thinking Tools
The key difference between HyPerform and other software is subtle…. Like the contrast between a Ferrari and a Chevrolet, the difference in feel results from a different design philosophy. HyPerform was not built to move words around on paper; it was built to augment the human mind.
Like a well-designed cockpit, everything is where you’d expect it. All commands are logical and easy to understand. Learn a little, and you’ll feel comfortable exploring the rest. This allows a rich and powerful vocabulary of commands, while the system remains easy to use.
HyPerform defines the most basic set of general-purpose information-handling tools, not a different special-purpose command for each different activity. Like a wrench and screwdriver, each individual tool is simple; but used together, anything is possible.
HyPerform “moves at the speed of thought” — not because you have a fast computer, but because every aspect of the user interface is attuned to the way people think.
HyPerform runs under Windows, but it does not sacrifice human performance in order to look like all other Windows software. Because it’s different, it takes a bit of study and practice to get up to speed. But that “speed” is unlike anything one can do in today’s word processors. HyPerform is intended for people who are serious about high-performance thinking.