Steven Johnson, from "Bitmapping"

[Please note that anything you see below enclosed in brackets is information added by your professor for this class as an aid to help make this essay more understandable: out of brackets = words by Steven Johnson; in brackets = words by Laura Mandell. Ellipses (. . .) mean that some words have been left out of this essay that appear in the original. You should be able to read this text as if the brackets and ellipses weren't there. Click here if you would rather see the same essay with the brackets removed.]

In the fall of 1968 an unprepossessing middle-aged man named Doug Engelbart stood before a motley crowd of mathematicians, hobbyists, and borderline hippies in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, and gave a product demonstration that changed the course of history.

It was an unlikely setting for such momentousness. . . . But historians a hundred years from now will probably accord it the same weight and significance we now bestow on Ben Franklin's kite-flying experiments or Alexander Graham Bell's accidental phone conversation with Watson. Engelbart's thiry-minute demo was our first public glimpse of information-space, and we are still living in its shadow. (11) . . . .

Engelbart's great quest [was to] translat[e] all digital information into a visual language, [to move us from this to this.]

The quest had begun with a short provocative essay entitled "As We May Think" that Englebart stumbled across while waiting to be shipped back to the States at the end of World War II. Written by a high-ranking army scientist named Vannevar Bush, the essay described a theoretical information processor called the Memex that enabled a user to "thread through" massive repositories of data, almost like a modern-day Web surfer. . . . The image haunted Engelbart for decades, as he followed a desultory career through the fledgling computer industry. That legendary demonstration in San Francisco was the first working product that even approached the functionality of Bush's speculative Memex device. Doug Engelbart has had a remarkably varied and visionary career, but even for that one demonstration alone, he deserves his reputation as the father of the modern interface.

What exactly is an interface anyway? In its simplest sense, the word refers to software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other. (13-14)

[There are two interfaces between computers and people:

  1. the computer screen before Engelbart invented bitmapping had a purely textual interface -- that is, it was a screen of letters constituting commands;
  2. the computer screen after Engelbart invented bitmapping is visual and geographical -- icons floating in space.]

[T]he real innovation [in computer technology] is not simply the capacity for numerical calculation (mechancial calculators, after all, predate the digital era by many years). The crucial technological breakthrough lies instead with this idea of the computer as a symbolic system. . . . The enormous power of the modern digital computer depends on [its] capacity for self-representation.

More often than not, this representation takes the form of a metaphor. A string of zeros and ones . . . is replaced by a metaphor of a virtual folder residing on a virtual desktop [=bitmapping]. (14-15)

Dreaming up metphors for new machines, of course, has a long and distinguished history. (16)

But in the past few years, new tools have appeared on the horizon, tools that will transform our basic assumptions about the computer and its broader social role. (In fact, "tool" wouldn't seem to be the right word for it anymore [not the right metaphor?], since what is now emerging is more like an environment, or a space.) . . . [R]ecent interface designs . . . have moved beyond the two-dimensional desktop metaphor into more immersive digital environments: town squares, shopping malls, personal assistants, living rooms. As the infosphere continues its exponential growth, the metaphors used to describe it will also grow in both scale and complexity. The agora of the twenty-first century may very well relocate to cyberspace . . . . (18)