By Professor HENRY ETZKOWITZ and BETTE KIERNAN, MFT
We were among the fortunate attendees at Stanford University’s Bing Auditorium and were able to enjoy the mixed media event at the perfect venue. This production aimed to interpret our contemporary technological culture by mythologizing a prototypical event of an emergent high tech culture – computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart’s introduction of the tools of computer communication (including the mouse), in a 1968 professional conference event in San Francisco. This was filmed for the record, and collected in Stanford Library’s Silicon Valley archives.
Programmatic music transmutes lived culture into evocative sounds that recall, interpret and pass on the original experience in an encapsulated forma, like the folk culture idealized in Hungarian Rhapsody and the like. There were minor –key, Philip Glass like sounds, a musak background for a pantomime and light show, with the original filmed event, providing the take off point for a mixed media, electronic music, quasi Gregorian chant, with images shown on the walls and ceiling of the auditorium. The screen in front deconstructed the original presentation typescript into coded elements, referencing the machine code, on which the demonstration’s software was based. The Demo shows opening introduction and closing of the original filmed demo and then dematerializes the intermediate time and space into a mix of electronic, sounds, Gregorian-like chants, a wind instrumental accompanying choral line to the demo leader who morphs in and out of the scene.
The original word…word…word… formula statement and following text on the screen is deconstructed into sound and images on the side screens and auditorium ceiling.
The extraordinary creativity and intelligence of those originally associated with early computer development seemed symbolically represented in The Demo by the fascinating rapidly changing light and sound patterns. The narrative of the energetic emerging new era is told through staccato rhythms and rapidly changing color patterns.
The protagonists, Douglas Engelbart and his colleague William English, who proposed a demo instead of an academic paper and choreographed the elements of the original event, were represented in front of the screen, by two performers seated at computer consoles, in 1960’s steel gray technical office furniture with green cushioned seats, and a trumpet player offering the siren song of an emerging digital era. At the 2nd console an actor portraying Engelbart’s face that morphed into an out of the screen image of his predecessor as he conducted the demo/performance. Indeed, one of the Demo’s original sponsors, was the Herman Miller furniture firm’s Lab, that was apparently seeking to supersede the military-issue look and feel of the staged representation.
Engelbart started his technical career, like so many of his generation, during 2nd World War military service at the cusp of transition from the analogue era of telephony to the digital era. Another aspect of this transformation was dramatized in the recent film Imitation Games, depicting key events, and people in an effort lasting several years to decode and utilizeGerman military communications, without the enemy’s knowledge. By contrast Demo depicts a single event, incentivized by military related funding, that transformed the function of the computer from the data crunching machine of the origins of the digital era to a (relatively) friendly communications, production and recording device that has become part of our daily lives.
Another recent film, the King’s Speech, showed the surrounding events of a single radio speech. Demo is an even tighter focus on a single event, lacking virtually all contextual information, with the exception of program notes, which hint at a broader framework.
The program notes recall the seminal post-war intellectual projection of a knowledge-based society in an article thatVannevar Bush the MIT Dean and leader of the US wartime technology effort authored in the Atlantic magazine. This seminal article read by Engelhart and other wartime technophiles, that was highly influential in motivating Engelbardt’s and other effort to realize Bush’s vision of a device that would provide access to human achievements was based on analogue components, like microfilm and microfilm readers as recall devices. The Bush vision recalls the “Noosphere, theologianTeilhard de Chardan’s vision of a collective knowledge space.
Bush also led the massive wartime effort that resulted in radar and the atomic bomb and other military devices. As the war drew to a close Bush considered how the method for achieving novel military advances could be applied to the peacetime. , set forth a vision of government supported S&T R& D in the Endless Frontier Report that President Rooseveltcommissioned at his instance.
In this seminal collaborative document of the knowledge society Bush and his colleagues focused on what we would today call major societal challenges as well as support of basic research. The organizations created in the post-war to carry out this remit provided much of the support for the Stanford Research Institute that sponsored Engelhart’s work.
A lecture by one of Engelbart’ successors, a member of Stanford,s Computer Science Department, preceded the performance by several days, commemorating his accomplishments while looking to the future of computing. The lecturer noted that as a visiting professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, he found to his surprise, that technical phenomenon were experienced quite differently in China than America. Engelbart’s followers say that many of his ideas have not yet been realized. Perhaps, we may expect a future performance refracting cultural diversity in computation.