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Technology and Culture 43.1 (2002) 200-201

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Book Review

Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing

Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing. By Thierry Bardini. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. xvi+284. $55/$19.95.

Most people do not know the name Douglas C. Engelbart. But anyone who has ever clicked on a mouse to access a website has used inventions that originated with him. Engelbart's pioneering work in the development of computer technology--which includes the mouse, teleconferencing, electronic mail, windows, and hypertext--has largely been ignored by historians and journalists until recently, and Thierry Bardini's Bootstrapping is the first major book that explores Engelbart's contributions to computing. Bardini wants to portray the significance of Engelbart's research lab. He also wants to explore the emergence of the personal computer interface. As a result, he has aimed his book at several different audiences, including historians, communications specialists, and sociologists.

From a historical perspective, Bootstrapping fills an important gap in the story of personal computing and brings Engelbart's ideas and inventions to the attention of scholars. Bardini portrays Engelbart as a highly original loner crusading to develop technology that can augment human thinking, and he brings to light important details about the inner workings of Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI).

Bardini has organized his book into seven main chapters, which focus on language and the body, the development of the chord keyset, the mouse, the virtual user, the oN-Line System, the real user, and the early ARPANET. He does a great job of identifying the numerous people who worked at ARC to create the foundations of personal computing and the Internet. Many of these researchers left ARC to work at the highly publicized Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and portions of the book are devoted to the organizational conflicts within Engelbart's lab. By making comparisons between Engelbart's designs and computer developments at PARC, Bardini suggests why Engelbart's vision of computing was not widely adopted. For example, Engelbart created a modal interface that required users to work in specific modes and to switch between modes in order to input and edit documents. As a result, "the interface was a kind of maze, often requiring backtracking to access new functions and commands" (p. 118). In contrast, interfaces [End Page 200] developed at PARC were modeless, which is the way people are accustomed to working.

In addition to describing historical events, Bardini places Engelbart's research within a larger sociological framework. Throughout the book he explores the question of how the creators of computer technology envisioned their users, and at times this question overshadows the Englebart narrative. For example, the chapter titled "The Chord Keyset and the QWERTY Keyboard" opens with a discussion of the work in Engelbart's lab and then moves into a history lesson on the development of telegraphy and QWERTY keyboards. Engelbart developed a five-chord keyset as a computer input device. Though five-key handsets were once used in telegraphy, they had been replaced by the QWERTY keyboard. Bardini concludes that Engelbart's notion of returning to the five-chord keyset failed because it did not accommodate the way people actually work.

Because the narrative moves back and forth in time, the argument is difficult to follow. The narrative weaves in discussions about how other researchers developed, elaborated, and altered Engelbart-originated ideas and devices. Even though he presents a number of insights about Engelbart's inventions, Bardini's impressionistic criticism tends to make the book more sociological than historical. Still, Bardini has achieved his goal of providing detailed information about Engelbart's lab.

On the other hand, he fails fully to realize his second goal of exploring the emergence of the personal computer interface. At Xerox PARC, graphical user interface design was strongly influenced by Seymour Papert's constructivist view of education and Jerome Bruner's cognitive learning theory. In addition to describing Engelbart's theoretical foundations, incorporating...


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