The significance of 2 pasts

(posted late 2008)

The first time we looked at the heavens with more than the naked eye was 400 years  ago.

Galileo ground some silicon into shape and looked beyond what humanity had been able to see previously and saw more than lights, he saw a reality vastly bigger than anything he could have hoped to imagine. He saw a bigger world. He saw how small we truly are in the cosmic order of things. But he also saw - and showed - our immense potential.

And now we have photographs of planets around other suns and we have found water on Mars and in galaxies beyond our own, as well as sugar and the building blocks of amino acids, the building blocks of life itself at the far reaches of the cosmos.

The first time we reached into cyberspace beyond handing stacks of punched cards to men in white coats was 40 years ago this week. 

Dr. Engelbart folded a simple control mechanism into our hands and allowed us to reach further into our information universe than we had ever been able to before. The humble computer 'mouse' was born. Along with the elements of the computer system he devised that would make the mouse come alive - word processing, windows, email and so on - our view of communication and of each other changed forever. 

By giving us a new way to view the heavens Galileo changed what the heavens are, to us. Previously they were a comforting blanket with our paternal masters somehow perched on top. After Galileo they were a gateway to something much bigger - without powers-that-be dictating to us how we should behave - like benevolent dictator parents who are in charge of our behavior and morality when we are young. Galileo left  us with a need and reason to question our views and actions. Galileo taught us to grow up and take responsibility.

(Galileo did not remove God by any means. Galileo simply made God something else. Something more profound than some Olympian bearded judge and jury with a large stick and loose robe.)

As our species moved out of the comfortable, heavenly cocoon of our childhood and into a bigger world, the scientific revolution could be begin. 

By giving us a new way to interact with our information Dr. Engelbart changed what information is, for us. What was previously stored in printed tomes and required physical effort to be located and brought into view now became something accessible at the flick of a finger. 

What would previously have taken days to share could now be shared in milliseconds across the computer network. What previously was rigid in the form of the authors preference now became malleable for more efficient searching, reading, skimming, studying. When you change how you interact with something, you change what it is - in relation to you.

Dr. Engelbart opened up the heavens of information for us. 

Unlike the heavens above though, cyberspace is not a product of nature.
There is no 'up'. There is no defined shapes. No defined presentations. There is no 'original' in cyberspace. At the very act of typing a character the mechanical press of the keyboard is translated into electricity and re-presented on the display or in storage as a sequence of electrical switches - it is not presented - it is re-presented. 

As we continue to venture into outer space to discover what is there, we can honor Dr. Engelbart, his work and the work of his collaborators.

We should also work to discover not only what there is in cyberspace but also how it can be.

Cyberspace is a human creation, the single largest creative collaboration in human history and we can define what it is. 

We have hardly heard a peep from that mouse so far. 


Doug as a young man


First we make our buildings. Then our buildings make us.
W. Churchill. 

Frode Hegland,
Mill Valley,
Late 2008


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