The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

A fantastic find (via The Long Now Foundation): the Internet Archive is hosting a MacOS System 7 emulator running a copy of The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog is a hypertext version of the venerable Whole Earth Catalog. It was published in 1988, several years before the invention of the World Wide Web.

Opening screen from The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog
A screenshot from The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

This find is interesting for several reasons. For one thing, the Whole Earth Catalog is culturally significant: many makers and geeks (myself included) cite it as an influence. Even though it first existed in print, the Catalog wasn’t meant to be read linearly: even in book format, you’d skip around to read granular content items organized by subject. (Here’s a PDF scan of the first edition from 1968.) The Catalog was a perfect application for a hypertext before hypertext technology was widely available.

And that’s where another interesting angle comes in: the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog was implemented in Hypercard, a hypertext authoring and navigation system that came bundled with early Macs. Hypercard gave many people (myself included) their first experience of using and creating hypertexts. I learned a lot from this fantastic software, and reference it often with students and clients. Most haven’t heard of Hypercard or seen it, which makes this emulation a treasure.

The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

Apollo 11 at Fifty

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important achievements in human history: the Apollo 11 moon landing. I find the project incredibly inspiring. I tear up every time I think of the words inscribed in the base of the Eagle lander, which was left behind on the lunar surface:

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.

Some people speak dismissively of Apollo, saying we ought to spend money on problems here on Earth rather than going to space. I wasn’t alive when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, but from what I gather it was a momentous event that brought the whole world together. I’ve only experienced that degree of global cohesion in my lifetime due to tragic events (E.g., 9/11, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, etc.) Apollo stands out as a positive achievement that united the world. We need more challenges like it — especially in our polarized times.

There are lots of lessons in the moon program for anyone tasked with aligning and motivating people towards wickedly complex goals. (That’s why we refer to particularly gnarly challenges as “moonshots.”) Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading books, watching documentaries, and listening to podcasts about Apollo. If you’d like to look into it, here are a few resources that are worth your while:

  • APOLLO 11 (2019) – A breathtaking new documentary assembled from contemporary (yet astonishingly clear) footage and audio sources. I also loved the synthesized soundtrack; like the film, it manages to sound both modern and of its time.
  • 13 Minutes to the Moon – A podcast from the BBC World Service that features interviews with surviving members of the Apollo program, including astronauts, mission controllers, and more.
  • Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – A memoir by Apollo astronaut Michael Collins. I’m still working through this one, but can already recommend it due to the quality of the writing and the level of detail it provides. (I’ve also posted a few things I learned from it already.)

Designing for Density and Sequence

In observance of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I’m reading Mike Collins’s memoir, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. I’m loving it. Collins is an engaging writer, and the book is packed with lots of details about the Apollo program and the process of becoming a NASA astronaut in the early 1960s.

When discussing the challenges inherent in the design of Apollo’s cockpits and controls, Collins calls out one I’ve faced when designing complex systems UIs: In Apollo, “more information is available that can possibly be presented to the pilot at any one time, so each subsystem must be analyzed to determine what its essential measurements are.” The point is to give users the information they need to make decisions quickly without overloading them in an already stressful environment.

This challenge applies to many design problems here on Earth. When working on information-heavy, highly specialized systems (neurosurgery, energy management, etc.), nailing these critical choices and getting the density right calls for subject domain knowledge — and ideally, subject domain experience. Co-creation is useful for this. (In any case, research, research, research!)

The discussion includes this gem about the importance of getting the sequence of interactions right:

A classic case of poor cockpit design is the ejection procedure which used to be in one Air Force trainer. It was a placard listing half a dozen important steps, printed boldly on the canopy rail where the pilot couldn’t miss seeing it. The only flaw was that step 1 was “jettison the canopy.”

Don’t do that.


The Mother of All Demos at 50

On December 9, 1968, Doug Englebart put a ding in the universe. Over 90 minutes, he and his colleagues at Stanford Research Institute demonstrated an innovative collaborative computing environment to an audience at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. This visionary system pioneered many of the critical conceptual models and interaction mechanisms we take for granted in today’s personal computers: interactive manipulation of onscreen text, sharing files remotely, hypermedia, the mouse, windows, and more. It blew everybody’s mind.

Apple’s Macintosh — introduced in 1984 — was the first computing system to bring the innovations pioneered by Mr. Englbart and his team to the masses. Macs were initially dismissed as “toys” — everybody who was a serious computer user knew that terminal commands were the way to go. Until they weren’t, and windows-based UIs became the norm. It took about a decade after the Mac’s introduction for the paradigm to take over. Roughly a quarter of a century after The Demo, it’d become clear that’s how computers were to be used.

We’re now in the midst another paradigm shift in how we interact with computers. Most computer users today don’t work in WIMP environments. Instead of the indirect mouse-pointer interaction mechanism, people now interact with information directly through touchscreens. Instead of tethered devices propped atop tables, most computers today are small glass rectangles we use in all sorts of contexts.

Still, fifty years on The Demo resonates. The underlying idea of computing as something that creates a collaborative information environment (instead of happening as a transactional user-machine interaction) is still very much at the core of today’s paradigm. Every time you meet with a friend over FaceTime or write a Google Doc with a colleague, you’re experiencing this incredibly powerful vision that was first tangibly articulated half a century ago.

A website — The Demo @ 50 — is celebrating Mr. Englebart’s pioneering work in this milestone anniversary. The site is highlighting events in Silicon Valley and Japan to commemorate The Mother of all Demos. If you aren’t in either location, there are several online activities you can participate in at your leisure. If you join online, you’ll be able to commemorate The Demo in a most meta way: by doing so in the type of interactive information environments presaged by The Demo itself.