How Doug invented CSCW

From JD Eveland; occasional professor and founder of Sociotechtonics

I will always remember Doug as the optimistic visionary who befriended me some 25 years ago at what had to be the low point of both our careers. I can’t claim to have been a close friend, but we shared numerous breakfasts and lunches at an obscure coffee shop in Palo Alto, trying to figure out how his ideas might be translated into fundable research and practice. We never did progress to that goal, but I obtained a pretty clear insight into his vision of augmentation of human intellect and shared work within that context. In varying degrees, his ideas, which I had first encountered while still at the National Science Foundation, have inspired much of my subsequent research and thinking about how people work together in technological environments.

Doug’s highly integrated vision of human augmentation often led to a degree of discomfort and misunderstanding on the part of people attempting to understand what he was talking about. Doug was a true revolutionary, in the sense that his vision called for the uprooting and rethinking of just about everything that went into the first waves of what was then often called office automation. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the general idea was that if you dropped enough new technology into offices, good things would happen pretty much by themselves. It was technology push with a vengeance. Doug’s vision, by contrast, called for a careful development of the workgroup and its social relationships, with technology serving more in the background than as a principal feature, let alone a driver, of work relationships. So while in 1970, when his initial demonstrations of his AUGMENT system were made, he would be seen as a visionary, by the mid-1980s he was distinctly out of fashion, as technology was in the saddle.

Even as Doug was sharing his ideas with me over pancakes, the world was revolving yet again. 1986 saw the first of the Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conferences, in Austin TX, where some 200 researchers and practitioners tried to figure out whether we really had a new field within which to work. Although much of what later developed under the CSCW umbrella was less than perfectly aligned with Doug’s vision of augmented work, it was clear that he was regarded by the participants as an inspirational figure and that his work set a standard to be emulated. In a sense, the CSCW movement and conferences helped to rehabilitate Doug in the eyes of the research community, even if it did not fully honor his ideas and expectations.

Doug’s true legacy lies in his expanded view of human augmentation through technology but always anchored in human relationships and the context of work. Reviewing his demonstration tapes is a fascinating way to understand how he was thinking, and both how much and how little of his ideas have made it into the mainstream. Doug was one of the very first people to think systematically about technology and work, and I will always be grateful for the time that we shared when we were both out of fashion. We need to go beyond simply appreciating the various new ideas that Doug brought to the table, to consider his vision in totality. Doug would never see the full value of his ideas brought to application, but there is still time, brother.

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