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April 4, 2015

Recapturing humanity in Internet’s birth, on stage


April 4, 2015

PALO ALTO, United States: Is the Internet a force for public good, or for social control? Or a bit of both? Such tensions, so prevalent in today´s debates, were rife at the very dawn of the computer age.
Hoping to stimulate debate about the future of technology, a new production at Stanford University brings to stage the life of Internet pioneer Doug Engelbart who envisioned a more humanist role for computers.
“The Demo,” an experimental opera, dramatizes the so-called “Mother of All Demos” in 1968 in which Engelhart´s team at Stanford set up some 65 kilometers (40 miles) of cable to share a presentation with a conference on computers in San Francisco.
The 90-minute demonstration, which included Engelbart sharing a grocery list from his wife, lay the groundwork for the Internet, video conferencing and data cutting-and-pasting — and marked the invention of the computer mouse, a nomenclature for which the scientist is heard apologizing.
At a time when computers were clunky number-crunching machines, Engelbart — who died in 2013 — opened a path for better known figures such as Apple´s Steve Jobs and Microsoft´s Bill Gates to develop the ever-expanding world of personal computers and gadgets.
“It grounds you in where we are now. We really tried to emulate the humanity that we saw in Engelbart,” said Mikel Rouse, the co-composer of “The Demo” which premieres Wednesday evening.
“Without telling the audience what to think — because that´s never interesting — the goal is that when they focus on Facebook or on privacy issues, they can think about what this is all about and where it came from,” he said.
Rouse sits in a tie at a desk to portray Engelbart in “The Demo,” turning the complete 1968 experiment — jargon and all — into a libretto in which Rouse sings to a whirl of electronic music and projected images.
Fellow composer Ben Neill plays the mutantrumpet, an electronic-infused version of the trumpet he

invented, in the role of Engelbart´s assistant William English.
“The Demo” flashes back to past episodes from Engelbart, who trained as a World War II navy radar technician.
After Japan´s surrender, Engelbart spent a year in the Philippines. He was transformed at a Red Cross library in Leyte where he read an article in Life magazine about early US plans for computers.
The young Engelbart discovered the goal that later became his motto at Stanford — how to use machines to extend the power of the human mind. Yet the influences around him were complicated.

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