Intellectual Workers

In his landmark address now known as The Mother of All Demos , the computer scientist Douglas Engelbart introduced an early computer operating system developed at SRI. This system and demo introduced ideas like the computer mouse, graphics, hypertext, hyperlinking, collaborative real-time editing, videoconferencing, and screen sharing. These ideas became the basis and inspiration for both the Windows and Macintosh operating systems, as well as the World-Wide Web.


SRI released the full recording of Douglas Engelbart’s demo to YouTube, and the playlist is embedded below. Be warned - the full presentation is 1 hour and 45 minutes (which helps explain the nickname “Mother of all Demos”)

In proposing these technologies, Engelbart suggested that they would support the development of a new class of “Intellectual Worker,” a new class of worker that would use computers to communicate, structure, store, and retrieve data and use computer technology to augment their natural problem-solving capabilities. The introduction of the personal computer in the 1980’s accelerated the development of this class of worker, who primarily relied upon programs built to support various efforts (i.e. a word processor for writing documents, an email client for sending emails). Thus, an intellectual worker was primarily a consumer of programs written by computer scientists.

However, as computing hardware became more available and widely used increasingly intellectual workers began to author their own programs to meet the specific needs of their work. This exploration of programming within specific domains has transformed the way we approach problems in multiple fields:

We have witnessed the influence of computational thinking on other disciplines. For example, machine learning has transformed statistics. Statistical learning is being used for problems on a scale, in terms of both data size and dimension, unimaginable only a few years ago. […] Computer science’s contribution to biology goes beyond the ability to search through vast amounts of sequence data looking for patterns. The hope is that data structures and algorithms – our computational abstractions and methods – can represent the structure of proteins in ways that elucidate their function. Computational biology is changing the way biologists think. Similarly, computational game theory is changing the way economist think; nanocomputing, the way chemists think; and quantum computing, the way physicists think. (Jeanette Wing, 2006, p. 34)

In other words, intellectual workers are increasingly using the tools of computer science, not just the products. This realization has driven the call for teaching computer science in K-12 education - as today’s students will increasingly need to be able to use computational thinking and programming in their future work, even if they aren’t going to be a computer scientist.