Prisoner's Dilemma at COP15 in Copenhagen; Meanwhile in Mei Lin's Kitchen

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On December 9, world leaders debated global climate in Copenhagen and Obama was in Oslo to accept his Nobel. I was sharing a glass of wine with Doug Engelbart, father of personal computing as we know it, in the kitchen of Mei Lin Fung, Doug's long-time friend, in Palo Alto. It was a potluck dinner, shoes off, sparing Mei Lin's floors. I sensed links. Half a world away, people were commemorating the world's biggest problems, preparing for gala dinners, while we toasted the 41st birthday of perhaps the most powerful tool in human hands, sitting in that cozy kitchen among people who had made it happen.

In San Francisco, on Dec 9 1968, Doug's 'Mother of All Demos' gave birth to the modern PC: Doug and his SRI team, with chief engineer Bill English, demo'ed for the first time personal computing as we recognize it today, showing the first computer mouse, interactive text, video conferencing, teleconferencing, email, hypertext and a collaborative real-time editor.

While Obama was receiving his Nobel, the Copenhagen Climate Conference was becoming a giant prisoners' dilemma. If all cut emissions, all win. If nobody cuts, all lose. If some cut but not others, non-cutters win more than cutters. Which courageous leader will commit first? As fictional Jim Hacker, Minister of Administrative Affairs in the political satire 'Yes, Minister' says: "Courageous? I don't want to do anything courageous! That's the kind of thing that ends careers." Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt was not happy: "Who sets the speed of progress? The least ambitious."

When groups face common problems, power goes to those who must agree for anything to happen. Often their political power and the value of their 'OK' grows as they hold out--supply and demand. If the problem is bad and people want their 'OK' they say 'Well, first you must [insert demands here].' They may be conscientious, backed by their constituencies, so it might not seem immoral. Leaders build power, stature and wealth for their followers by gatekeeping. Some may get a Nobel, others may end up in the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The need for consensus breeds gatekeeping. That's the game.

Back to Mei Lin's kitchen. It might be closer to the solution than banquet halls in world capitals. The name 'Mother of All Demos' came later. The actual name marking the birth of real personal computing was 'a research center for augmenting human intellect.' Doug's idea was not to make computers smarter, it was to help people be smarter. Computers had been about automation, replacing but not augmenting intellect. Doug was lucky, a chosen researcher supported by J.C.R. 'Lick' Licklider at ARPA, the visionary accredited for planting the seeds of computing in the digital age. Normal funders disdained people like Doug: the ideas did not fit their funding.

Lick coined the "intergalactic computer network," a vision of computers collaborating. The Internet protocol that enabled it was invented by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. Vint - often referred to as 'father of the Internet' - is today at Google, still reforming civilization.

Doug hosted the second node of the Arpanet, the predecessor of the Internet, at his SRI center, believing that by networking PCs humanity could improve its 'collective intelligence' and solve tougher problems: such as avoid nuclear wars, stop pandemics and solve environmental issues. Solutions via traditional multilateral agreements may be hard: they engender gatekeeping, brinkmanship, and cheating on agreements.

But through improved PCs and the Internet, it is easier to innovate, to introduce game-changing novelties, that can bypass obstacles to getting things done. If gatekeepers disagree, innovate and re-design the game to work without them.

This is happening in IT, including music, entertainment and media, not the least journalism. For example, Creative Commons is an innovation of copyright in the digital age. HuffPo blogger Ester Wojcicki, Chairwoman of Creative Commons, as well as the Palo Alto High School Teacher of Mei Lin's daughter among other kids, was also with us at Mei Lin's this evening.

Voices--including Thomas Friedman's--are saying that innovation, not multilateral regulation, should drive the climate issue. The ideal: a balance between innovation and regulation. Necessary international agreements can be driven by the innovation ecosystem, putting gatekeepers at risk of being bypassed, making them more eager to take part in making good things happen. And international agreements can enable the innovation ecosystem, for example by creating incentives.

Given the impact of personal computers and the Internet on humanity, I was struck by the intimacy in Mei Lin's kitchen vs. the grandeur of the manifestations of the world's problems in Oslo and Copenhagen. As Copenhagen opened our eyes to the difficulties of creating consensus in a cynical world, perhaps in 2010 meetings in kitchens and garage startups will be equally important to multilateral negotiations in large congress centers. One could leverage the other.

PS. The achievement of 'the Mother of All Demos' was astonishing. Mei Lin: "That demo was never supposed to work." It might not have if not for Bill English. Bill was there, showing his new cell phone. Later it became known that Google had given beta versions of its own Android to selected people (Bill probably among them). Did anyone in Oslo or Copenhagen get one?

PPS. [comment added Jan 31 2010]: I met Bill English again yesterday. Bill confirmed he had been toying with his brand new Google Android phone at Mei Lin's place. Cool.