We think of the Internet as a computer science or engineering project. And it certainly was. But did you know that according to Robert Taylor, the founder of Xerox PARC’s computer science laboratory, the fundamental vision for the modern Internet came from a psychologist?
Well, neither did I, until I came across what seems to be the original white paper arguing for the modern Internet as a mass communications medium. The paper was written in 1968 by Taylor and a Midwestern fellow named J. C. R. Licklider and was aptly entitled “The Computer as a Communications Device.”
Between 1962 and 1964 Licklider was influential because he worked for Robert McNamara’s Defense Department, in the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it was his work in 1963 that suggested the computers could be time-shared. This vision developed into the ARPANet, which over time became the Internet. He was also influential because, during this period, he financially seeded, through ARPA, a number of important research projects at MIT, Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley and Systems Development Corp. This led to him being referred to as the “Johnny Appleseed” of the Internet.
What first caught my eye when I glanced at “The Computer as a Communications Device” (written apparently while Licklider was at MIT) were the cartoons. That is right, cartoons. Given the dry subject, what were cartoons doing there? I investigated further.
What I found, in its simplicity, reminded me of the Bible. A thesis of 19 words: “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” (The Bible required only 10: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”)
Here is what the paper had to say about computers and communications, and the brief comment captures the core of today’s Internet quite nicely:
Creative, interactive communication requires a plastic or moldable medium that can be modeled, a dynamic medium in which premises will flow into consequences, and above all a common medium that can be contributed to and experimented with by all.
The paper is brief, only about 20 pages, and worth the read. Reading it invites trying to imagine what it was like to have written the paper before the Internet existed.
Fascinatingly, the paper concludes by asking some questions about the medium that does not yet exist. And one of those questions foreshadowed the current debate about net neutrality and its impact on democracy:
For the society, the impact will be good or bad, depending mainly on the question: Will “to be on line” be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of “intelligence amplification,” the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity.