An Internet Pioneer Foresaw the Tech Bubble's Filthy Rich ProgrammersS

In 1969, internet pioneer Paul Baran predicted that by the year 2000, computer programmers may very well be the richest people in the world. Remember, this is when Bill Gates was just a 14-year-old nerd in Seattle.

The ARPANET had not yet drawn its first breath when Baran wrote his 1969 paper, "On The Impact of the New Communications Media Upon Social Values." But his vision for what new communications technology would enable (and sometimes harm) in the last three decades of the 20th century, was disturbingly prescient.

His prediction about the computer programmer of the year 2000 makes one wonder if Baran was a time traveler perhaps warning us about the dot-com bubble:

As communication development evolves, more decision functions will be placed upon computers tied together as a common communications network. Financial success may in the future come to depend more upon the brilliance and imagination of the human who programs the computer than upon any other single factor. The key man in the new power elite will be the one who can best program a computer, that is, the person who makes the best use of the available information and the computer's skills in formulating a problem. In a world where knowledge is power, and where communications mean access to power, he who can most effectively utilize this access will be in the driver's seat. Some persons (primarily computer programmers) claim that the richest man in the world in the year 2000 will be a computer programmer. This may sound outlandish, but few really good programmers laugh when they consider this assertion.

Baran's admission that such a prediction "may sound outlandish" really puts in perspective just how far-out this vision of the future would have read to people of the 1960s. Computer programmers? Rich? Weren't those just the bespectacled nerds toiling away in dark rooms on college campuses?

Today, technical literacy in computers is fiercely promoted with the same conviction as Americans in the late 1950s who worried that those lazy baby boomers were falling behind in science and technology.

While some of the best paying jobs for Americans with a bachelor's degree include software developers, Baran's predictions can be read liberally (as it seems they were intended) to include any number of professions today. Now that so many of us sit in front of computers all day, his assertion that "the person who makes the best use of the available information and the computer's skills in formulating a problem" will reap monetary rewards pretty much describes any white collar worker of the 21st century.

I guess we're all programmers now, whether we like it or not. If only we had the bank accounts to go with it.

1969 photograph of UCLA from the Kleinrock Internet History Center at UCLA