How We Imagined the Internet Before the Internet Even ExistedS

In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face. Sounds obvious today. But in 1968, a full year before ARPANET made its first connection? It was downright clairvoyant.

Sometimes a vision of the future can be so accurate that it's hard for those of us living in the future to understand what made it visionary in the first place. In the late 1960s the human side of networked computing wasn't a given. Few people looked at the hulking machines of the time and thought that they'd be great dating facilitators some day. The ARPANET was created for resource sharing between academics and other serious-minded people. In their early days, these networks weren't seen as a tool for something like ordering a pizza or sharing cat GIFs with someone halfway around the world.

Connecting People

The human element—the idea of average people interacting with computers, but more importantly with other people — was not a front-of-mind concern for the people who laid the foundation of the internet as we know it. Which is what makes a 1968 paper that predicted the extent of that human element so special.

The paper was written by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, illustrated by Rowland B. Wilson, and appeared in the April 1968 issue of Science and Technology. The article includes some of the most amazingly accurate predictions for what networked computing would eventually allow. Granted, amazingly accurate with a retro-futuristic twist that keeps it firmly a product of its time.

Take the light-pen. The top image shows off a late-'60s light-pen and rather presciently imagines how computer-augmented romance might take off. The computer, we see, improves the man's drawing in such a way as to make his proposal less repugnant. The self-correcting stylus may not exist yet, but OkCupid and other digital matchmakers are a mainstay of our digital lives.

How We Imagined the Internet Before the Internet Even ExistedS

The article rather boldly predicts that the computerized networks of the future will be even more important for communication than the "printing press and the picture tube"—another idea not taken for granted in 1968:

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.

Such a medium is at hand—the programmed digital computer. Its presence can change the nature and value of communication even more profoundly than did the printing press and the picture tube, for, as we shall show, a well-programmed computer can provide direct access both to informational resources and to the processes for making use of the resources.

The paper predicts that the person-to-person interaction that a networked computer system allows for will not only build relationships between individuals, but will build communities.

What will on-line interactive communities be like? In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest. In each field, the overall community of interest will be large enough to support a comprehensive system of field-oriented programs and data.

Google Now, Back Then

The article even hints at the veritable Internet of Things (which ostensibly justifies the high cost of gadgetry, or "data-gathering instruments"):

In each geographical sector, the total number of users—summed over all the fields of interest—will be large enough to support extensive general purpose information processing and storage facilities. All of these will be interconnected by telecommunications channels. The whole will constitute a labile network of networks—ever-changing in both content and configuration.

What will go on inside? Eventually, every informational transaction of sufficient consequence to warrant the cost. Each secretary’s typewriter, each data-gathering instrument, conceivably each dictation microphone, will feed into the network.

How We Imagined the Internet Before the Internet Even ExistedS

The idea of technology as a buffer is certainly an appealing one. And in theory, things like email can provide us with that buffer. When it comes down to it, you only have to check your email when you want to, and no one is forcing you to respond. This kind of brush-off, of course, is a little harder to do when an insurance salesman physically knocks on your door.

Licklider and Taylor called their futuristic buffer tool OLIVER, a kind of individualized automated personal assistant used by everyone. OLIVER acts intelligently, learning what should be prioritized for its user.

A very important part of each man’s interaction with his on-line community will be mediated by his OLIVER. The acronym OLIVER honors Oliver Selfridge, originator of the concept. An OLIVER is, or will be when there is one, an “on-line interactive vicarious expediter and responder,” a complex of computer programs and data that resides within the network and acts on behalf of its principal, taking care of many minor matters that do not require his personal attention and buffering him from the demanding world. “You are describing a secretary,” you will say. But no! Secretaries will have OLIVERS.

At your command, your OLIVER will take notes (or refrain from taking notes) on what you do, what you read, what you buy and where you buy it. It will know who your friends are, your mere acquaintances. It will know your value structure, who is prestigious in your eyes, for whom you will do what with what priority, and who can have access to which of your personal files. It will know your organization’s rules pertaining to proprietary information and the government’s rules relating to security classification.

Some parts of your OLIVER program will be common with parts of other people’s OLIVERS; other parts will be custom-made for you, or by you, or will have developed idiosyncrasies through “learning” based on its experience in your service.

In an age of telegrams and phone calls, the authors imagined computer networking as a fantastic replacement for inefficiencies. Even business trips, they insisted, would be a thing of the past.

You will not send a letter or a telegram; you will simply identify the people whose files should be linked to yours and the parts to which they should be linked-and perhaps specify a coefficient of urgency. You will seldom make a telephone call; you will ask the network to link your consoles together.

You will seldom make a purely business trip, because linking consoles will be so much more efficient. When you do visit another person with the object of intellectual communication, you and he will sit at a two-place console and interact as much through it as face to face. If our extrapolation from Doug Engelbart’s meeting proves correct, you will spend much more time in computer-facilitated teleconferences and much less en route to meetings.

If OLIVER and the paper's other online efficiencies sound familiar, it's because they're basically the endgame of Google Now and Siri: Technology that knows you so well, it does your thinking—and in some cases, living—for you.

A Digital Utopia

In the end, Licklider and Taylor predict that all of this interconnectedness will make us happier and even make unemployment a thing of the past. Their vision of everyone sitting at a console, working "through the network" is stunningly accurate for an information-driven society that fifty years ago would've looked far less tech-obsessed.

When people do their informational work “at the console” and “through the network,” telecommunication will be as natural an extension of individual work as face-to-face communication is now. The impact of that fact, and of the marked facilitation of the communicative process, will be very great—both on the individual and on society.

First, life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity. Second, communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable. Third, much communication and interaction will be with programs and programmed models, which will be (a) highly responsive, (b) supplementary to one’s own capabilities, rather than competitive, and (c) capable of representing progressively more complex ideas without necessarily displaying all the levels of their structure at the same time-and which will therefore be both challenging and rewarding. And, fourth, there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone (who can afford a console) to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him—with programs ready to guide him or to help him explore.

The primary question, they insist, is whether everyone can afford to be online. Once that hurdle is surpassed, the impact of this brave new world on society as a whole will be positive:

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.

On the other hand, if the network idea should prove to do for education what a few have envisioned in hope, if not in concrete detailed plan, and if all minds should prove to be responsive, surely the boon to humankind would be beyond measure.

The article is a fascinating explanation of networked computing tech written mere months before the internet's first sputtering breaths. Again, many of their predictions don't read as terribly futuristic to those of us here typing away in the early 21st century. But that's precisely what makes them so astounding.

You can read the entire paper online [pdf]. Many thanks to Morten Bay for sending this article my way.