This IBM Scientist Predicted Netflix Before The Internet Even Existed

Illustration for article titled This IBM Scientist Predicted Netflix Before The Internet Even Existed

If you predicted the decline of deadtree books or the rise of services like Netflix streaming, say, 25 years ago, you'd be considered a damn good prognosticator. But what if you predicted those things back in 1964—before the internet even existed? Amazingly, a scientist from IBM did just that, long before any of these things were widely considered possible, much less inevitable.


In 1964, artificial intelligence pioneer Dr. Arthur L. Samuel wrote an article for New Scientist titled, "The Banishment of Paper-Work," that imagined what the networked computer landscape may look like by the year 1984. Samuel predicted movies on demand, government control over what information might be accessed, and the death of the deadtree library. He got a lot right. Samuel was just a bit optimistic about the timeline.


From The World in 1984, Volume 1, edited by Nigel Calder:

Connection to a central location will be very necessary to perform another function which will, by then, be delegated to the omnipresent computer. I refer to information retrieval. The entire contents of the large central files (or at least that portion which the government elects to make available) will be readily retrievable by anyone at a moment's notice. One will be able to browse through the fiction section of the central library, enjoy an evening's light entertainment viewing any movie that has ever been produced (for a suitable fee, of course, since Hollywood will still be commercial), or inquire as to the previous day's production figures for tin in Bolivia - all for the asking via one's remote terminal. Libraries for books will have ceased to exist in the more advanced countries except for a few which will be preserved at museums, and most of the world's knowledge will be in machine- readable form. Perhaps it would be more correct to say, all of the world's recorded knowledge will be in this form since the art of programming computers to read printed and handwritten material will have been fully developed. However, the storage problem will make it imperative that a more condensed form of recording be used, a form which will only be machine-readable, and which will be translated into human-readable form by one's computer on demand.

Samuel's predictions about the computers of tomorrow came five years before the ARPANET (the precursor to our modern internet) would make its first host-to-host connection in 1969. The very people building the ARPANET had many accurate predictions for how the network may one day be utilized for everything from online banking to digital libraries. But Samuel's guesses about our online world are really in a class of their own for someone outside of science fiction in the mid-1960s.


We may not literally have every movie ever produced available on-demand, and the vast majority of libraries have yet to go fully digital. But when it comes to governments keeping a close eye on how their citizens are using the internet, Samuel pretty much nailed it.

Image: Scanned from the 1976 book The Compleat Computer, edited by Dennie Van Tassel


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He was wrong about storage. He would have shit his britches if he saw a 64GB microSD card...