Apr 7th, 2010 by fbermejo
In the hope of shedding some clarity on a bunch of ideas I’ve been struggling with over the past few months, I went back to read some classic texts about the internet. Among them, I got a hold of J.C.R. Licklider and R.W. Taylor’s paper “The Computer as Communication Device”, describing the structure, features, and impact of a computer network devoted to communicating (soon to exist in the form of ARPANET). The paper, published in 1968, has a few awkward passages, especially its view of communication as “cooperative modelling.” For Licklider and Taylor, communication as cooperative model can be summarized in this way (the drawings are Roland B. Wilson’s):
Other than this, it is full of prescient ideas and sharp forecasting. They talk about “communities not of common location, but of common interest”, they anticipate voice over IP (“You will seldom make a telephone call; you will ask the network to link your consoles together”), they foresee how the network will collect and use information about our personal relations (“It will know who your friends are, your mere acquaintances. It will know your value structure, who is prestigious in your eyes…”), they anticipated debates about digital divides and rights of access (“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”) and they even offered a nice visualization of what could be described as a denial of service attack by brute force:
But there were two paragraphs that especially caught my attention and led me to write this post. The first one talks about the cost of the network and is within a section entitled “Who can afford it?”. It says: “In the field of transmission, the difficulty may be lack of competition. At any rate, the cost of transmission is not falling nearly as fast as the cost of processing and storage. Nor is it falling nearly as fast as we think it should fall. […] it will be the dominant cost. That prospect concerns us greatly and is the strongest damper to our hopes for near-term realization of operationally significant interactive networks and significant on-line communities”. Ring a bell?
The second one is the last paragraph of the paper, and formulates their final prediction on the impact of the network: “Unemployment would disappear from the face of the earth forever, for consider the magnitude of the task of adapting the network’s software to all the new generations of computer, coming closer and closer upon the heels of their predecessors until the entire population of the world is caught up in an infinite crescendo of on-line interactive debugging”. What an image!