March 19, 2006

Heralds of Resource Sharing

A note from Dave Farber points me to an amazing 1972 documentary about ARPAnet, "Computing Networks: the Heralds of Resource Sharing", by Steven King. (No, not that Stephen King -- at least I don't think so...)

My favorite parts are the comments by J.C.R. Licklider, one of the most important intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century. I've transcribed a few of them below.

About collaboration over the net:

The thing that makes the computer communication network special is that it puts the workers -- the tea- the team members who are geographically distributed -- in touch not only with one another, but with the information base with which they work all the time, so that when they get to developing plans, the blueprints (as it were) don't have to be copied and sent all around the country. The blueprints come out of the database and appear on everybody's scopes, and the correlation, the coordination of the activity, is essentially right there in the computer network itself.

About networked access to digital libraries:

Right now it's possible to buy for about a million dollars, an information store that will hold the equivalent of about a hundred thousand books. So one can store- one can buy the store for a book for about the same amount as he can buy the book, so that if everyone had a display console, in his home and in his office, he could be reading from electronically stored information instead of from a book, and the difference is, he could have access to anything he wanted to read instead of just what was in- within reach. Well, it turns out to be surprisingly inexpensive, if you get wideband transmission facilities, to send the stuff right when it has to be read, instead of sending it to a local bookstore or a local library in the hope that it might be read.

(Note the cost of an "information store" large enough for 100,000 books is now about $100, depending on how many illustrations there are.)

The processing and distribution technology, and the storage technology, are going to make it possible to get over onto a new technological base for intellectual efforts, before our ponderous social processes will let us. I think more people ought to get in there and think about the social processes.

A lot of the digital world that you and I live in has been led "from below". Some ordinary citizen, without any special authority or resources, invents something that spreads because others like it, adopt it and develop it further. Well-known examples include Tim Berners-Lee's URL/html/browser package and Paul Ginsparg's arXiv. But there are a few examples of visionary leaders who provided money and other help "from above" as well as ideas, and Licklider was eminent among them.

There isn't any real need to change things just for the sake of- of changing, but I tend to believe that things are going to be considerably better for a lot of people when and if we ever get changed over to an essentially electronic base. And I- it's just fundamental that if one wants to deal with information, you ought to deal with information, and not with the paper it's written on.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 19, 2006 10:12 AM