Imagine a world where nearly every book ever published could be delivered to you electronically in the blink of an eye. Imagine a world where all of your banking is done without having to visit a bank teller. Imagine a world where paper doesn't need to be shuttled around to exchange ideas. I know, I know, I'm basically describing right now. But in the year 1972, when the ARPANET (the precursor to our modern internet) was just beginning to take its first baby steps, these ideas were all a fantasy. In the minds of these men, specifically.
In the 1972 short film Computer Networks: The Heralds of Resource Sharing we see early internet pioneers like Larry Roberts, Bob Kahn, and J.C.R. Licklider describing how the ARPANET works, sketching out the fundamentals of what makes their packet-switched network so wonderful. By the end of the film they're explaining the potential that this network has for revolutionizing so many industries and institutions. The clip above is just a short piece from the film, which deals with the futuristic ideas behind the architecture of the ARPANET.
It's easy for those of us here in the 21st century to take for granted something like our modern internet. But in 1972, the APRPANET was just a shadow of what it would grow to become. The map above from August of 1972 shows just how few nodes there were. When you hear a man like J.C.R. Licklider describe the information age before it had even begun to trickle into the public consciousness, we understand how forward-thinking these people developing the ARPANET in the late 1960s and early 1970s truly were.
In the film, Licklider explains that the printing press left much to be desired in terms of distributing information:
It's been hard to share information for years. The printing press, of course, was the great step into sharing information. But the printing press didn't essentially handle the problem of distributing it. It handled the problem of copying it. And we have been needing for a long time some better way of distributing information than to carry it about. The print-on-paper form is embarrassing because in order to distribute it you've got to move the paper around and lots of paper gets to be bulky and heavy and expensive to move about.
Later in the film Licklider explains the potential for technologies like the ARPANET to improve the lives of average people by stripping out unnecessary elements like the paper a message is printed on:
There isn't any real need to change things just for the sake 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. It's just fundamental that if one wants to deal with information he ought to deal with the information and not with the paper it's written on.
And as for the future of books, Licklider was again optimistic that networked computing would allow for amazing access to knowledge without having to move them around in a deadtree format.
Right now it's possible to buy for about a million dollars an information store that will hold the equivalent of about 100,000 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 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.
The video ends with Licklider and Richard W. Watson from Stanford both explaining that the human forces would one day dominate the discussion. As you may recall, Licklider was the one who co-wrote a 1968 paper with Robert Taylor that laid out the human case for networked computing.
Watson elaborates on the human component that is so vital to the future of something like the ARPANET:
The network experiment, to be successful, has got to include more than just the technology of getting computer A to talk to computer B. It's got to include the human institutions that will bring together these resources and people to solve real problems of real people.
Licklider, echoing the call to action that he would articulate throughout the late 1960s, explains that it's essential to think about the social process:
The processing and distribution technology and the storage technology are going to make it possible to get over on to 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 process.
Thanks to Philip Bump over at the Atlantic Wire for linking to this video on Twitter over the weekend. The entire film can be seen over at the Internet Archive.
Image: Map of the ARPANET in August of 1972 from the paper "Selected ARPANET Maps" published in the October 1990 issue of Computer Communications Review