Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


JUNE 7, 2012 5:29PM

Everything old is new again

Rate: 7 Flag

I wrote this back in 2008 and then took it down; here it is again, slightly updated.
Have you ever come across the notion that the world of computers is changing very rapidly? Me too. This theme runs constantly through discussions of computer and communication systems today: we'll need these upgrades; our systems will be obsolete within six months; we can't conceive of what our grandchildren will be doing with computers; and so forth.
Not surprisingly, though, really good ideas  the kind that lead to revolutionary change   are rare. General conceptual threads in computing can often be traced back to a strikingly original idea, and what we sometimes find is that our great new discoveries are what smart people have been talking about for quite some time. Here are two examples.

The memex
In 1945, Vannevar Bush published an article in The Atlantic, called "As We May Think." In the last section of his article, Bush speculates about what the future might hold for information processing:
Selection [of information] by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage... Consider a future device for individual use, in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. 
Most of the contents are purchased. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry... [A]ny item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. The process of tying two items together is the important thing... When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined... Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.
Bush is describing a way of interacting with a network of information that's not vastly different from what we do today. He called his machine a memex. What's remarkable (though a bit less so if we realize that he was the director of what would eventually become the National Science Foundation) is that he wrote this a year or so before the world's first electronic computer was even switched on. That is, Bush is describing what the World Wide Web might look like based on a technological foundation of microfiche readers for browsing and (we can imagine) pneumatic tubes and Post Office trucks for data transfer.
Bush foresaw encyclopedias being made available on a memex ("reduced to the volume of a matchbox", as he put it). He foresaw "magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence" all being memex accessible. He even to some extent foreshadowed modern commentators who praise Google as "the brain I never had".
To my mind, though, one of the most interesting and subtle of Bush's insights is that while distributed access to information is critical, distributed generation of information is important as well. This might be in the form of annotations, comments, and conventional writing, but value is also provided by making connections between pieces of different information. As Bush put it, "The process of tying two items together is the important thing." And what do you do with these connections? You share them with friends when they become relevant.
For those of us who enjoy blogging for its commentary and pointers to interesting news, we have Bush (among others, of course) to thank.

Online communities
Let's jump forward to the mid-1960s. We now have computers--great, expensive computers so rare that hardly anyone sees them, and a Ph.D. is often the price of admission. J. C. R. Licklider has a vision in which everyone has access to computing power. In this vision, computers are much more than just glorified calculators. They'll support the establishment of online communities.
[T]here are at present perhaps only as few as half a dozen interactive multiaccess computer communities. These communities are socio-technical pioneers, in several ways out ahead of the rest of the computer world: What makes them so? First, some of their members are computer scientists and engineers who understand the concept of man-computer interaction and the technology of interactive multiaccess systems. Second, others of their members are creative people in other fields and disciplines who recognize the usefulness and who sense the impact of interactive multiaccess computing upon their work. Third, the communities have large multiaccess computers and have learned to use them. And, fourth, their efforts are regenerative... 
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. 
Licklider's writing mainly appeared to be relevant in business and scientific computing, but his insights clearly generalize to what we see today. He writes of face-to-face meetings being replaced (at times) by online meetings, of short computer response times, of "free and easy" conversation being important, of computer systems taking over the tedious programming burdens that users would otherwise face, and of groups that form based on common interests and dynamically evolve.  He writes, "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."
For those of us who enjoy the social communities of today, we have Licklider (among others, of course) to thank.

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What a fascinating retrospective on the computer industry!
Thanks, Rob!
Thanks, Poor Woman. The history of ideas in computing is pretty interesting, I think.
Interesting and informative!
Thanks, skypixie; I do my best.
Fascinating, and it just goes to show how little I really know about computer and Internet history (beyond DARPA). But let me add two names: Turing and McLuhan.

The former was, of course, the mathematical and computer genius behind the solving of the Enigma Code during the war and the man who formulated the Turing Test for artificial intelligence.

The latter probably needs no introduction either, but it was he who, in the 1960s, prophesised the Global Village that is the Internet.

Either's work is worth diving into.
Good pointers, Lee. I've actually never read McLuhan.

Turing's Mind paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", is online and should be understandable to almost everyone. It's a classic in the artificial intelligence literature. Turing's most famous paper, “On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” is a harder read, but there are entire books that explain it.
I'm going to look out that Turing essay. I've read a lot about him, but very little by him.

As for McLuhan, his most accessible book is Understanding Media. I got hooked with his previous The Gutenberg Galaxy. The Mechanical Bride is easily the toughest read, in my opinion. His later output tended to be uneven, particularly when he had co-authors.
Cool--and I'll look up McLuhan.

The really weak part of the Turing Mind paper is the section on ESP(!) but the rest is worth reading; as one of my AI textbooks as it, Turing basically predicted most of the major directions AI would take over the next several decades.
I don't suppose either lived to benefit financially from their respective bursts of genius...But how interesting to realize that the online world had more "fathers" than the few names we get spoonfed...Thanks for resurrecting old truths!