April 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Memex to the present

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2015-01-05

Bush's and Licklider's remarks — and Bradbury's cautionary tangent — are vitally important as a counterpoint to how online life has developed over the last 20 years, and how Renzi and many others view it now. What the pioneers imagined and articulated was the creation of a grand library in the Alexandria tradition. They cared less about the primacy of data, let alone the transmission of celebrity, than about extending, amplifying and above all preserving the world's ever-widening trove of intellectual information. They sought the sharing and swift delivery of information not to provide a fallback escape from monotony or to help indulge prefabricated fantasies but to give concentration better social results.

In portraying a future that included "cathode-ray-oscilloscope displays and light pens" and "time-sharing computer systems with remote user stations," Licklider was interested in the intellectual function and not the look of the devices, believing the machines would be irrelevant if users didn't know what questions to ask, or if the devices themselves knew only to answer randomly. Leisure-time browsing served no imaginable intellectual function. The ultimate goal, he wrote, was "intimate interaction with the fund of knowledge" that would be "not like anything in common experience" and push beyond "the sex-symbolizing and attention-compelling attributes of rockets," a vital caution since rockets were in vogue when scientists first began speculating on the shape of an online world (now dominated, ironically, by the kinds of distracting, rocket-like devices Licklider found worrying).

Licklider foresaw a symbiotic relationship between man and machine in which swiftly retrieved data would "greatly improve" the thinking process. "Life will be happier for the on-line individual," he wrote in 1968, "because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity." With utopian flourish, he also insisted unemployment would vanish because everyone of working age be hired to supplement "the collective (global) labor of system debugging" — in essence ensuring a society of trained techies.

For the less technical Bush, who was more sensitive to human limitations, "man's spirit" would be elevated if he could "better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems."

Once again, however, the goals were respectful and collective, the opposite of anything run amok. What memex-advocates failed to presage — they were scientists, not social anthropologists — was how the creation and application of digital systems intended to encompass and share human knowledge would yield billions of personal democracies, gossip-packed cells of intimate interactivity home to emotionally charged views disdainful of any structured intellectual hierarchy.

That the process of massive indexing and networking would put "The Illiad" on associative par with Homer Simpson — the loud fusion of formal and casual —wasn't an outcome the enlightened scientists predicted. Nor did they imagine the digital age in the context of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement or the harvesting and deployment of commercial propaganda. Interactivity for them was imagined as a traditional American leap forward with communal goals that would assist the chemist, the biologist, the historian, the lawyer and the patent attorney, vocations Bush cited when he wrote: "All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses — the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?" Chemists, lawyers and historians — Norman Rockwell-styled professionals — would manage a path governed by the same rules and values that oversaw the existing social framework. Staid but dignified people would suddenly be able to assemble and tap into cumulative data for the common good.

But when the heralded digital era finally arrived — not far off Licklider's 1994 estimate — its original holistic design soon capitulated to something akin to a massive amateur hour. Capitalism's defeat of communism redirected communitarian goals to a more cash-drive rush for markets and revenues. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others unavoidably turned into corporate technocrats. The Alexandria library concept of linkage was superseded by big-top values that vaulted the now "sex-symbolizing and attention-compelling" devices over cars atop consumer must-have lists. The ethics and governance of the commons was left to users themselves — who when they sought guidance found none. Instead, they came to see their innovative toys as opening the door to an exciting, disorderly dimension that — early 19th-century style — could flourish outside legislated civics, thus redefining participatory democracy. Ever-faster incarnations of intelligent devices arrived one atop another without traditional caveat of civics or appropriateness. The Internet was a populist success.

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