Licklider's vision of the Digital Age

A scholarly essay in 1947, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper, had an awful lot to say about how we live with computers today.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
He may be the most important computer theorist you've never heard about. The sad truth is that several candidates could make a strong claim for that title. But when you consider the impact J.C.R. Licklider had on the technology industry, it's hard to square his influence with his subsequent near-anonymity.

Forty-seven years ago this month, Licklider published a 12-page essay with the offputting title "Man-Computer Symbiosis." I'd love to know what kind of effect he thought it might have.

Licklider passed away in 1990 but I did get to know him--a little--through the powerful vision in his writings. Similarly, Rick Rashid, who runs Microsoft Labs, recalled that "Man-Computer Symbiosis" is an "amazing piece to read--even today. It described aspects of what would become elements of personal computing and the Internet long before even the beginnings of either."

When I learned of the upcoming anniversary, I began to call around to ask industry types to assess Licklider's legacy. That's always tricky. In a business with no shortage of imposing egos, you can usually count on someone ready to disagree. It's like asking a New York City baseball fan of the 1950s to choose between Willie Mays, Duke Snider or Joe D.

Funny, but everybody I corresponded with put Licklider on a pedestal. They described him as one of a handful of people responsible for laying the foundation of the current Digital Age. Indeed, along with Vannevar Bush's 1945 piece in the Atlantic Monthly "As We May Think," Licklider's "Man-Computer Symbiosis" opened a window to a future that few at the time could imagine.

It detailed a partnership between humans and information processing technology, one in which computers would serve human beings, not the other way around, a future where computers would free humans from the drudgery of clerical routine and allow them to concentrate on more creative tasks.

When Licklider was writing, the computing world was characterized by impossibly hard-to-use data processing and bulky calculating machines.

The gist of Licklider's argument was that computers would be built to allow "men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs."

Remember that when Licklider was writing, the computing world was characterized by impossibly hard-to-use data processing and bulky calculating machines. Memory and language limitations were a big problem, and partnership with these contraptions was all but a pipe dream. But Licklider optimistically clung to his faith in change.

He thought it would take about 10 to 15 years for computer scientists to invent what he called a "thinking center" that would "incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval." We now know the world moved a lot more slowly than that, but the basic outline came together by the end of the 1990s.

"This is one of those articles that we periodically need to read, every 5 or 10 years," said Gordon Bell, another legendary computer scientist.

Eight years after "Man-Computer Symbiosis," Licklider co-authored a longer paper on the role of the computer as a communications device. Reading this essay in 2007 is a mind-blower. The prescient first line of the essay is characteristic of the entire forward-looking work:

"In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face."

Maybe that's no big deal from the blasé vantage point of 2007, but the future was far less certain back then. Here's another delicious passage:

"Today the on-line communities are separated from one another functionally as well as geographically. Each member can look only to the processing, storage and software capability of the facility upon which his community is centered. But now the move is on to interconnect the separate communities and thereby transform them into, let us call it, a super community."

Sound familiar?

"All of the aspects of the user interface, memory and communication (that Licklider wrote about)--it's all very, very timely today," Bell recalled. "That's really where computing is. He made a nice distinction between what computers do and what people do."

Licklider later put his vision to work at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA), where he headed up the unit's Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). While there, he threw his support behind Doug Englebart, who had a vision of a digital information retrieval system. (Englebart's so-called "online system" subsequently introduced the world to computer mice, electronic mail and text editing.)

"I doubt one could disentangle the influence of his paper from his influence as the first head of ARPA's IPTO," said John McCarthy, a professor emeritus at Stanford University.

All that is true. But here's something to chew over. Until Licklider began his work at ARPA, there were no Ph.D. programs in computer science at American universities. That changed after ARPA began handing out grants to promising students, a practice that convinced MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon to start their own graduate programs in computer science in 1965. Maybe that should go down as Licklider's most lasting legacy.