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The road ahead

Sundance Kid: You just keep thinkin’ Butch. That’s what you’re good at.
Butch Cassidy: [to Sundance] Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.

– From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969

It’s “the vision thing,” as the first President Bush used to say.

Where would we be without the dreamers; those folks who tend to look a little farther down the road than the rest of us?

I’ve been thinking about that over and over this week as I went through the readings.

Dr. Vannevar Bush envisioned a better way to bring large amounts of scientific research together with his memex, “a microfilm-based ‘device 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.’”

The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van.

It’s been suggested that Bush was talking about what would become hypertext. But the memex concept also sounds to me like he could have been spitballing the idea of a database, also a key component of the Internet. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that databases would become common, but Bush made his observations in 1945.

Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart went a step further. His vision bore fruit when a working graphical computer interface was developed by his team at the Stanford Research Institute. The key to the project was the invention of the computer mouse, which gave users a better way to interact with the computer. (“I don’t know why we call it that,” he said in the demo, but the name certainly stuck.)

Xerox offered the first commercial version of the mouse, but the concept really took off when Apple’s Macintosh made its debut in 1984, well after Engelbart’s 1968 demo.

J.C.R. Licklider was another computer scientist who saw an expanding role for computers. As a key member of the ARPA team, the Department of Defense agency that developed the Internet, he began to explore the power of tying computers together, allowing users to interact across a network.

In his 1968 paper “The Computer as a Communication Device,” he said:

(W)e … who have had the experience of working on-line and interactively with computers, have already sensed more responsiveness and facilitation and “power” than we had hoped for, considering the inappropriateness of present machines and the primitiveness of their software. Many of us are therefore confident (some of us to the point of religious zeal) that truly significant achievements, which will markedly improve our effectiveness in communication, now are on the horizon.

“Interactive communication consists of short spurts of dialog,” he noted, describing how people would communicate across the computer networks he envisioned.

Short spurts of dialog? Like maybe 140 characters at a time?

I was especially interested to hear QUBE mentioned in the lecture. Because of its ability to let viewers provide feedback, it looked like the next big thing when it launched in Columbus in 1977. A friend of mine was just telling me that one of his jobs as an intern there was loading and starting the tapes for movies customers ordered through their cable box.

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications:

Subscribers could participate in game shows, call plays in a college football game, take part in electronic town meetings, simulate a vote on the Academy Awards, participate in a newspaper survey and more. Viewers pushed the appropriate button(s), and their choices were recorded by a computer. When the results were tallied, they were announced on-screen.

One couple even allowed viewers to vote on four names for their newborn daughter. I wonder what she thinks of that decision now.

There’s a great Web site someone put up, complete with links to videos, if you’re interested in learning more about the service.

One of our classmates (Dogfish60) mentioned this video in a post this week. I think it’s an excellent example of the kind of forward thinking we’ve been examining. It’s a promotional piece produced by Apple Computer in 1987 to illustrate concepts the company’s CEO, John Sculley, envisioned. The first Macintosh was only 3 years old, but Sculley’s ideas suggested a tangible product that would take advantage of interactivity (between humans as well as between humans and machines), giving real-world shape to earlier research.

How many innovations can you spot? How many functions can we accomplish today? How many are still out of reach?

Category: Weekly Readings

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One Response

  1. Pat Daddona says:

    Video conferencing, speaker phone exchange, Skype like interaction with what seemed to be the professor’s secretary, and hiding from one’s mother.
    The more things change… ;-)