The Vision of Interactive Computing and the Future

Where has the Information Superhighway come from? This is a very important question which the Clinton and Gore Administration seem to be ignoring. However understanding this history is a crucial step towards building the network of the future. It is my goal in this presentation to uncover the vision behind the Internet, Usenet and other associated Physical and Logical networks.

While the nets are basically young (the ARPANET started 25 years before 1994), this 25 year growth is substantial. The ARPANET was the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency's experimental network connecting the mainframes of Universities and other Department of Defense's (DoD) contractors. The ARPANET initially started out as a test bed of computer networking, communications protocols, and information/computer and data sharing. However, what it developed into was something of a completely different nature. The most wide use of the ARPANET was for human-to-human communication using electronic mail (e-mail) and discussion lists (popular lists were the wine-tasters and sci-fi lovers lists). The human communications aspect of the ARPANET continues to be today's most popular usage of the 'Net by a vast variety of people through e-mail, Usenet News discussion groups, Mailing Lists, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and so on. However, the ARPANET was the product of previous research itself.

Before the 1960s computers operated in batch mode. This meant that a user had to provide a program on punch cards to the local computer center. Often a programmer had to wait over a day in order to see the results from his or her input. In addition if there were any mistakes in the creation of the punched cards, the stack or individual card had to be repunched and resubmitted, which would take another day. This does not account for bugs in the code, which someone only finds out after attempting to compile the code. This was a very inefficient way of utilizing the power of the computer from the viewpoint of a human, in addition to discouraging those unfamiliar with computers. This led to different people thinking of ways to alter the interface between people and computers. The idea of time sharing developed among some of the computer research communities. Time sharing amounts to multiple people utilizing the computer (then mainframes) simultaneously. Time sharing operated by giving the impression that the user is the only one on the computer. This is executed by having the computer divy out slices of CPU time to all the users in a sequential manner.

Research in Time sharing was happening around the country at different research centers in early 1960s. Some examples were CTSS (Computer Time Sharing System) at MIT, DTSS (Dartmouth Time Sharing System) at Dartmouth, a system at BBN, and so on. J.C.R. Licklider, the founding director of ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), thought of timesharing as Interactive Computing. Interactive computing meant the user had a way to communicate and respond to the computer's responses in a way that Batch Processing did not allow.

Both Robert Taylor and Larry Roberts, future successors of Licklider as director of IPTO, pinpoint Licklider as the originator of the vision which set ARPA's priorities and goals and basically drove ARPA to help develop the concept of networking computers

In an Interview conducted by the Charles Babbage Institute, Roberts said:

"what I concluded was that we had to do something about communications, and that really, the idea of the galactic network that Lick talked about, probably more than anybody, was something that we had to start seriously thinking about. So in a way networking grew out of Lick's talking about that, although Lick himself could not make anything happen because it was too early when he talked about it. But he did convince me it was important." (CBI Oral Interview, Roberts, pg 7)

Taylor also pointed out the importance of Licklider's vision to future network development in a CBI conducted interview:

"I don't think ... anyone who's been in that DARPA position since [Licklider] has had the vision that Licklider had. His being at that place at that time is a testament to the tenuousness of it all. It was really a fortunate circumstance. I think most of the significant advances in computer technology, especially in the systems part of computer science over the years ... were simply extrapolations of Licklider's vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he's really the father of it all." (CBI Oral Interview, Taylor, pg. 8)

Crucial to the definition of today's networks were the thoughts awakened in the minds of those researchers interested in timesharing. These researchers began to think about social issues related to timesharing. One such topic was the formation of communities of the people who used the timesharing systems. Fernando Corbato and Robert Fano wrote,

"The time-sharing computer system can unite a group of investigators in a cooperative search for the solution to a common problem, or it can serve as a community pool of knowledge and skill on which anyone can draw according to his needs. Projecting the concept on a large scale, one can conceive of such a facility as an extraordinarily powerful library serving an entire community -- in short, an intellectual public utility." ("Time-sharing on Computers" in _Information_, pg. 76)

Robert Taylor spoke about some of the unexpected circumstances that time sharing made possible:

"They were just talking about a network where they could have a compatibility across these systems, and at least do some load sharing, and some program sharing, data sharing -- that sort of thing. Whereas, the thing that struck me about the timesharing experience was that before there was a timesharing system, let's say at MIT, then there were a lot of individual people who didn't know each other who were interested in computing in one way or another, and who were doing whatever they could, however they could. As soon as the timesharing system became usable, these people began to know one another, share a lot of information, and ask of one another, "How do I use this? Where do I find that?" It was really phenomenal to see this computer become a medium that stimulated the formation of a human community. ... And so, here ARPA had a number of sites by this time, each of which had its own sense of community and was digitally isolated from the other one. I saw a phrase in the Licklider memo. The phrase was in a totally different context -- something that he referred to as an "intergalactic network." I asked him about this later... recently, in fact I said, "Did you have a networking of the ARPANET sort in mind when you used that phrase?" He said, "No, I was thinking about a single timesharing system that was intergalactic..." (CBI Oral Interview, Taylor, pg 24)

As Taylor recounts, the users of the timesharing systems would, usually unexpectedly, form a new community. People now were connected to others who were interested in these new computing systems.

Licklider was one of the first users of the new timesharing systems, and took the time to play around with them. Because of this, Fernando Corbato called Licklider a visionary, and not an implementor. Examing the uses of this new way of communicating with the computer enabled Licklider to think about the future possibilities. This was helpful because Licklider helped establish the priorities and direction that ARPA's IPTO was attempting to approach with their research monies with his vision. Many of the Interviewees in the CBI Interviews said that ARPA's monies were given in those days to help seed research which would be helpful to the general society in general, and only secondary to the military.

The visions driving ARPA led to inspire bright researchers working on computer related topics. Roberts even goes as far to say that Licklider's work (and that of the IPTO directors after him) educated the people who were to become the leaders in the computer industry in general. Roberts relates Licklider's vision and how future IPTO directors continued Licklider's legacy:

"Well, I think that the one influence is ... the production of people in the computer field that are trained, and knowledgeable, and capable, and that form the basis for the progress the United States has made in the computer field. That production of people started with Lick, when he started the IPTO program and started the big university programs. It was really due to Lick, in large part, because I think it was that early set of activities that I continued with that produced the most people with the big university contracts. That produced a base for them to expand their whole department, and produced excitement in the university" (CBI Oral Interview, Roberts, pg 29)

The influence on Academia led to a profound effect on the future of the computer industry. Roberts continues:

"So it was clear that that was a big impact on the universities and therefore, in the industry. You can almost track all those people and see what effect that has had. The people from those projects are in large part the leaders throughout the industry" (Ibid., pg. 30)

Licklider's "Intergalactic Network" was a time-sharing utility which would serve the entire galaxy. This early vision of timesharing spawned the idea of interconnecting different time-sharing systems by networking them together. This network would allow those on geographic separate time-sharing systems to share data, programs, their research, and later other ideas and anything that could be typed out. Licklider and Taylor collaborated on an article titled "The Computer as a Communications Device" which foresaw today's Net. They wrote:

"We have seen the beginnings of communication through a computer - communication among people at consoles located in the same room or on the same university campus or even at distantly separated laboratories of the same research and development organization. This kind of communication - through a single multiaccess computer with the aid of telephone lines - is beginning to foster cooperation and promote coherence more effectively than do present arrangements for sharing computer programs by exchanging magnetic tape by messenger or mail." (Licklider & Taylor, pg. 28)

Later in the article, they point out that the interconnection of computers leads to a much broader class of connections than might have been expected. A new community is described when they write:

"The collection of people, hardware, and software - the multiaccess computer together with its local community of users - will become a node in a geographically distributed computer network. Let us assume for a moment that such a network has been formed....Through the network of message processors, therefore, all the large computers can communicate with one another. And through them, all the members of the supercommunity can communicate - with other people, with programs, with data, or with a selected combinations of those resources." (IBID.,pg. 32)

Licklider and Taylor exhibit their interest in more than just hardware and software when they continue to think about the new social dynamics the connections of disperse computers and people will create. The authors continue:

"[These communities] 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." (IBID., pg. 38)

In exploring this community of common affinity, the pair look for the possible positive reasons to connect to and be a part of these new computer facilitated communities:

"First, life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity. Second, communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable. Third, much communication and interaction will be with programs and programming models, which will be (a) highly responsive, (b) supplementary to one's own capabilities, rather than competitive, and (c) capable of representing progressively more complex ideas without necessarily displaying all the levels of their structure at the same time -- and which will therefore be both challenging and rewarding. And, fourth, there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone (who can afford a console) to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him, with programs ready to guide him or to help him explore." (IBID., pg 40)

Licklider and Taylor conclude their article on a prophetic question. The advantages that computer networks make possible will only happen if these advantages are available to all who want to make use of them. The question is posed as follows:

"For the society, the impact will be good or bad depending mainly on the question: Will `to be on line' be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of `intelligence amplification,' the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity." (IBID., pg. 40)

The question which is raised is one of access. The authors try to point out that the positive effects of computer networking would only come about if the ability to use the networks is made easy and available. Lastly they hold that access will probably be made available because of the global benefits which they predict would ensue. They end by writing:

"...if the network idea should prove to do for education what a few have envisioned in hope, if not in concrete detailed plan, and if all minds should prove to be responsive, surely the boon to humankind would be beyond measure." (IBID., pg. 40)

Licklider and Taylor raise an important point of saying access should be made available to all who want to use the computer networks. The relevance to today is that it is important to ask if the National Information Infrastructure is being designed with the principle of making equality of access as important. As I have identified in this presentation, there was a vision of the interconnection and interaction of extremely diverse communities guiding the creation of the original ARPANET. In the design of the expansion of the Network to our society as a whole, it is important to keep the original vision in mind to consider if the vision was correct, or if it was just important in the initial development of networking technologies and techniques. However, very little emphasis has been placed on either the study of Licklider's vision or the role and advantages the Nets have played up to this point. In addition, the public has not been a part of the planning for the new initiatives which the federal government is currently planning. This is a plea to you to demand more of a part in the development of the future of the Net.


Corbato, Fernado and Robert Fano. "Time-sharing on Computers" in
	_Information_  Editors Scientific American. W. H. Freeman
	and Company. San Franciso: 1966.

Corbato, Fernado.   Charles Babbage Institute Oral Interview.

Fano, Robert.  Charles Babbage Institute Oral Interview.

Kemeny, John.  "Man and the Computer"  Charles Scribner's Sons NY 1972

Licklider, J.C.R.   Charles Babbage Institute Oral Interview.

Licklider, J.C.R. and Robert Taylor. "The Computer as a
	Communication Device," in _Science and Technology_.
	April, 1968, p. 40

Roberts, Lawrence.  Charles Babbage Institute Oral Interview.

Taylor, Robert.   Charles Babbage Institute Oral Interview.

Michael Hauben /