M. Mitchell Waldrop’s The Dream Machine is not the first book to be written about the start of the Internet and the Personal Computer. But it is the first to look at the life, the research and the impact of J.C.R. Licklider and how his vision of “human-computer symbiosis” and “the intergalactic network” shaped the people, the research and the eventual development of the personal computer.
While others developed much of the technology that was required, it was Lick’s vision of how humans should interact with computers that drove his selection of research and people. Lick collected people and ideas. He brought together the brightest researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Utah and Berkeley. Researchers were funded by Lick and DARPA to build his vision of human-computer symbiosis. They developed networking, computer-supported cooperative work systems, hypertext, programming languages, interactive graphics, the personal computer, the microprocessor. All of the things that we take for granted sitting in front of our machines. It is Lick that made this all possible.
Computers were new when Lick began his research in the early 1950s. They were big, there were very few of them, and they were very difficult to program. Much of the work was done by mathematicans and physists. Lick had the vision that man and computer should live in a symbiotic relationship, where the human and the computer live together in a thriving, productive relationship. Lick’s vision was of a relationship “more like that with a colleague whose competence supplements your own”. This was unique in a world where computers were in ivory towers, where you submitted your punch cards to the computer staff, and you returned later to get the results of the program. Lick wanted a system where it could be used to formulate hypotheses and test them immediately. He proposed solutions for interactive graphics, distributed storage, information access and management, programming languages, and networking. He describe a view of the world that is not unlike the systems we use today.
This book is required reading to understand the history and development of computing as we know it. When we look back at the history of the computer, J.C.R. Licklider will be seen as the catalyst that sparked a movement that spawned industries, and became a cultural phenomena. Those who do not learn from the history are doomed to repeat it. And Mitchell Waldrop’s tell of this histor makes me want to repeat again. It’s a wonderful true story!