InterWeb Nostalgia pt. 1

On-line interactive communities

But let us be optimistic. What will on-line interactive communities be like? In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They 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.

In each geographical sector, the total number of users—summed over all the fields of interest—will be large enough to support extensive general purpose information processing and storage facilities. All of these will be interconnected by telecommunications channels. The whole will constitute a labile network of networks—ever-changing in both content and configuration. What will go on inside? Eventually, every informational transaction of sufficient consequence to warrant the cost. Each secretary’s typewriter, each data-gathering instrument, conceivably each dictation microphone, will feed into the network.


You will not send a letter or a telegram; you will simply identify the people whose files should be linked to yours and the parts to which they should be linked-and perhaps specify a coefficient of urgency. You will seldom make a telephone call; you will ask the network to link your consoles together.

You will seldom make a purely business trip, because linking consoles will be so much more efficient. When you do visit another person with the object of intellectual communication, you and he will sit at a two-place console and interact as much through it as face to face. If our extrapolation from Doug Engelbart’s meeting proves correct, you will spend much more time in computer-facilitated teleconferences and much less en route to meetings. A very important part of each man’s interaction with his on-line community will be mediated by his OLIVER. The acronym OLIVER honors Oliver Selfridge, originator of the concept. An OLIVER is, or will be when there is one, an “on-line interactive vicarious expediter and responder,” a complex of computer programs and data that resides within the network and acts on behalf of its principal, taking care of many minor matters that do not require his personal attention and buffering him from the demanding world. “You are describing a secretary,” you will say. But no! Secretaries will have OLIVERS.

At your command, your OLIVER will take notes (or refrain from taking notes) on what you do, what you read, what you buy and where you buy it. It will know who your friends are, your mere acquaintances. It will know your value structure, who is prestigious in your eyes, for whom you will do what with what priority, and who can have access to which of your personal files. It will know your organization’s rules pertaining to proprietary information and the government’s rules relating to security classification.

Some parts of your OLIVER program will be common with parts of other people’s OLIVERS; other parts will be custom-made for you, or by you, or will have developed idiosyncrasies through “learning” based on its experience in your service.

Available within the network will be functions and services to which you subscribe on a regular basis and others that you call for when you need them. In the former group will be investment guidance, tax counseling, selective dissemination of information in your field of specialization, announcement of cultural, sport, and entertainment events that fit your interests, etc. In the latter group will be dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, catalogues, editing programs, teaching programs, testing programs, programming systems, data bases, and—most important—communication, display, and modeling programs.

All these will be—at some late date in the history of networking— systematized and coherent; you will be able to get along in one basic language up to the point at which you choose a specialized language for its power or terseness.

When people do their informational work “at the console” and “through the network,” telecommunication will be as natural an extension of individual work as face-to-face communication is now. The impact of that fact, and of the marked facilitation of the communicative process, will be very great—both on the individual and on society.


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 programmed 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. 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.

On the other hand, 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.

Unemployment would disappear from the face of the earth forever, for consider the magnitude of the task of adapting the network’s software to all the new generations of computer, coming closer and closer upon the heels of their predecessors until the entire population of the world is caught up in an infinite crescendo of on-line interactive debugging.

from The Computer as a Communication Device, by J.C.R. Licklider



12 Responses to “InterWeb Nostalgia pt. 1”

  1. jonquille de camembert Says:

    Yes, things were really repulsive even before Al Gore did Information Highway before Global Warming. Thank you so much for showing us your OLIVER. So antiquated! with so much character! The true beauty of this passage is that Kurzweil still writes exactly like this, full of ‘boons to mankind’ with a few adjustments made to those who think tit implants are more important than common interests despite geographical dislocation and outsourcing to India. Why, just last night I spoke to two Indian customer service job-stealers and they kept saying ‘we can’t see the check yet, sir.’ and ‘we will look that up for you, sir.’ and ‘I’m well, thank you for asking, sir.’

    The upshot of this is that we were discussing outsourcing as a subtext of my checking to see something in my personal OLIVER that I can’t show you but can show this Indian with the bad manners. Our experience of the Legend of Outsourcing and its mystery have led us to believe that there is hope for a real dialogue on racism in all its most intricate nooks and crannies, including Guatemala, Honduras, Easter Island, and Pitcairn. With this kind of miracle, why would anyone ever use the telephone except for style purposes?

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