J. C. R. Licklider as the Antichrist
David Byrne had a post on his blog the other day in which he laments the fact that so many of the physical objects which we have valued for decades or centuries will disappear during his lifetime. Think about it. Newspapers, photographs, records, letters, and films are all disappearing and being replaced by intangible bits which get delivered to you through the ether without any tangible presence.
In his post, Byrne refers to J. C. R. Licklider as the antichrist. Licklider? Most people aren’t familiar with that name, but he is someone you should know about.
His CV looks a little bland for the antichrist. He was an engineer who moved between government agencies, industry and academia. But if you start to look at it in detail, you start to realize why he can provoke such strong feelings in people.
In 1950 he went to MIT to start a psychology department, but soon became interested in some of the early work in computers. He was on the committee which created Lincoln Labs which transformed the early Whirlwind computer into the enormous SAGE air defense computer which NORAD used for many years. Along the way, this group did some of the earliest work in things like real-time computing, modems, and user interfaces.
In 1959 he moved to BBN (which did acoustics research) where he got his hands on an exciting new DEC PDP-1. While he was there, he wrote Man-Computer Symbiosis, which is one of the seminal papers in the process of rethinking what computers can do and how we use them. That was followed by Memorandum For Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network which envisioned a global network of computers interacting with each other and sharing data.
In 1962 he went to ARPA (the Pentagon’s research agency) where he founded the IPTO. They created things like ARPANET (the ancestor of the Internet) and did a lot of important work in fields like computer graphics.
In 1968 he went back to MIT to become the second director of Project MAC (MIT’s computer science lab) where they did a lot of important research in areas like artificial intelligence, operating systems, and networking.
Through all of those moves he spread his vision of what computers could become and spread excitement through a growing group of followers. The people he inspired along the way went on to build the world we know today. So maybe David Byrne is right to single Lick out as the person who is responsible for all of those changes.
If you would like to learn more about Lick, you should read The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop. It’s a well written biography of him which does a great job of explaining what he did and how he helped build the future. And then you should stop to think about how you feel about all of the changes he started.