Consumption: Your Futurist the Internet
“In a few years,” J. C. R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor wrote in 1968, “men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” Although it would take longer than the authors anticipated—long enough in fact that it would be woefully anachronistic to say that “men” alone would be the ones talking—the internet has for a variety of situations, including taking college classes during a pandemic, made it more effective and certainly more convenient to interact remotely than in person. These sorts of dreams about what computers and networks could do, if only they were sufficiently fast and powerful, have been a part of designing systems going back to times before we had the word “internet” (in 1974, for instance, Vint Cerf et al. were still using the term “internetwork”) and when computers were still humans.
In almost all cases, the ideas that people had for computers extended from what they saw as limitations in the technologies of their own times. Licklider and Taylor saw the computer as an improvement on holding meetings over telephone. As another example, in the immediate years after World War II, Vannevar Bush saw a serious problem arising from what he saw as the “growing mountains of research” being compiled in his day’s libraries, and he imagined what a personal workstation could do for organizing such libraries. The strategy he envisioned would come to be called hypertext. But even before Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) became the standard of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, the internet was already being mobilized as a means of connecting users with large databases of information in ways that earlier, physical libraries could not match. It did not take long for Bush’s notion that technologies could enhance libraries for those technologies to come into being, though they would take a rather different form than the one Bush set out.
Two decades later, inspired by Bush’s visionary account, Douglas Engelbart opened a window onto a future of interactive, networked computers in what has been called “the mother of all demos.” As with Bush’s libraries, Engelbart’s personal computers for “augmenting human intellect,” with their now familiar mouse and graphical user interface, were ahead of their time, at least ahead of making them cheap enough so that people could get their hands on them.
So it goes. Licklider and Taylor imagined a powerful network that would enable people to communicate more effectively apart than face to face, and in recent years teleconferencing has made that a reality. Bush envisioned libraries that could be stored and made accessible on a personal workstation, and today the JHU library will make all materials for any course available through its electronic reserves. Engelbart demonstrated a personal computer whose capabilities are now available on the go, with any smartphone. It takes some time, but the visions that people have for the internet have a tendency to come to pass.
For this assignment, you’ll be asked to think about what the internet might look like as it continues to develop in your lifetime. Be creative, think big, and be bold. I can imagine a world, for instance, where the functions of the internet become so intuitive that people stop using the word “internet” itself. A lot can happen. Consider where the internet is today only fifty odd years after its first link.
Another thing to think about, as we can see especially in the example of teleconferencing, is that new technologies do not always present smooth sailing. There are tradeoffs. Services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have made the remote project meeting something of a standard, but these capabilities come with their downsides. Everyone knows about “Zoom fatigue,” and people have worried about the effects of “screen time” since the early years of television. When you think about the future internet, consider not only the powerful new possibilities but also what might be lost and what could be worsened.
Circuit of Culture
Before you get started, you’ll want to read this short text on the “Circuit of Culture,” which will be the frame for all of the assignments this semester. Once you have your future function or capability in mind, focus in on the dimension of consumption associated with it: Who are the people who will consume or use the technology you envision? Is it used by an exclusive group or a large public? What will need to come together for the technology to be available to large populations of people? Where will the technology be used? How and with whom will it be consumed? For other relevant questions, see this useful overview of the circuit of culture.
- Focus in on a particular function or capability of the internet—or one that has not yet been ported to the internet. Be sure that you can give this capability a name, as for instance Licklider and Taylor did in designating the “remote project meeting,” or what we would now call “teleconferencing.”
- Explain the problems with the current situation. What limitations are getting in the way of the function or capability reaching its greater potential? To use the language of the circuit of culture, what hurdles are there to its consumption and use? Are there people who use the function today while it is too expensive for others?
- Clearly connect your chosen function or capability to the aspect of consumption from the circuit of culture. Explain the circuit of culture and the element of consumption in your own words.
- What possibilities does the future hold if this function is further developed? What does the future of the internet look like if these capabilities are implemented?
- How are human lives improved if this happens? What risks might there be for people?
- Consider this a creative essay. Write as though you are addressing a broad audience. What do they need to understand to follow your thinking? How can you persuade them, as Licklider and Taylor had to persuade their readers, that the possibilities you envision are in the offing and are likely to be beneficial?
- Revise your work.
All assignments should be submitted as text documents on Canvas and to the blog on the course site. For further instructions on posting to the blog, check out this explainer.
Due Friday, September 9 by 5:00 p.m. EST.