History of Predicting Internet Future

MIT Senior Research Scientist David Clark on contention in communication industry, alternative to the Internet, and visionaries’ disappearance

videos | June 4, 2014

How did the idea of computer network emerge? Who made successful predictions about the future of the Internet? Senior Research Scientist at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory David Clark clarifies the story of how the Internet became the main medium.

J. C. R. Licklider wrote a wonderful paper in 1968 called “Computer as a communication device” and he said some wonderful things, he said: «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.»

An important component of what happened in the 1960s and 1970s of course is in addition to hoping, optimistic visions there was an incredible amount of doubt and skepticism. A major source of doubt and skepticism was the mindset of the traditional telephone companies who basically said: first – it won’t work and second – if it does work we’re going to try to kill it because we’re not interested in have something that competes with us. I actually think that this doubt and skepticism was incredibly empowering because it basically meant they didn’t pay attention to us. As long as they didn’t pay attention we could do anything we wanted so we built a network more or less over their dead body but they couldn’t stop us.

There was a controversy between two kinds of technology one called datagrams and one called virtual circuits. Telephone companies liked virtual circuits, the Internet community and Louis Pouzin’s community liked datagrams so he wrote: «The controversy between datagrams and virtual circuits in public packet switching should be placed in its proper context. First, it’s a technical issue where each side has arguments, it’s hard to tell objectively what a balanced opinion should be since there’s no unbiased expert. Second, the political significance of the controversy is much more fundamental as it signals ambushes in a power struggle between carriers and computer industry. Everybody knows that in the end it means IBM versus telecommunications.»

Senior Research Scientist, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
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