Prophecies of the Internet, 1971

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Earlier this week, I posted about the death of Paul Baran, co-inventor of packet switching -- the core technology of the Internet -- and a co-founder of Institute for the Future, the non-profit forecasting thinktank where I'm a research director. Yesterday, as we looked through our library of Baran's brilliant, and still-relevant, research papers, we came across a mind-blowing report from 1971, titled "Toward a Study of Future Urban High-Capacity Telecommunications Systems." At the time, Baran and his IFTF colleagues were considering how the military's ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, might someday change our everyday lives if it became publicly accessible. This particular report contained a delightfully prophetic page of forecasts titled "Brief Descriptions of Potential Home Information Services." Click here to see a full scan of the page. Here are a few of my favorites (remember, this was 1971!):

 Tmp  Images Iftfbarantelecom * DEDICATED NEWSPAPER. A set of pages with printed and graphic information, possibly including photographs, the organization of which has been predetermined by a user to suit his preferences.

* PLAYS AND MOVIES FROM A VIDEO LIBRARY. Selection of all plays and movies. Color and good sound are required.

* RESTAURANTS. Following a query for a type of restaurant (Japanese, for instance), reservations, menu, prices are shown. Displays of dishes, location of tables, may be included.

* LIBRARY ACCESS. After an interactive "browsing" with a "librarian computer" and a quotation for the cost of hard copy facsimile or a slow-scan video transmission, a book or a magazine is transmitted to the home.

"IFTF Celebrates Paul Baran: Forecasting the Internet" (IFTF, thanks Jean Hagan!)

"Paul Baran obituary" (The Guardian)

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    1. “30 of 30”

      Well, except perhaps for #9, where the boss dictates letters to a remote secretary who types them up.

  1. Awesome.
    Now, can we just call these descriptions “prior art” and void all the stupid f#@king patent troll nonsense that is rampant now?

    “LOOK. SOMEONE THOUGHT OF THIS AND WROTE IT DOWN IN 1971. YOUR IDEA IS NOT ORIGINAL.”

    1. Well it wouldn’t be a patent, it would be copyright, and you can’t copyright an idea.

      Unless you mean that current patent holders that based their technology on his ideas are at risk of losing their patents; in which case that’s still wrong, as a patent is granted via the discretion of the patent office. If they can’t find a reference then it’s not considered to be an accepted concept in the public domain.

      Either way there’s no cause for patent concern.

  2. Pretty impressive that all of their predictions are bang on, but I would argue that their predictions are fairly conservative in nature. It’s fairly easy to accurately predict possible technical applications of an emerging technology, but the hard part is predicting what its going to do to everything else.

  3. I wonder if he knew this exact document would become available, in perpetuity, to people all over the world

    Rest in peace

  4. They talk an awful lot about facsimile and not at all about ASCII text. What’s up with that?

  5. I read “Adult Evening Courses on TV” as “Adult Evening TV,” and thought, euphemisms aside, this guy knew what he was talking about…

    Then I realized my mistake and saw that he omitted to forecast one of the biggest uses of the internet, and so was disappointed.

  6. Yeah, what Mark Said, 30 for 30. Just wow. But he did miss a few items.

    -Dissemination of LOLcats. But really, who saw that coming in 1971? This document pre-dates American’s Funniest Home videos by what, 15 years?…so maybe that extrapolation was harder to make.

    -Massive porn distribution. Maybe he saw this coming but decided to leave it out for the sake of propriety.

    -Internet Snark. But perhaps that is somehow implicit in all of this, just assumed that massive communications improvements will eventually lead to massive amounts of communicated snark.

  7. Could this be considered prior art or sufficient evidence of obviousness to bust a few thousand software patents?

  8. Okay, actually, number 6 totally covers porn. Silly me. Nonetheless…

    31. AMUSEMENT. Sharing pictures of cats that have been anthropomorphized by the addition of humorous caption. Captions should use poor spelling.

  9. Too lazy to go back and read Future Shock — and really don’t expect Toffler has held up well, but that could be an unfair bias I’ve developed once I learned Newt Gingrich was an adherent. I can only imagine, though, that docs like this one — if not this very doc — were the sources on which he relied. I do recall the custom newspaper was in Future Shock, as it has been in every update of the vision of the connected/interactive lifestyle over the last 40+ years.

  10. Interesting oversite: no consideration of user-generated content. The user in this is always just a passive consumer of information.

    That shows one of the biggest changes between now and then. Back then, the idea that almost any and every kid with a camera (and no need for skill) would be making videos and posting them for the world to see, and that people would actually be watching these videos.

    I think it would have been hard to foretell the incredible lowering of the bar for creating and distributing.

  11. To the naughty-minded folk, porn is included in:

    6. PLAYS AND MOVIES FROM A VIDEO LIBRARY. Selection of all plays and movies. Color and good sound are required.

  12. @25: Medical transcription. In my short career, I’ve seen hospitals switch from cassette tapes to wholly digital dictation. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard of hospitals outsourcing the work to India, with an inevitable effect on quality. I get job security by working in a crazy moon-language.

    1. Indian staff doing transcrption work for American doctors no doubt earn much less than the Americans they replaced, but are probably better qualified than them.

  13. Dudes, Paul Baran was indeed a genius, but it was never “the military’s arpanet” – true, Baran’s design was intended to provide second-strike resilience but it was rejected by the Pentagon, and Bob Taylor diverted the initial seed funding for arpanet from a missile defence project but that’s afaik the only military influence on the creation of the Internet until Milnet split off a decade later. Arpanet was conceived, designed and created with purely civilian rationale and purpose.

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