Those news organizations that would build a successful site or forge a valid online business model would do well to remember—or realize in the first place—that the Internet is a medium in the word’s truest sense. It is something that exists in the between. It is connective tissue. “Neither utopia nor dystopia,” writes Manuel Castells in The Internet Galaxy, “the Internet is the expression of ourselves—through a specific code of communication, which we must understand if we want to change our reality.”


”The Library of the Future”

Perhaps the most enduring metaphor used to explain the Internet is that of the infinite library—a limitless store of human knowledge and experience that can be accessed, modified, and disseminated by anyone with a network connection; a collaborative, communitarian information utopia that exists in order to set things free. That was J.C.R. “Lick” Licklider’s idea, at least.

There were many, many people involved in the creation and construction of what would come to be called the Internet, but most historians agree that Licklider was the conceptual mastermind behind the initial project. Licklider was an academic psychologist and MIT professor who, by the mid-1950s, was spending much of his time imagining new and edifying uses for computer technology. “The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted,” write Hafner and Lyon, “was that technological progress would save humanity.”

Networks were the key. By easing human access to and interaction with information, Licklider believed that networks could facilitate a sort of “man-machine symbiosis” that would make the world a smarter, happier, and more productive place. Humans would use the networked computers’ superior speed and memory to help refine and advance their own thought processes. In a 1965 book entitled Libraries of the Future, he presented his outline for what he called a “procognitive system”— a library/computer amalgam that would “make it easy to transmit information without transporting material, and that will not only present information to people but also process it for them, following procedures they specify, apply, monitor, and, if necessary, revise and reapply.”

Hired in 1962 by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Licklider soon proposed building a network that would allow ARPA researchers across the country to share information and avoid redundancies in research. The project didn’t actually get started until 1966, when one of Licklider’s successors at ARPA, Robert Taylor, got funding for what came to be called the ARPANET. (Licklider left ARPA in 1964.)

Give people the opportunity to do something great, though, and they’ll inevitably do something human. As it turns out, people took to the ARPANET for simple purposes—like e-mail.

While people disagree about the extent to which military priorities influenced the ARPANET’s design philosophy, the network was nevertheless a system that emphasized survivability in the face of failure. A distributed network, there was no central machine that was “in charge” of the system. (You couldn’t destroy the ARPANET by destroying its mainframe, because there was no mainframe.) Decentralization improved the network’s speed and reliablility, made it easier to add new access points, and allowed computers—and computer users—to communicate without outside mediation.

In a 1998 interview with the online magazine PreText, ARPANET contractor Frank Heart further characterized the network as a supremely open system:

The project was entirely unclassified. The project had no access controls on people. Anybody who could get near it could log on. The project provided access as a free good; nobody had to make a tough cost-benefit analysis as to whether they wanted to try the network.

Now these things - unclassification, no access controls, and a free good - despite the fact that this was being done by the U.S. government and the Defense Department; it’s really quite amazing in retrospect.

This openness was thoroughly rooted in Licklider’s belief that the world would change for the better once its inhabitatants could easily and infinitely interact with information. Network users would be in constant dialogue with the connected computers. The users would form something like a society of activist librarians, constantly improving the quality of the information stored on networked computers by refining, editing, and adding to the collection. The original text would matter less than the ensuing marginalia. As Licklider wrote in an essay entitled “Social Prospects of Information Utilities,” humanity faced a choice between “enmeshment in the silent gears of the great electronic machine or [becoming] master of a marvelous new and truly plastic medium for formulating ideas and for exploring, expressing, and communicating them.”

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.