oon after youthful Matteo Renzi bullied himself into the role of Italian prime minister, a prominent labor union leader warned that his me-first style harbored the seeds of a personality cult. Renzi fired back instantly, and hard. Those who objected to his pushiness were out of touch with a competitive peer-to-peer world in which relentless self-promotion was necessary if not expected. Italian unions and their leadership were hopelessly outdated. He was the only authentic new age centaur.
Had he chosen to elaborate, Renzi might have pointed out that the tyrannical 20th-century notion of personality cults had been replaced by a more homespun, egalitarian version in which the packaging and transmission of self as styled and spun by individual “owners” was the newest cult of choice. Online users now trawled through a mutating hive of data, news, gossip, and manufactured legacies that former Florence Mayor Renzi knew all too well. In hacking his way to Italy’s top job, he’d tied his name to youth and vigor, hoping to build a fad-proof political identity while also conveying the image of a hip outsider. The tactics were forged by U.S. President Barack Obama’s shrewd use of the web in his 2008 election campaign, an effort that not only worked but also attracted the attention of politicians worldwide. Italy’s love-hate fascination with all things American did the rest.
The early Argonauts of the Internet did not foresee a Renzi, let alone a Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-politician who represents yet another and more openly vulgar online brand. Nor could they have imagined the tens of thousands of pundits, politicians, pseudo-experts and bloggers that have laid siege to North American online channels. Instead, theorists such as Vannever Bush, an engineer, and J.C.R. Licklider, a computer scientist, anticipated the Internet as a vast communitarian project run by responsible adults eager to put its practical applications to good use. Both were orderly-minded men with idealistic intentions.
It was Bush who first articulated blueprints for the kinds of Internet machines that flourish today. “Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library,” he wrote in 1945. “It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”
Bush described his “memex” as a private memory device that would include “special buttons” to allow users to roam through a book either 10-pages or 100-pages at a time. “Associative indexing,” he continued, would permit the memex to “immediately and automatically” select other ideas based on the ones the user had chosen. A user could simply tap a key, “and the items are permanently joined,” creating “a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him,” a tracked trail that has since become the invasive centerpiece of all online commerce.
Bush’s essay was published in The Atlantic magazine a month before the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. He told readers that everything he had in mind, as improbable it might sound, was possible and required only the “projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry.”
Less than 20 years later, computer researcher Licklider went further. The cold war Pentagon was increasingly awash in data and had come to depend on computers. Out of this, Licklider — trained as a psychologist — developed the idea of networking, a tool that would allow computer users to share data and communicate. In 1963, he founded Project MAC (Project on Mathematics and Computation), which assailed the “passiveness of pages and books” and questioned the immense storage space they required. “We need to substitute for the book a device that will 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.” Swiftness and preservation were paramount. The nuclear age urged speed and eschewed paper, which was flammable. The world’s knowledge could go up in flames or be burned by knowledge-hating tyrants, a subject American futurist author Ray Bradbury covered in his 1953 novel “Farenheit 451,” in which outcasts are forced to memorize books to keep their legacy alive.
Bush’s and Licklider’s remarks — and Bradbury’s cautionary tangent — are vitally important as a counterpoint to how online life has developed over the last 20 years, and how Renzi and many others view it now. What the pioneers imagined and articulated was the creation of a grand library in the Alexandria tradition. They cared less about the primacy of data, let alone the transmission of celebrity, than about extending, amplifying and above all preserving the world’s ever-widening trove of intellectual information. They sought the sharing and swift delivery of information not to provide a fallback escape from monotony or to help indulge prefabricated fantasies but to give concentration better social results.
In portraying a future that included “cathode-ray-oscilloscope displays and light pens” and “time-sharing computer systems with remote user stations,” Licklider was interested in the intellectual function and not the look of the devices, believing the machines would be irrelevant if users didn’t know what questions to ask, or if the devices themselves knew only to answer randomly. Leisure-time browsing served no imaginable intellectual function. The ultimate goal, he wrote, was “intimate interaction with the fund of knowledge” that would be “not like anything in common experience” and push beyond “the sex-symbolizing and attention-compelling attributes of rockets,” a vital caution since rockets were in vogue when scientists first began speculating on the shape of an online world (now dominated, ironically, by the kinds of distracting, rocket-like devices Licklider found worrying).
Licklider foresaw a symbiotic relationship between man and machine in which swiftly retrieved data would “greatly improve” the thinking process. “Life will be happier for the on-line individual,” he wrote in 1968, “because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.” With utopian flourish, he also insisted unemployment would vanish because everyone of working age be hired to supplement “the collective (global) labor of system debugging” — in essence ensuring a society of trained techies.
For the less technical Bush, who was more sensitive to human limitations, “man’s spirit” would be elevated if he could “better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.”
Once again, however, the goals were respectful and collective, the opposite of anything run amok. What memex-advocates failed to presage — they were scientists, not social anthropologists — was how the creation and application of digital systems intended to encompass and share human knowledge would yield billions of personal democracies, gossip-packed cells of intimate interactivity home to emotionally charged views disdainful of any structured intellectual hierarchy.
That the process of massive indexing and networking would put “The Illiad” on associative par with Homer Simpson — the loud fusion of formal and casual —wasn’t an outcome the enlightened scientists predicted. Nor did they imagine the digital age in the context of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement or the harvesting and deployment of commercial propaganda. Interactivity for them was imagined as a traditional American leap forward with communal goals that would assist the chemist, the biologist, the historian, the lawyer and the patent attorney, vocations Bush cited when he wrote: “All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses — the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?” Chemists, lawyers and historians — Norman Rockwell-styled professionals — would manage a path governed by the same rules and values that oversaw the existing social framework. Staid but dignified people would suddenly be able to assemble and tap into cumulative data for the common good.
But when the heralded digital era finally arrived — not far off Licklider’s 1994 estimate — its original holistic design soon capitulated to something akin to a massive amateur hour. Capitalism’s defeat of communism redirected communitarian goals to a more cash-drive rush for markets and revenues. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others unavoidably turned into corporate technocrats. The Alexandria library concept of linkage was superseded by big-top values that vaulted the now “sex-symbolizing and attention-compelling” devices over cars atop consumer must-have lists. The ethics and governance of the commons was left to users themselves — who when they sought guidance found none. Instead, they came to see their innovative toys as opening the door to an exciting, disorderly dimension that — early 19th-century style — could flourish outside legislated civics, thus redefining participatory democracy. Ever-faster incarnations of intelligent devices arrived one atop another without traditional caveat of civics or appropriateness. The Internet was a populist success.
How the Argonauts envisaged the commons and how it exists today is now literally incomparable. Two decades after Licklider’s year 0, the ragged memex-dominated world encourages politicians — Renzi included — to brush aside personality cult charges by saying that shameless self-promotion is what all citizens of the web commons know and revel in; that self-branding is “empowering”; that disrespect (if not rage) is an attention-getting trait essential to personal and political affirmation; that web prattling is a duty of celebrity.
The vicarious ease of online life and its unparalleled opening to data and entertainment firms up a state of intoxicating distraction that can make already overwhelmed humans prone to respond in emotional terms alone. A lack of instant solutions or resolutions can in turn produce swift frustration, vexation and even rage.
That’s in part because the new machines — while as keenly associative as their makers hoped — lack the ability to craft context (a reality “smart” machine merchants obscure by advancing “apps” and “preferences.”) Though the “send” and “store” buttons that Bush and Licklider hoped would navigate a “trail of interest through the maze” serve their purpose remarkably well, the ability to navigate the maze does not alone ensure intelligent results, let alone guarantee a critical approach to the details found along the way. Web intercourse in this early phase tends to reflect the profane and the base, the carnal and the carnevalesque, as well as a “vacationer’s view” of intelligence, a pre-web phrase historian Jacques Barzun fashioned to warn of the risk of placing frivolous sentiment — the jolt of immediate excitement — ahead of disinterested knowledge.
In fairness, American society that nurtured both Bush and Linklider was partitioned racially and sexually, with marked boundaries between public and private. Diary-style confessions and the sharing of sexual intimacies were off limits to what was then known as the general public. When Licklider boasted of a “network” that could “keep track of users’ interests and needs and implement acquisition and retention policy,” the tracking he envisaged existed within the bounds of understood and accepted discretion. With an innovator’s conformist zeal, he saw connectedness as “a boon to humankind … beyond measure” that would come with the scientific and commercial joy of “adapting the network’s software to all the new generations of computers, coming closer and closer upon the heels of their predecessors…”
Pioneers rarely see the shady side of their dreams. While atom bomb creators almost immediately faced the downside of their invention, Licklider didn’t live to see his networking dream come true — nor to witness and reflect on the gradual growth of a distracting and near-narcotic dependency on do-everything web technology.
When Vannever Bush came up with the memex, World War II was winding down. He dreamed of a postwar age in which the challenge would be to create devices that superseded outdated means of storing and transmitting information, a Manhattan Project but focused on artificial intelligence and technology. He craved “powerful instrumentalities” to make “real use of the record,” namely the record of human existence. He wanted man “to grow in the wisdom of [human] race experience.”
Licklider was more impatient. Steeped in a early supercomputer world that had already taken a significant step toward Bush’s “powerful instrumentalities,” he eschewed “quasi-philosophical or socioeconomic waters,” preferring to theorize on the “needs and desires” of future users, the starting point for backyard acolytes Gates and Jobs, academic world dropouts (their impatience is significant) who also chose to put the satisfying of needs and desires — and profit — ahead of potential ethical or philosophical concerns.
Now, however, such quasi-philosophical and socioeconomic thinking may no longer be optional. Questions abound.
• How will connectedness influence future government and human relationships, since many such relationships are now forged and maintained virtually, with public interaction often less regular and the distinction between social and antisocial behavior losing its distinction?
• Will cultural and political criticism that increasingly depends on snap judgments permit any form of objective detachment, whether in law or politics?
• As democratized thinking continues to welcome all incoming information, and likewise ideas, will the growing thicket allow for perspective?
• With rambling populists including Beppe Grillo and French National Front leader Marine Le Pen — as well as online-friendly figures such as Renzi — putting casual irreverence ahead of stodgy ancien régime political discourse, how will future statesmanship be defined and function? What, aside from transmitted tidbits, will permit any politician to stand out?
• Is the ever-widening catalogue of choice and options further civilizing the human condition or generating unconscious anxiety based on a “too-muchness” few choose to recognize?
• Will the instantaneous sharing of extreme global suffering make populations more sensitive to such suffering, and determined to extinguish it, or will they instead behave only as voyeurs who then return to private concerns, reasoning as the late Susan Sontag did in 2002 that the awfulness to which they are made instantly privy is “too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention.”
In 1959, American writer Norman Mailer published “Advertisements for Myself,” whose provocative title was intended to attract attention for its immodesty. More than half-a-century later, modesty, false or otherwise, has vanished entirely, encouraging a Mailer-like approach to human interaction in which the vain self-portraiture once reserved for geniuses and tyrants is at everyone’s disposal.
The forerunners of intelligence sharing existed in a world of paper libraries, massive labor unions, and pre-counter culture grids — a world Stalin and Hitler still navigated. Bush and Licklider sought a more inclusive planet in which computers would serve as malls with citizens as the browsers. The fuddy-duddy worries of poets and intellectuals — “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” T.S. Eliot wrote 1934 — was irrelevant before community progress, hence the commons. More was better and the spreading and sharing of knowledge and information symbolic of the potential of that greater more.
What these forerunners did not anticipate was the battle between their concept of a commons and the all-encompassing primacy of the self, a titanic and ongoing tussle that has pitted the “we” against “I,” with the many first persons winning hands down, hurrying through information like Barzun’s vacationers, rarely pausing to ascertain its context, or even desiring to, and thus changing the pace and priorities of the world in ways that will likely take centuries to measure.