Tracy Licklider: Well I think my father was some­what vision­ary in basi­cal­ly think­ing up the idea, or fore­see­ing the idea, of the Internet. And his back­ground, he had a PhD in audi­tion, in hear­ing. He was an exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist. And he went to MIT and start­ed their exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gy pro­gram. And then he left acad­e­mia to go work for Bolt Beranek and Newman as a human fac­tors per­son who understood…who spe­cial­ized in hearing—in sig­nals that air­lines could use, that pilots could use, that were audi­ble under the cir­cum­stances they were in. 

But at Bolt Beranek and Newman, they got a com­put­er. And he rapid­ly and rad­i­cal­ly trans­formed him­self into a com­put­er per­son. And he just was enthralled with com­put­ers that were then effec­tive­ly per­son­al com­put­ers, they just took up a…room small­er than this but, it need­ed some space and air con­di­tion­ing and all kinds of things. But they weren’t multi-user. And so, basi­cal­ly it was a per­son­al com­put­er. Just a big one. And he became very infat­u­at­ed with this, and thought a lot about it. And he wrote a paper in the 60s that basi­cal­ly envisioned…not the Internet per se as it is today, but basi­cal­ly the con­cept of an Internet. 

Shortly after that, he was picked to go to Washington to work in what was then ARPA—the Advanced Research Projects Agency—before it became DARPA. And he worked for what was called the Information Processing Techniques Office. And he was giv­en a bunch of mon­ey. And he went about the coun­try kin­da pros­e­ly­tiz­ing his idea and involv­ing lots of peo­ple at uni­ver­si­ties, at places like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, get­ting them on board. And because he had this pot of mon­ey, he could fund ini­tial devel­op­ment of many things that became the ini­tial ARPANET.

And it was­n’t like today. I mean, there was still an invest­ment in basic research which has basi­cal­ly dis­ap­peared from the United States and most of the world. Everything is purpose-driven, com­mer­cial­ly purpose-driven research or you know, the mon­ey just isn’t there in gov­ern­ment think­ing or what­ev­er to find peo­ple who aren’t gonna make a quick­er car in two years or tasti­er peanut but­ter or whatever. 

But at that time there was. And so, no one real­ly knew what this was going to mean. In fact, the estab­lished telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions play­ers explic­it­ly want­ed noth­ing to do with it, you know. AT&T and IBM just…had no inter­est at all. And besides writ­ing the oth­er con­tri­bu­tion real­ly was fund­ing a lot of the researchers. He fund­ed Xerox PARC— I don’t mean exclu­sive­ly, but he gave mon­ey to researchers who were doing things work­ing on pro­to­cols, work­ing on… Initially, the ARPANET was a col­lec­tion… At that time there was a diver­si­ty of com­put­ers, diver­si­ty of main­frames. It was­n’t like today where you know, IBM makes main­frames and nobody else does. There were a hand­ful of com­pa­nies that were mak­ing main­frames com­put­ers and a smat­ter­ing of mini­com­put­ers. But orig­i­nal­ly, the Internet con­sist­ed of a bunch of lit­tle com­put­ers that were all the same and they could com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er. They were called IMPs for Interface Message Processors. And the group at BBN got a let­ter from Ed Kennedy’s office say­ing what a great idea it was that they were work­ing on an interfaith mes­sage proces­sor to you know, improve reli­gious tol­er­ance and under­stand­ing. But it was inter­face mes­sage processor. 

And then each one of these machines was pro­grammed, idio­syn­crat­i­cal­ly, to talk to its host. So you had a ring of com­put­ers that were—maybe you know all this and I should just stop. But you had a ring of com­put­ers the were all iden­ti­cal, that did the Internet Protocol. And then they would trans­late all that specif­i­cal­ly for what­ev­er idio­syn­crasies the host com­put­er had. And so it was­n’t tru­ly all these com­put­ers them­selves run­ning a pro­to­col to talk to each oth­er, they just had a special-purpose pro­gram writ­ten for them that would let them talk to this ring of IMPs. 

And of course even­tu­al­ly that changed, and the func­tion of the IMP was pushed back into the dif­fer­ent com­put­ers. Once there were well-established pro­to­cols it became incum­bent— I mean, any­body who made a machine had the—or the soft­ware for a machine—had to get TCP/IP in it and do that. 

I think those are real­ly the two aspects of what he did to think of and cat­alyze. His real con­cept of the Internet was as an infor­ma­tion util­i­ty. And… It’s clear, he— No one could. He did­n’t fore­see the explo­sion of the Internet to be such a dom­i­nant eco­nom­ic and social force that it is. In fact, when you talk to at any of the orig­i­nal peo­ple, they admit they had no clue where this was going to go. 

And I think he thought of it more as a library. And he was very keen on hav­ing peo­ple have access to all infor­ma­tion. And this was going to be a great resource. People around the world could access the best infor­ma­tion. People at home… Although it was much less a home-based thing. There was­n’t a World Wide Web yet. But you know, sci­en­tists and researchers could share papers instant­ly. And you could be in some small country…not par­tic­u­lar devel­oped, and still have access to the same knowl­edge that was avail­able in the US

But, that’s kind of it. I remem­ber as a kid, when I was about 5, he would take my sis­ter and me to Bolt Beranek and Newman to give my moth­er a break on Saturdays. And at one point I had the job— One of the first com­put­ers they got… And in this era, main­ly they—all did—used punched paper tape to— First you loaded a boot­strap loader. And then that put a pro­gram in the com­put­er’s mem­o­ry that could read the real pro­gram. And so you would put in the boot­strap loader, then you would run say the text edi­tor. You’d read that tape in. And then you’d read in a third tape which was your doc­u­ment so far. And then you’d edit it. And then it would punch out the new ver­sion onto paper tape. And one of my jobs was to roll up the paper tape and put a rub­ber band around it, and put it back on the peg­board when I was a kid. And I earned a nick­el a day. And you could buy a can­dy bar in the Bolt Beranek and Newman vend­ing machine for a nick­el. So it was perfect. 

Anyway, that’s kin­da what my dad did. After that stint, he was in and out of gov­ern­ment, work­ing on computer-related things, Internet-related things. He was in the Office of Naval Research. He was in…I don’t even remem­ber. I got off to school, and he was still going in and out of government- and computer-related roles. 

He left gov­ern­ment to go to the IBM Watson research lab. He thought it was too dull and too…applied. I mean it was all product-oriented. And he was very much of inno­v­a­tive, cre­ative mind. And he would talk to peo­ple about things and they’d just think he was a hope­less roman­tic or you know, just too much of a free thinker for IBM

So he did the trick of get­ting IBM to appoint him as a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at MIT and pay for it. And then even­tu­al­ly when he was at MIT, he became a fac­ul­ty mem­ber and he ran the lab for com­put­er sci­ence pret­ty much till the end of his life. And there was a lot of inno­v­a­tive stuff there at MIT. They devel­oped one of the first time-sharing sys­tems. And also did a lot of Internet-related stuff. 

Intertitle: Describe one of the break­through moments or move­ments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.

Licklider: Well I think the key one that most peo­ple would point to is the vision that he had. Fairly ear­ly on. And his idea was…the title of it was Man-Machine Symbiosis.” Now it sounds a lit­tle bit weird. Not a catchy best­seller list-type title. But I think what trans­formed him was his expe­ri­ences with these ear­ly com­put­ers. Sitting there, being there, and see­ing the way that a com­put­er could aug­ment a per­son­’s pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. And he saw… His idea was that these things could be devel­oped to help peo­ple do things and sort of advance the capa­bil­i­ties of peo­ple to do bet­ter research, more research, find out about things more quick­ly, keep track of things. But of course there was also email. Not that he invent­ed it, but that sort of meld­ed into the idea of the ear­ly Internet. This idea of fos­ter­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions among sci­en­tists and researchers, and as it expand­ed it got some com­put­er indus­try manufacturers—you know, IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, which no longer is—involved.

So I think what most peo­ple would rec­og­nize him for was that. And then there was the part when he was in gov­ern­ment ini­tial­ly, where he was basi­cal­ly a preach­er. And went around pros­e­ly­tiz­ing the vision of an—which he actu­al­ly called inter­galac­tic net­work.” And he was a fun­ny guy. I mean, he on pur­pose called it inter­galac­tic” just for fun. And since it was an engi­neer­ing crowd, you can get away with some some­what weird jokes, or weird points of view. 

But I think his fund­ing peo­ple was crit­i­cal. I mean if he had­n’t it may have hap­pened lat­er. But I think get­ting it going was key. And I think it was a con­flu­ence of many things. This could­n’t hap­pen in gov­ern­ment today. There’s no sort of like, We’ll give you some mon­ey, and you don’t have to real­ly account for it by say­ing, I did this and this and this.’ ” And cer­tain­ly at the time, most peo­ple in gov­ern­ment did­n’t know what to make of this. 

There were some mil­i­tary bases, or mil­i­tary bases that had research facil­i­ties on the Internet and he would go there as part of this pros­e­ly­tiz­ing mis­sion. And when he was in—ARPA was in the Defense Department, so he had a civil­ian rank. And this caused no end of con­fu­sion for the mil­i­tary. And he actu­al­ly went with some­one out­rank­ing him—actually a mil­i­tary man. But they’d got­ten the pro­to­col orders mixed up and so my dad was the leader of the group. And so no mat­ter how much this mil­i­tary guy protest­ed, they kept kow­tow­ing to my father. One of his vis­its, they were show­ing him some mis­sile. And he said, I’ll bet you can real­ly grinch them with that.” And as we were kids he’d been read­ing the Dr. Seuss book about the Grinch stole Christmas. But the mil­i­tary peo­ple did­n’t under­stand, and they thought it was a tech­ni­cal word that none of them knew what to make of. So they sent like a sergeant run­ning off to go find out what this word meant. Because they were sort of say­ing, Yeah. I…I guess.” But they did­n’t real­ly under­stand what he was talk­ing about. And he had a lot of expe­ri­ences like that. He was kind of…certainly for gov­ern­ment, cer­tain­ly for the mil­i­tary, a crazy guy. And he also liked to drink Coke for break­fast, which at that time was pret­ty radical. 

Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weath­er anal­o­gy and explain why.

Licklider: I think he would say…cloudy. Maybe worse. I think… He would be upset about— Well, he would be upset about nation-state poli­cies, the US includ­ed, where the Internet was being per­vert­ed into a secu­ri­ty tool. An infor­ma­tion con­trol tool. So you have coun­tries where…like Iran, that does­n’t like what the world says on the Internet so they want to cut it off and cre­ate their own inter­nal pri­vate Internet that’s con­trolled by Iranian peo­ple. And in par­tic­u­lar the gov­ern­ment, so nobody gets to say bad th—relative to their point of view, bad things or con­tro­ver­sial things. 

And in many cas­es where there’s been stu­dent upris­ings or polit­i­cal dis­con­tent, com­pa­nies just shut off the Internet. And he would be… I mean his vision was very ide­al­is­tic and very opti­mistic. And the fact that you could take some­thing that was meant to give access to every­one, to you know, the com­mon knowl­edge of mankind, he would find it very dif­fi­cult to see that. 

And also I think he would to some extent be sur­prised that busi­ness has hijacked the Internet in a cer­tain sense. That the enter­tain­ment indus­try… I’ll just pick on them, but oth­er indus­tries too, that’ve basi­cal­ly exploit­ed that sort of deliv­ery vehi­cle that was made not real­ly with them in mind but they have gained such a dom­i­nant posi­tion in dic­tat­ing how and where the Internet goes. 

And I think he would be upset about the cook­ie tracking—the survei— Not— He would be very upset about the NSA sur­veil­lance. But he would be very upset about the com­mer­cial sur­veil­lance, or build­ing dossiers. You know, most peo­ple are utter­ly unaware. When they go to Google, they go to Amazon, all of this is record­ed. And if you buy a book about par­ent­ing on Amazon, all of a sud­den you’re look­ing at dia­pers and cribs, and you know, they’ve decid­ed where you are. And you know, they fig­ure out from your ZIP code what your demo­graph­ics are and fig­ure, Well here’s a good one. Here’s a keep­er.” Or some­body else might show up and be from a less-affluent ZIP code and not buy­ing baby prod­ucts but some­thing kind of…and they say, Well this one’s much less interesting.”

But I think he would be upset, par­tic­u­lar­ly at the fact that it’s done in a way that vir­tu­al­ly every­one does­n’t know any­thing about it. That it’s…to most peo­ple com­put­ers and the Internet are mag­ic. And it nev­er occurs to them that they’re giv­ing up any infor­ma­tion. Or it’s even the case where… Well, it is the case that most peo­ple want stuff, and they’d actu­al­ly be trou­bled by the fact if a web site was hon­est and said, Look, in exchange for let­ting you get the stuff off our web site, we’re gonna take some infor­ma­tion from you and keep it.”

And most peo­ple would say, It annoys me that you ask that ques­tion because I real­ly just want to go to the stuff.” So most peo­ple would pre­fer that all this com­plex­i­ty and legal­i­ty was­n’t dis­closed them. They just you know, I just wan­na get this song off iTunes or Amazon or some­place. Don’t both­er me with all this stuff.” So it’s a bit ironic. 

But I think he would see the lack of pri­va­cy, espe­cial­ly the lack of secu­ri­ty, in the Internet as prob­lem­at­ic. And the fact that now big pow­ers, nation-states, intel­li­gence agen­cies, have a lot of con­trol and sur­veil­lance of what was sup­posed to be an open and free enterprise. 

Intertitle: What are your great­est hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?

Licklider: Well I think it’s so anti­thet­i­cal to his basic idea that this was going to be a free…a dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem that was unfet­tered, where you could— I mean it was a some­what naïve point of view at the time. Because basi­cal­ly you were deal­ing with a cohort of researchers who want­ed to share every­thing with each oth­er. And they were one group, with one agen­da. And when it was opened up to the world, when the World Wide Web came along, all of a sud­den you got thou­sands if not mil­lions of groups that had inter­ests in how things played out and sort of bent it, or exploit­ed it, in their own ways, com­mer­cial­ly, so that it was­n’t free, and it was­n’t open to every­one. And you had to pay this price of los­ing your privacy. 

And also I think part of the prob­lem is that the Internet was devel­oped in this naïve, iso­lat­ed envi­ron­ment where secu­ri­ty was­n’t an issue. And it’s well estab­lished that if you devel­op com­put­er sys­tems and try to tack on secu­ri­ty after the fact? It’s almost impos­si­ble. The only secure sys­tems are ones where you start out and in the orig­i­nal design con­cept you attach high impor­tance to secu­ri­ty. And if you don’t do that it’s vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to go back. The horse is out of the barn and its hard to stick im back in and pro­vide a secure frame­work. And peo­ple are scram­bling in the Internet tech­ni­cal world to fig­ure out how to get the horse back in the barn and pro­vide secure protocols. 

And also, what’s hap­pened in both com­put­er sci­ence and the advent of bet­ter and bet­ter computers—more pow­er­ful computers—a lot of the pro­to­cols that have stood up over time to pro­vide some degree of secu­ri­ty have been attacked more and more and more, and are seem­ing­ly… I mean basi­cal­ly in the Internet, using Secure Sockets Layer, where you get a lit­tle pad­lock on your URL, is real­ly the only line of defense, real­ly, from keep­ing every­thing from just being pub—everything you do or say being pub­lic in plain text, every­where. And it’s being attacked. And yes­ter­day I was read­ing about some attacks that let peo­ple gain par­tial infor­ma­tion from encrypt­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions. But worst of all, the impor­tant infor­ma­tion like steal­ing your pass­word, or steal­ing your Social Security Number…that it facil­i­tates doing that. It’s not real­ly a tool for find­ing out exact­ly what you said. If you said, Mom, I don’t like baked beans. Don’t make them for me when I come home,” it’s not for doing that. It’s real­ly tar­get­ed at get­ting crit­i­cal pieces of infor­ma­tion: your pass­word, your wifi pass­word, your bank account. And there’s this whole enter­prise of thievery. 


Well I think he was very utopi­an, and he thought this would be a vehi­cle for tak­ing the best, most author­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion about every­thing and get­ting it freely avail­able to every­one. And I think he would be… That was his great hope. I think he’d be dis­ap­point­ed that it’s so fet­tered. And you know, most peo­ple use it… You know, you can talk to Siri and say, Where’s a Chinese restau­rant with­in a mile of here?” And that’s get­ting infor­ma­tion. And that’s per­fect­ly fine. But I think he was think­ing more about knowl­edge, and not get­ting com­mer­cial rec­om­men­da­tions about where to go to eat or basi­cal­ly doing things where you’re doing some­thing where you’re giv­ing away infor­ma­tion about your­self to get some service. 

Intertitle: Is there action that should be tak­en to ensure the best pos­si­ble future?

Licklider: Well I think there’d be two main things. One, I think he would real­ly want the Internet engi­neer­ing group to reengi­neer pro­to­cols. People are nev­er, I think, going to under­stand the secu­ri­ty coun­ter­mea­sures they need to put in place in order to achieve secu­ri­ty and pri­va­cy. It’s just not with­in the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty that the vast major­i­ty of com­put­er users would do that. So it has to be done for them, and has to be built into the pro­to­cols and the oper­at­ing sys­tems. And to this point, there’s not been any com­mer­cial pres­sure. I mean, in places there has been. I mean you can’t be a bank and have some­one steal all the mon­ey. And so there’s spot places where there’s more of a con­cern for secu­ri­ty. But even with cred­it card com­pa­nies, the fraud is just a cost of doing busi­ness. And it does­n’t real­ly both­er them as long as it’s at a suf­fi­cient­ly low lev­el. Even they don’t want to spend the mon­ey on improved secu­ri­ty. They just accept what hap­pens as long as it’s man­age­able. And so there’s very little…certainly the com­mer­cial providers on the Internet don’t want to give up suck­ing up all that infor­ma­tion about you which they can turn into mon­ey. So they have no incen­tive, and in fact prob­a­bly would be against an effort to reengi­neer things with secu­ri­ty as the first thought to the Internet pro­to­cols, and to oper­at­ing sys­tems, to browsers, to things that con­nect. And I think he would push hard for that. 

I think he’d also be con­cerned about equi­ty. His view was that it should be ubiq­ui­tous­ly avail­able. And I think part­ly tech­nol­o­gy is tak­ing care that prob­lem. To a degree. The devices are cheap­er and cheap­er and cheap­er. And you know, a lot of the so-called third world, you go look there­in and they live the way they did twen­ty years ago but they have a cell phone. And they have some con­nec­tion to the world. But I think still, there’s just great inequity in terms of access and afford­abil­i­ty. And he would be con­cerned about that. And I think he def­i­nite­ly would want cer­tain­ly all the uni­ver­si­ties of the world to sort of be attached for free. I mean you know, if a coun­try did­n’t have a cable con­nec­tion to the world, he would want it to be pro­vid­ed by the UN or by some­body, to con­nect peo­ple, every­where. Maybe not absolute­ly every­one but at least a core of peo­ple so that great thinkers in fun­ny places would not be left out of the con­ver­sa­tion. Because they might be the pre­cise ones who have the tech­no­log­i­cal insight to cre­ate a break­through or some… And his goal was cer­tain­ly to be as inclu­sive of any­one who might have that kind of insight. 

But it was very much a knowl­edge of mankind-oriented thing. I think he’d be con­cerned about cen­sor­ship. The nation-state inter­dic­tion of Internet. So like if you think it’s caus­ing unrest, you just turn it off for your coun­try, turn it off for Egypt, or Iran or what­ev­er. And he’d be trou­bled that that’s how countries…that they had the pow­er. And then abused it—or used it to shut down—

And I think also, orig­i­nal­ly the Internet was a much more egal­i­tar­i­an archi­tec­ture. In that you could take mul­ti­ple paths to get some­place. You know, if the serv­er was down, the Internet would fig­ure out anoth­er way around that. And what’s hap­pened is there’s been a lot of con­sol­i­da­tion and so the Internet, for major play­ers like Google, and Akamai, and peo­ple like that…or peo­ple like Xfinity, Time Warner…these peo­ple have built their own net­work, their own Internet, that’s not car­ry­ing the traf­fic of the world. It’s just being used as a com­mer­cial advan­tage. They can get infor­ma­tion to you quick­er because they pushed it out to nodes all over the place. And that gives them a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage. If you go try to buy your dia­pers at XYZ who’s on some back­wa­ter pub­lic net­work, it’s not gonna be as snap­py and what­not. And so the fact that there’s a lot of Internet that’s opaque to the gen­er­al traf­fic I think would’ve both­ered him. 

Partly too—I mean, he was­n’t the kind of guy who was… I mean he was a very smart man. But he was­n’t a busi­ness­man. And I think he did­n’t ever real­ly put him­self in the posi­tion of think­ing that way? Cause if he had, if he did, or if he were more of an econ­o­mist or some­thing like that, I think he could have fore­seen that these com­mer­cial pres­sures would be brought to bear. 

And even with email, before the World Wide Web some com­pa­nies tried to cre­ate pri­vate email. In fact one of the suc­ceed­ing direc­tors of IPTO, where my dad had been, even­tu­al­ly left and went back in the pub­lic and built a busi­ness on— Because at that point most cor­po­ra­tions did­n’t have access to the Internet. And so it was pro­vid­ing email— And you know, it was long enough ago so that one of the fea­tures of this email was that you could email it to a print­er, that they own, in some local­i­ty and then they would take the paper to some­body who was­n’t on email. And a num­ber of com­pa­nies did that. 

But then all that was swept away by the fact that now you can do basi­cal­ly any­thing. Print plas­tic guns over the Internet. But any­way, I mean I think that would his set of con­cerns. But I think he would be most trou­bled by nation-state behav­ior where the NSA is exploit­ing it as a sur­veil­lance means, and oth­er gov­ern­ments do that. I mean, it seems to be par for the course. At least in rel­a­tive­ly advanced coun­tries. And I think he’d be very trou­bled by that.

Further Reference

Tracy Licklider pro­file, Internet Hall of Fame 2013


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