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.
Tracy Licklider profile, Internet Hall of Fame 2013