Nice Guy Behind the Net Dreamt of Happy Digital Age

The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, by M. Mitchell Waldrop. Viking, 528 pages, $27.95.

J.C.R. who?

We all know something of computing history, of the mathematical philosophers John von Neumann and Alan Turing, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Digital Equipment Corporation, the Pentagon in the 1960′s, Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs, I.B.M., Bill Gates.

But Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider?

When he selected Licklider-always referred to as “Lick”-as the peg on which to hang his 500-page history of modern computing, the science writer M. Mitchell Waldrop was taking a risk. Something in his hero resists the boastful certainties of American masculine biography. What do you do with a guy who said his greatest achievement at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was to pick a good successor? In his only major interview in 1988, Lick said: “I think that there’s nothing I can point to with pride and say, ‘I did that.’”

Lick was not even a computer scientist, but a psychologist with an intense interest in the functionings of the mind. He was, by his own account, a poor academic and business manager, and ARPA’s most celebrated legacy-the pioneering computing network known as ARPANET-was more the work of his successors in Washington. For much or maybe even most of this long book, Lick is absent, or present only through rather forced narrative links-”in Lick’s old job … ” or “where Lick had once …, ” etc.

Yet one sees what Mr. Waldrop is getting at. Even when he was at the Pentagon, Lick preached an anti-authoritarian vision of computing that caught the imagination of the rising generation and is gospel today. In a world of punched tape and batch-processing, Lick pioneered open access to computers through multiple terminals, a process known as “time-sharing.” As a psychologist among mathematicians and electrical engineers, he saw the computer less as a binary gadget to do stuff than as a model or simulacrum of the protean human mind. It helped that Lick was possessed of a peculiarly beautiful personality. Even in old age, he was remembered by M.I.T. undergraduates as a nice guy in a corner office who got them all involved with computers.

Lick was born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1915, the son of a Baptist minister. He graduated from Washington University and did his doctoral work in the psychophysiology of the auditory system. He spent World War II at Harvard University’s Psychoacoustics Laboratory working on problems of communication that arise in noisy bomber aircraft. In 1950, he moved across the river to M.I.T., where he worked on a computer-based air defense against Soviet bombers. Batch-processing operations, in which problems were identified in advance, coded onto punch cards and fed into computers in large batches, were clearly going to be no use in conditions of nuclear attack. This system required computers that functioned in what we call real time: Information was fed in and results came out at once.

In March 1960, while working for an architectural acoustics-design firm, Lick published an article that remains his chief claim to fame. In “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” he undertook an experiment in introspection of truly 18th-century character: “About 85 per cent of my ‘thinking’ time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. Much more time went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it. Hours went into the plotting of graphs, and other hours into instructing an assistant how to plot. Throughout the period I examined, in short, my ‘thinking’ time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight. Moreover, my choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability.”

In Lick’s “symbiosis,” for which he conjured the image of a fig tree and the wasp that both feeds on it and fertilizes it, computers would do the routine work, leaving the human mind free for creative endeavor. Increased processing speeds-soon to be codified as Moore’s Law-and humane user-interfaces would allow mankind to “interact” with computers to determine not only What is the answer?, but also What is the question?

Even at this distance, Lick’s cockeyed optimism exerts a powerful charm. He suggested that there might be poetry written in the language of digital computers better than anything in English. Meanwhile, “Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.”

The Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency had been set up in 1957 in response to the Soviet satellite launch known as Sputnik: The U.S. was not about to slip behind the Soviets in science. In 1962, Lick was invited to Washington to head two ARPA departments, Behavioral Sciences and Command and Control, and for two years he was to shower his friends and associates with some $10 million a year in pre-inflation dollars. In the end, there were about a dozen universities and companies working on ARPA contracts. One was a large-scale experiment in time-sharing at M.I.T. called Project MAC. Another was SRI International, where Doug-las Engelbart’s belief in “augmenting the intellect” was to produce such modern computer furniture as the mouse, onscreen windows and hypertext. Lick’s ideal, it seems, was an open community whose members would build on one another’s inventions rather than develop solitary machines and languages.

He nicknamed his group the Intergalactic Computer Network, which was later to form the core of the ARPANET and, after many twists and turns, the modern Internet. In an April 1963 memo to “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network,” Lick imagined all of ARPA’s time-sharing computers linked into a national system. He wrote: “If such a network as I envisage nebulously could be brought into operation, we would have at least four large computers, perhaps six or eight small computers, and a great assortment of disc files and magnetic tape units-not to mention the remote consoles and Teletype stations-all churning away.”

Time sharing has had its day, seen off by Moore’s Law, but one can still detect in this passage a premonition of the Internet. Lick left Washington in 1964, and it was his successors, most notably Larry Roberts, who actually built the network. At a time when it was fighting a war in Asia and was poison to every campus in the land, the Pentagon could still throw money at the longhairs.

After two dismal years at I.B.M., the home of the blue suit and the mainframe, Lick returned to M.I.T. and took over as director of Project MAC, where his chaotic office routines almost destroyed his reputation and friendships. A second tour at ARPA, from 1974 to 1975, was no happier. After Vietnam, the generals and Pentagon civilians wanted military results, not fundamental research. As Lick returns to M.I.T. and passes out of computer history, Mr. Waldrop instead retells the sad history of Xerox PARC, which created the modern paraphernalia of graphical user-interface and laser printer, but failed to commercialize a personal computer. We pass from there to the expansion and denationalization of the ARPANET and the Apple Macintosh. But by the time of the microcomputer revolution of the 1980′s, Lick was prey to Parkinson’s disease. He died, greatly mourned, in 1990.

In one of many admirable passages, Mr. Waldrop reminds us that “technology isn’t destiny …. The way its capabilities are used is as much a matter of cultural choice and historical accident as politics is, or fashion.” Without Lick, his optimism and his money, Mr. Waldrop seems to be saying, we might have been stuck with HAL 9000, the oppressive and vulnerable mainframe of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The hobbyists might have stayed in their garages while Moore’s Law justified ever more powerful and bigger centralized machines. Lick himself, in 1979, sketched out a sort of dark-side Internet marked by “supervision, regulation, constraint and control.”

Who knows? It is the genius of the modern world not to deny us what we want, but rather to inundate us in what we never for a moment dreamed we would ever want but now dare not forgo: the personal computer, the Internet. The mind freed by the computer from clerical drudgery does not roam the empyrean, but downloads pornography or trades stocks on margin; and as for our online happiness, Lick should have remembered Rousseau, who marveled at the labor we expend so prodigiously to make ourselves so thoroughly wretched.

James Buchan’s latest novel is The Persian Bride (Houghton Mifflin).