October 1, 2006

Licklider's and Taylor's The Computer as a Communication Device

Licklider, J.C.R. and Robert W. Taylor. (1968). The computer as a communication device. Science and Technology (September), 20-41.

This prescient article from 1968 foretells the computer’s interactive capability and potential relationship with humans, evidenced today in the Internet. Taylor and Licklider, an MIT researcher and influential collaborator on ARPANET, outline here the need for and implications of networked computers with a user-friendly interface. Importantly, the authors do not restrict their assessment to merely technical factors; throughout the article, the technology is placed within the framework of the human. In this sense, they recognize that an effective model for interactive communication must be fluid and dynamic as well as “a common medium that can be contributed and experimented with by all? (p. 22)—as it turned out, a key feature of the Internet. They argue that communication requires a cooperative, externalized model. For interactive communication to be successful (whether face-to-face, through telecommunication, or through computer networks), participants must be able to “create and modify external models? (ibid.). For instance, individuals must be able to articulate, share, understand, and alter each other’s internal ideas through external means.

Specifically, this article illustrates the future of interactive computing and the role of networked computers in group decision-making in the setting of a technical project meeting that occurred in the late 1960s. The authors are convinced that “a particular form of digital computer organization, with its programs and its data, constitutes the dynamic, moldable medium that can revolutionize the art of modeling and that in so doing can improve the effectiveness of communication among people so much as perhaps to revolutionize that also? (p. 27). While the authors outline the network’s infrastructure (nodes and servers, for instance), they are most excited about the “modeling? function of interactive computing as opposed to its “switching? function (that is, its cooperative, human element, as opposed to its technical ability to “store and forward?). Indeed, the focus on technology’s modeling function is this article’s most seminal feature. It examines the effect on the individual, but also, more broadly, on society. They ask: “Will ‘to be on line’ be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of ‘intelligence amplication,’ the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity? (p. 40). Their examination of how humans might interact with this technology is the beginning of a long line of research that continues today.