Vision and serendipity

As the year hurtles toward its end, and what looks sure to be a tumultuous 2019, I’ve been retreating under the duvet with Mitchell Waldrop’s The Dream Machine, published in a handsome edition by Stripe Press. The book is a history of the early years of the computer industry in the US, centred around JCR Licklider and his vision of human-computer symbiosis.

It has therefore quite a narrow focus, being a detailed history of the people involved in a small slice of the effort that went into creating today’s connected, online world. Licklider played a decisive role at DARPA in prompting and funding the creation of the Arpanet and hence ultimately the Internet. I got quite caught up in the detail – the triumphs and setbacks of particular researchers, their job moves, who fell out with whom, and so on. (Better than the painful minutiae of our Brexit humiliation, for sure.)

One of the striking aspects of the tale is how serendipitous the outcomes were. There are some popular Whig interpretations of digital innovation, as if the creation of the personal computer, GUI, Internet etc were purposive. It wasn’t like that at all. Licklider for sure had a vision. It might or might not have worked. It was sort of chance that he ended up in DARPA with his hands on a suitable budget to fund the networking. It certainly wasn’t an intentional US government industrial strategy, as some accounts would have it. The Dream Machine was a Heath Robinson contraption. There are lessons in such histories both for scholars of innovation and for would-be industrial strategists.

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