Very little has been accomplished since the end of the Second World War.
At least, that is a proposition one might offer after reading the promises and prophecies of Hughes, Bush and Licklider — great optimists all. For despite the advances imagined and proclaimed, despite the rise of the computer, the network, and the Internet, what achievements can we point to in the second half of the 20th century and say, “Well done!”
Here’s my short list, what’s on yours?: the moon landing and the defeat of the USSR. And this thing we call the Information Revolution. But what exactly is that? Has it helped us cure cancer, or radically reduce our dependence on oil? Has it improved the standard of living of a significant part of the planet?
True, it gives every person who can afford it access to a wealth of information — to the entire knowledge base of civilization, let us say. But no great new religions, political systems, or works of art that we can tell. We can call up every bit and serve out every byte, but the Hubble telescope still wears glasses and the election of the President of the United States hangs on paper chads.
Let us agree, at least, on this: that the persistence of typographical errors in even the most advanced computerized environments suggests interactive communication has yet to be effectively achieved. And further, that a Webex meeting sometimes unexpectedly zaps out.
Vannevar Bush, is that some sort of anagram? His “As We May Think” of 1945 recalls the sociological study of the Nacirema assigned to grade school students in my day. “The applications of science…may yet allow [man] to truly encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience,” writes Bush. Then again, “he may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good.”
Or as Hughes concludes, after chronicling the rise and fall of the “military-industrial complex” between Hiroshima and Saigon (and between Iraq Wars 1991 and 2003): “Dramatic swings in attitudes stimulated by passing events have long characterized history.”