Technology (9): The Dream Machine

The Dream Machine cover
The Dream Machine – republished by Stripe Press

In short

This book – about the origins of the internet – comes highly recommended by lots of people, and is really excellent.


I think The Dream Machine is about these things:

The network (of people) behind the network (of machines) – the plot of TDM follows the role of J.C.R. “Lick” Licklider, who played a key role in ARPA, the U.S. Defense Department’s research arm. He had the vision of networked human-computer interaction, and drove a lot of early investment into computers and particularly networking, graphical displays and interactivity. More than anything, the book highlights how Lick brought people together and encouraged the vision to grow and spread and ideas to breed. (See also: Scenius)

The deep roots of (apparently) rapidly moving technology – the book ends with the birth of the modern internet in (roughly) the early 1990s, but the action starts in 1940 (Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators goes back further). The vision – from Vannevar Bush’s Memex (1939) to Lick’s human-computer symbiosis (1960) – was clearly articulated long before it was close to a reality. It was a small, localised reality at Xerox PARC (c. 1973) and at universities long before it reached the world.

Technological Hybridity – the internet isn’t (just) about computation, or communication, or community, but how these things amplify each other, underpinned by thousands of pieces of enabling technology. Lots of the icons put in an appearance: from theoretical heavyweights like Vannevar Bush, John von Neumann, Alan Turing, Bill Shockley and Claude Shannon to innovators and popularisers like Doug Engelbart, Bob Metcalfe, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs… the cast is huge, and in a sense the internet is a monument to all of their work.

Hardware, software and wetware – we need to understand the development of the internet as consisting not just of innovation with atoms (silicone, copper cables, fiber-optics, cathode-ray tubes), and bits (ones and zeros representing information – messages, instructions… and just about anything else), but also with people (ideas, ambitions, desires, irrationalities, ways of organising). It is – and will continue to be – a complex and unpredictable tangle, a kind of cyborg mess.

Interfaces, standards and interoperability – over and over, TDM tells the story of interfaces: between people and computers (over several generations), between computers and other computers, and then between networks of computers, and finally (again) between (normal) people and their networked computers. Progress is made in all of these areas by the development of standards and protocols, which are themselves the result of interfaces between people.

“Self excitement” and sustainability – TDM tells the story of the people driving technology forward to the point where it seemed inevitable and unstoppable – the mass market, consumer internet of the 1990s and beyond. It’s a story of huge investment, blind alleys, and the search for a sustainable, scaleable model by which the revolution can begin to pay for itself.

Early days – this point arrived (and TDM stops) when many of the constituent technologies (semiconductors, networking, software) were relatively mature… at which point the internet itself was brand new. We haven’t seen anything yet.


I’ll make quote-posts galore out of TDM to unpack some of these details. My main reflection for now is that this particular set of technology stories seems to be a rich source of case studies for understanding the spread and influence of technology in general. It’s long and complex enough that we get a sense of the huge variety of forces (and serendipity) at play, but recent enough that we have rich, eye-witness accounts of how it happened and of the before-and-after of it all.

Of particular interest to me is how the technology of the internet is so general-purpose and so generative – more equivalent in its potential to literacy than to electrification, with which it’s often compared. This shines a light both forwards and backwards:

  • What is the internet’s equivalent of mass literacy? How far are we from reaching it?
  • What does it mean for a society to have mastered this technology? If the American tech scene ground to a halt, could the people of group X sustain it? Is it important that they could if they needed to?
  • How is it useful to understand the spread of literacy as a (still ongoing) technological revolution?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...