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Atari Sketches of Laptops and Wikipedia from 1982 (futureofthebook.org)
169 points by maxwell on Apr 15, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

"we completely missed the most important aspect of the network -- that it was going to connect people to other people."

I find this to be far the most interesting part of this article. Why was it that they missed this aspect? Was it just something they overlooked, or was it that people could not envision connecting with each other through technology?

Interesting to think about.

It's easy for engineers to predict technical developments, like cellular technology. What doesn't come natural for those who are technically oriented is the prediction of how people, and society at large, will respond to and therefore influence the development of that technology.

Wikipedia is what it is today because of the collaborative nature of its editing process. I have no doubt that the "Intelligent Encyclopedia" envisioned by Atari didn't even dream of the possibility of it being community-edited.

When they say they "missed" it, they mean that they dreamed it up but did not understand the impact it would have. They glossed over it, assuming it would just be an "improvement" in the same way that longer battery life is an improvement. They did not consider the secondary and tertiary impacts; most importantly, en-mass community collaboration.

The key is not actually even the wireless; remember, these are from 1982 when the internet as we know it did not yet exist. It is the global connectivity, period, not the wireless.

I think it's because back in the day, the mainframe mentality was predominant. Sit at a terminal, make the computer do something, and get the results back. In 1982, nobody thought email would become a mainstream form of communication, and CompuServe had recently introduced the first chat room.

Also, TV and radio broadcasts formed a huge part of the mental model for how media was created and distributed.

People miss this.

Technology makes us more human, not less.

Technology creates new verbs ("email" me; "like" me, "follow" me). But we embrace only language that makes us more human, not less.

People think that technology colonizes us. On the contrary, we colonize technology.

However, humanity has good and evil sides. Trouble brews when the evil colonizes more effectively than the good. Preventing this is itself a "wicked problem."

Wikipedia specifically is a wiki -- for all the pros and cons. These slides don't actually hint that it's user createable/editable per se, any more than radio is. It's an online encyclopedia/news service. Aside from that, quite amazing.

The collective knowledge/social aspect always seems to be missing from these "glimpses of the future". Hell even as recent as the birth of youtube there was skepticism over whether average people would be contributing videos or if it would just become a repository for traditional publishers.

"A father reminisces with his son about '60's Rock and Roll, calling up footage from the Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show from the Intelligent Encyclopedia"

They didn't figure on copyright being locked for very many years?

Also, the future is all-white. (Unless you're in Japan.) That wouldn't happen today.

I must admit, if I were to draw pictures of the future I might forget putting black people into it, too. Obviously if I were to think about the future somewhere else, I might remember, but where I live (Germany) it just isn't so common to bump into non-white people. So it seems naturally that drawing them wouldn't be the first thing I would think of.

It is a relatively new trend* in the U.S. to be very mindful of diversity in PR and stock media. The trend has been to show equal representation of skin colors instead of an accurate representation of frequency. Now, this is starting to move to showing a greater number of skin color minorities than the color majority, due to market research showing additional positive response with the minority and neutral response with the majority.

*not near as pervasive in '82

Makes sense. I wish I had more diverse friends, but it just didn't turn out that way (yet).

>Also, the future is all-white. (Unless you're in Japan.) That wouldn't happen today.

Yes, today it would include the token black person...

(Whereas the conditions re: black/white in income, the workforce, high paid positions, university deegress and such haven't changed much, if at all).

So, a win for hypocrisy.

To give a sense of perspective: 2042 is 30 years from now. I'm really surprised by how much they got right. Even the earthquake warning system: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthquake_Early_Warning_(Japan...

It's interesting to note some of the subtle mis-predictions. The blog post already mentions the incorrect uses, so I'll skip that. Most of the technology depicted would be considered very bulky these days. Also, many of the non-mobile displays are small by our standards.

I wonder what mistakes our 30-year predictions will make.

There's probably some selection bias working here. I'm sure plenty of people predicted things going to happen in the future, and we only hear of either the surprisingly correct ones or the ones completely off the mark.

Atari Labs in particular brainstormed a lot of things, some more on-target than others, so there are quite a few wrong predictions as well. It's interesting that it even existed, though. The idea, today, that a videogame company could host a basic-research lab like Bell Labs, MSR, etc., headed by a prominent researcher (Alan Kay was near the top of his fame at the time) seems almost absurd. Google hired Peter Norvig to head up a corporate research lab, but it's hard to imagine Ubisoft or EA doing something like that.

My favorite not-implemented Atari Labs memo, fwiw, was Brenda Laurel's suggestion that they design games for dolphins and humans to play together: http://www.kmjn.org/snippets/laurel82_dolphinvideogame.html

By-and-large though, VALVe as a corporation is an outlier in virtually every sense from the rest of the gaming industry. They own 100% of their distribution, they're a developer that distributes for other developers, they're immensely in-tune with their customers, their consistently open support of the modding community, user-vs-profit focused DRM...

Despite the fact that VALVe makes games, they're unlike any other gaming company out there right now. The Minecraft team is a few iterations and portfolio additions away from that same tier.

Atari was far more than a video game company then. They had personal computers out since 1979 and were looking at seriously entering the education and telecommunications space. I saw a talk from an Atari veteran a few years ago about how they were working on FM subcarrier systems to allow transmitting programs via the sidebands of commercial radio stations.

I'm no stranger to selection bias (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1852186 for example). I'm just surprised that anyone back then managed to make such predictions.

Also, a lot of what's in there were not out of the blue predictions, but extrapolations from existing work: LCD screens existed, and many companies were considering it for computers (Commodore bought an LCD manufacturer for example), so extrapolating large flat screens was natural. Portable computers were on the market (the Osborne 1, inspired by Alan Kay's own prototype from Xerox in the mid 70's), so assuming they'd get lighter was a natural extrapolation. Hypertext as a concept dated back to Project Xanadu in the 60's at least, so assuming encyclopedic knowledge on your computers wasn't that strange etc.

>and we only hear of either the surprisingly correct ones or the ones completely off the mark.

But this one is neither surprisingly correct

(laptops for all, wireless communication and an online encyclopedia? You don't say!)

nor completely off the mark

(mostly ok, missed a few things like the public internet, thin laptops and tablets).

Reminds me a bit of Slate's Lexicon Valley in their episode about Webster's Third (edition dictionary). It was to be the end of to end all as far as knowledgable authority goes. Want to know anything? Consult your trusty dictionary!


edit: I believe it was Webster's Second that was supposed to be the 'cream of the crop'. This is discussed in the podcast.

Here's a page from "Whole Earth 'lectronic link" describing notable networks from 1988.


One reason why people may have missed the "linking people to people" thing is the cost. I have no idea how a 1988 $ compares to today, but $11 per hour is incredibly expensive.

Worth reading a bit about France's Minitel, it was an amazing electronic network introduced in 1982.


"Millions of terminals were handed out free to telephone subscribers, resulting in a high penetration rate among businesses and the public. In exchange for the terminal, the possessors of Minitel would not be given free "white page" printed directories (alphabetical list of residents and firms), but only the yellow pages (classified commercial listings, with advertisements); the white pages were accessible for free on Minitel, and they could be searched by a reasonably intelligent search engine; much faster than flipping through a paper directory."

I had a BIX account! For me it was one of the cheapest ways to get Internet access (pre-web).

It was noteworthy for the coding discussions.

On-line services back then _were_ expensive. I recall GEnie (a Compuserve wannabe) asking $5/hr in 1990.

Anyone else notice the kid in the classroom who is supposed to be participating in the Mars landing simulation but instead has his helmet off and is drawing an unflattering picture of the teacher?

That's one prediction that was dead on and will probably still be accurate in thirty years: kids will always be kids.

> The couple on the left is taking an on-the-spot course in wine connoisseurship.

"Look darling, it says I'm right, the wine that comes in bottles is better than that stuff you get in a box!"

That looks like Notch standning by the bar.

So any kind of online encyclopedia is specifically Wikipedia?

An online encyclopedia is easy to predict; a user-editable one is a lot more difficult, and there's no evidence this source got there.

It's easy to count hits when you ignore the fact they're misses.

Geez, I'd be more charitable. Back in 1982, storage and bandwidth were so limited that even online encyclopedias were pie-in-the-sky so even thinking it was possible put you in pretty visionary company.

As for user-editable I can find two predictions which might qualify.

First, Vannevar Bush's Memex:

"Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. ... The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected."

-- As We May Think (1945)

Douglas Adams managed to predict the user-editable encyclopedia in 1982's "Life, The Universe and Everything": "most of the actual work [on the Hitch-hiker's Guide] got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing."

But he didn't predict an online one, in the series at the time, HG2G was a local e-book or database-type encyclopedia that was updated via the Sub-Etha network.

Vannevar Bush had some amazing insights in 1945 about the future direction of storage:

"The Encyclopædia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk".

h2g2 was also a user-driven online network/local encyclopedia that predated the wikipedia launch by 2 years (according to Wikipedia ;)). So, Douglas Adams even built it before Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H2g2 http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/dontpanic-tour

Isn't it crazy that Wikipedia launched not before 2001? (And wasn't relevant till 2003.) It is so ingrained in my Web habits that I have the feeling it existed already in the 90s.

You hit the nail on the head! I thought of some other things that would have floored me 10-15 years ago.

* Ask yourself what you used to search before Google? In fact, remember Web Rings?

* How did you share pictures before Facebook, Myspace, or Flickr?

* How about the holy grail of watching videos online before Youtube (Otherwise known as the dark ages of Real Player)?

* Remember when you had to print out Mapquest directions to somebody's house? God forbid you missed a turn! When was the last time you consulted a paper map other than for fun?

* How did you deal with the mountains of spam before Gmail, or any other industrial strength spam filter?

* How about getting the internet on your cell phone?

* When was the last time you had to pay for WiFi? Granted there are some holdouts, like airports, but WiFi is practically everywhere. If you can get into a Starbucks you have access, for free, to the internet.

* How about downloading a 10mb file in less than an hour? God help you if the connection was interrupted...

The things we do today are astounding in both the scope of their capabilities and how much we take them for granted.


I was really surprised when I originally read this in the "Goofs" list for the Hurt Locker.

I actually remember the first time I used Wikipedia, in '02 or '03, while researching pyrethrum insecticide in high school. It was such a qualitative improvement over other centralized resources; I wondered how I ever got by without it. Same way I felt when I found Google a few years earlier, and when I got an iPhone a few years later.

I've actually used Wikipedia that way - as a locally stored database dump. Evopedia on the N900 made this easy, even though it also took a major part of my SD card to do so.

Very useful when traveling in a world where 3G roaming is still prohibitively expensive, much like it would probably be for intergalactic hitchikers.

The Hitchhiker's Guide wasn't really user-editable, just radically disorganized.

Any sufficiently radically disorganized editorial system is indistinguishable from user-editable.

> Geez, I'd be more charitable.

Being charitable isn't the same as lying about what people back then actually thought.

You're right, headline should've probably just had "Online Encyclopedia".

Can't find anything on how Alan Kay envisioned authorship of the Intelligent Encyclopedia, but it wouldn't surprise me if he looked at a democratic encyclopedia as Leonardo may have flight: lacking the exact design but having faith that it would work "eventually".

In the late 1890s, Lord Kelvin said,

  I am afraid I am not in the flight for "aerial navigation". [...]
  I have not the smallest molecule of faith in [it] other than 
  ballooning or of expectation of good results from any of the
  trials we hear of. [1]
I wonder what computer scientists thought of a general purpose "all-you-can-edit" online encyclopedia in the late 1990s. The quote from Vannevar Bush in a sibling comment mentions a "profession of trail blazers" contributing content and links, which sounds more like Nupedia or Knol. As McCarthy with m-expressions, Jimbo found out Nupedia was superfluous.

[1] Often inaccurately summarized as "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible"; http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_Thomson

why online? Encarta would have fit the bill of "intelligent encyclopedia" enough, being on a cdrom.

Encarta came out around 1993 so it was a latecomer. You can find much earlier examples, like the New Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia which was one of the earliest CD-ROMs and came out in 1985.

Online connectivity is specifically mentioned in the earthquake monitor caption, and can be inferred from the antenna on the laptop at the tidal pool.



I think this is pretty neat in retrospect, but it seems to me it didn't do Atari much good.

Makes me wonder if all these "Vision of the Future" videos that companies put out now are equally as pointless.

Microsoft puts out some interesting videos, but I've always had the impression that Apple was more about just 'hacking something up', hence the Steve Jobs quote, "we could do a phone with this", on playing with an early mockup of how an iPad type device would work.

An exception to this seems to have been the Courier fold out touch screen computer. It did look way complicated though.

I often think the same thing. Microsoft predicted growth in tablet computing, but borked the timing and technology.

It's not particularly useful anticipating a brilliant piece of technology if you can't capitalise on it.

Well not useful to you monetarily, but you can still enjoy the product that other people got right.

Augmented reality concepts have been around for a long time, and whoever gets it right will become insanely rich. The rest of us will get to enjoy it :)

A lot of those "Visions of the Future" videos are nothing but brand building. They are often meant to make us think more highly of the company's current product by association.

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