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November 7, 2014

Who Spearheaded the Digital Revolution?

Posted by Suryaprakash K. (View Profile | View All Posts) at 8:31 AM

J.C.R. Licklider was one of the founding founders of the modern day Internet [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GfOTUoBpRw]

I see on TV news that people wait in lines for days to buy a new mobile phone or tablet. Current events got me to thinking: What if I were to walk down any street in any city of the world and ask a random passer-by about who were revolutionary figures in, say, the histories of India and the United States. Chances are that anyone would very quickly be able to tell you about Gandhi and Washington in their respective quests for freedom. But if you ask those same passers-by who were the fathers (or mothers) of the global digital revolution, they'll likely be at a loss for words.

This would be an interesting experiment, because a random person would take the mobile device he's holding (or the new one he's hoping to buy this weekend), access the Internet, and search for those leaders of a digital revolution that continues to shape our world. The irony is that even those digital devices or a quick web search - results of their spirit of innovation - might not reveal key names from history!

So why the discrepancy? Why is it that we're well versed in the history of political revolutions, but not in the history of the digital revolution? Part of the answer, I think, is that the digital revolution is happening as we speak. So it's not as if we can look back upon it. We're experiencing it right now, in the midst of it, and the most exciting parts of it are yet to come. But another reason is that so far the world has done a poor job of recognizing historical figures whose innovations led directly to the creation of the digital age.

To be sure, we know the modern day captains of industry who built (and continue to build) places like Silicon Valley and Bangalore. But what about the people from hundreds of years ago who first conceived of devices that would run on a series of 0s and 1s? It's good that we're finally learning about the details of these fascinating lives.

Here's a name that the average person wouldn't know: Joseph Licklider. If it weren't for his innovations back in the 1950s and 60s, nobody would be waiting in line to buy an iPhone because such technology might not even exist! Licklider did a couple amazing things. One was that he was asked by military brass in America to create a communications system that could continue to operate after the world was destroyed by nuclear war. Licklider envisioned a network on which the survivors of a global nuclear war could send messages to each other by allowing the electronic messaging to jump from whatever telephone line was operable to another line until it reached its intended recipient. Licklider didn't know it at the time, but he invented the Internet. That's the essence of what the Internet - and its visual counterpart, the web - does. Messages find whatever means necessary to be relayed from one end to another, even if it means a message must jump around from line to line and network to network all over the globe just to reach the person in the next room from you!

So this weekend, if you're waiting in a long line to buy a fancy new mobile phone, ask yourself where the digital revolution will take us next. Judging by its historical roots, it could be anywhere. We're in for a wild ride.

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