Did anyone predict the internet?
There are several candidates for people who may have predicted “the internet”. It might seem an easy task. Just check out all the predictions and decide who was closest. But sadly it’s not that simple. Mainly because the predictions are often hidden in books, movies, and even music and while some of them seem spot on, often it’s left to the interpretation of the reader/watcher to say what they really meant. What I’m not including is predictions of things that already existed. Anyone who predicted videophones after 1930 was predicting the past, anyone one who was predicting a service you could call to find out anything like a call-up encyclopaedia was predicting the past because “The Mundaneum” had existed in Brussels since 1910. The Mundaneum was and is a card service you could call up and request any fact you liked. Basically Wikipedia you could either write to or call. And that’s awesome but what about genuinely prescient predictions?
First in our list of predictions is a very familiar name.
Jules Verne earned his name as the father of modern science fiction. That guy was amazing. He predicted so much and was so good at sci-fi that his novels are still being read when almost all of his peers have fallen into obscurity.
What: The internet! “Paris in the twentieth century” is hardly what you would call a thrilling read. More like reading a Lonely Planet guide to a place that does not actually exist. And Vern’s publisher knew it, in fact even though Verne was a bankable commodity it was refused publication and the book it sat in a draw for 131 years. Set in the far off year of 1960, his book describes mechanical computers which can send messages to each other as part of a network: “sophisticated electrically powered mechanical calculators which can send information to each other across vast distances” Cars were powered by internal combustion engines (a bold prediction in the 1860’s) petrol stations….he predicted petrol stations! The electric chair and remote-controlled weaponry.
How good is it?: Well as a concept that is basically the internet as we know it. But of course, the electronic computer was 100 years away. The electromechanical computer was 80 years away and a computer network was at least 100 years hence. The worldwide network described was 130 years away. It’s impressive but in the story, it’s kind of an afterthought. It’s not even used as a plot point. Basically, a Verne goes “Oh we have this thing…”
Samuel Clements is probably the most towering figure in all American literature, a raconteur, a wit, a Bon vivant a friend of Tesla and a detester of bullshit. He’s worth writing about all on his own. But did you know about his forays into science fiction?
What?: From “From the London times 1904” we get this strange prediction.
Set five years into the future, the story starts off as a crime mystery. Clayton, a quick-tempered army officer, is accused of murdering Szczepanik, the inventor of a new and promising device called the Telelectroscope. The tale’s unnamed narrator describes it like this:
As soon as the Paris contract released the telelectroscope, it was delivered to public use, and was soon connected with the telephonic systems of the whole world. The improved ‘limitless-distance’ telephone was presently introduced and the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.
Facing the hangman’s noose, Clayton asks for, and receives, a telelectroscope for his cell.
…day by day, and night by night, he called up one corner of the globe after another, and looked upon its life, and studied its strange sights, and spoke with its people, and realized that by grace of this marvelous instrument he was almost as free as the birds of the air, although a prisoner under locks and bars. He seldom spoke, and I never interrupted him when he was absorbed in this amusement. I sat in his parlor and read, and smoked, and the nights were very quiet and reposefully sociable, and I found them pleasant. Now and then I would hear him say ‘Give me Yedo;’ next, ‘Give me Hong-Kong;’ next, ‘Give me Melbourne.’ And I smoked on, and read in comfort, while he wandered about the remote underworld, where the sun was shining in the sky, and the people were at their daily work.
It sure sounds like an interactive TV but it doesn’t really describe the internet in its myriad of wonder. And unless you’ve actually invented a device it’s always a bad idea to explain how it works…. While Verne’s description of a computer network is vaguer, it’s this vagueness that, ironically makes it seem more accurate.
Em forester almost exclusively wrote the kind of novels that you have to sit through in literature class. With people who rattle about Edwardian houses not saying what they mean to other people who stare at the duck pond and mumble. I found them interminable. And yet his short stories often delved into science fiction. And excellent science fiction to boot.
What: The internet…sort of. He actually predicts the rise of a global machine that runs humans day to day life for them. Cubicles that humans live in are serviced by the machine who takes care of their ever need. But after centuries of being catered to humanity has forgotten how to repair the machine and it is now breaking down. The main characters mother is also an expert on “Music from the Australian period” which I choose to believe means that she carefully studies Midnight Oil.
How good is it?: As a prediction of the internet not amazing. But as a short story, it’s really, really good. And somewhat of a surprise coming from the guy who wrote “The remains of the day”. And who knows it may still predict the next stage of internet evolution?
Tesla might have well as been a science fiction writer for all the stuff he just made up. He’d be easy to dismiss if he hadn’t also invented some of the most important pieces of electronics of the 20th century many of which we still use and rely on. So it’s not surprising that people even at the time took whatever he said seriously.
What: In this prediction, he isn’t, in fact, predicting the internet but the Mobile Phone. Specifically the smartphone. “When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
Any good?: As with a lot of these predictions, people were all about the sending of live pictures from one place to another that seemed to be a real thing that people wanted but not so much with the information. Also, it should be noted that people were already experimenting with video phones when this was stated…not least of all Tesla. But it is impressive that he managed to predict the smartphone in my pocket.
William Fitzgerald Jenkins
Murray Leinster used the name William Fitzgerald Jenkins to write for Pulp magazines in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s but unlike a lot of pulp writers of the time H.P, Lovecraft, Richard Matherson, Robert Bloch or L.Ron Hubbard he is all but forgotten today. He described the first instance of a “Universal Translation Device” in his short story “First Contact”. He worked for all the usual suspects such as Hugo Gernsback and John W Cambell Jr. And was well respected at the time.
What? A Logic named Joe, short story.
“You know the logics setup. You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It’s hooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say you punch “Station SNAFU” on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin’ comes on your logic’s screen. Or you punch “Sally Hancock’s Phone” an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R sellin’ for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation an’ all the recorded telecasts that ever was made—an’ it’s hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country—an’ everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an’ you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an’ keeps books, an’ acts as consultin’ chemist, physicist, astronomer, an’ tea-leaf reader, with a “Advice to the Lovelorn” thrown in. The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, “Oh, you think so, do you?” in that peculiar kinda voice. Logics don’t work good on women. Only on things that make sense.”
An odd kind of sexism aside. That ladies and gentleman is basically the internet to a tea. In fact, if you got my mother to explain the internet I’m pretty sure that’s closer than how she would get.
It’s also not a bad story. It manages to be predictive and entertaining all at the same time as well as providing a cautionary tale of what happens when we get the ability to build “black boxes” creations that are so complex that we can barely understand them ourselves.
A comic strip
Comic strips have been around in various forms for hundreds of years. ……that’s what I got for that one.
What? Yep….well it was also wildly optimistic about what the internet might be like and the influence that it has on our life. This particular comic strip Our New Age which ran in the Chicago tribune. This particular strip which was authored by Athelstan Spilhaus dean of the Chicago institute of technology predicted that in the near future all main would be electronic and that the post office would only be there to deliver parcels. Researchers thousands of miles away would research books held in the British museum. People will work odd hours because you might work for a company based in another country where the waking hours are different.
It’s not bad, but once again it is almost predicting the time that it was set in. Electronic communication was nothing really new, and people did take jobs in other countries.
Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke was possibly the world’s first professional futurist. An author he basically invented satellites and with Stanley Kubrick gave pot smokers something to do for two and a half hours.
What?: On the BBC program, Horizon Clarke is asked about the world of the future “We could be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London…. Almost any executive skill, any administrative skill, even any physical skill, could be made independent of distance. I am perfectly serious when I suggest that one day we may have brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand.” So basically he nailed it. Totally. Except for the bit about super-intelligent chimpanzees which he then goes on about. “We can certainly solve our servant problem with the help of the monkey kingdom” such uplifts from the animal world are explored in his book Rendezvous with Rama where beautiful super intelligent monkeys are on board the ship and then proceed not to be integral to the plot at all.
Honourable Mention: Pete Townsend. Yes, the guy from The Who.
What: After the Who’s breakout hit smash concept Rock Opera Tommy Pete Townsend decided that another concept album was the way to go this time a Sci-fi Rock opera. Lifehouse: In the far future Rock and Roll is banned, the world is a polluted wreck and everyone experiences their lives through “Life suits” suits that you wear that take you to other places and give you full body interaction with everyone else in the world. You can go anywhere, do anything the suit provides with sensory stimulation and nutrients as well as exercise. The suit is plugged into “The Grid” where you can share your experience with all other grid inhabitants. You can experience lifetimes in short burst.
Why have I never heard of this?
Well, Townsend wasn’t really well when he was creating this concept and this is just one iteration of it, it went through many variations and spawned at least two Who albums as Townsend tried to get it made. It caused him a nervous breakdown at one point. The main problem seemed to be that aside from this sci-fi concept there was also a whole big chunk on feeding biographical information into computers to create the perfect note. Which no-one else in the band understood and Townsend didn’t seem to be able to explain. It was eventually turned into both a radio play and an album in 2000 but neither set the world alight as the concept was well worn by that stage but in 1971 it was predictive enough to be included here. It features a future that not only includes the internet but may well be the way the internet is going.
Is it good?: Well, the whole “In the far future Rock and Roll is banned” is one of those concepts that surround rock bands whenever they want to do something a little sci-fi. Queen, Aerosmith, and various other groups have all had a toe in the “we are the band that is going to bring back rock after it gets banned”. Queen twice, once in the computer game “The Eye” and once in “We will Rock you” their musical. Apart from that yes it’s quite an impressive prediction from someone not know as either a writer or a futurist. And it spawned “Who’s Next” probably the best Who album in existence.