Sorry if that title filled your head with Buggles or Limousines. My bad. This post is actually about something a lot more interesting. In 1993, NPR’s Science Friday made history by being the first national radio show to broadcast live over the internet. Not only did they broadcast, they took live calls from listeners at their workstations. It was so bandwidth-intensive that it actually slowed down the whole internet.
Listening to the re-broadcast was fascinating because, for me, it was another great example of how fast history is accelerating technologically. Thanks to the internet, eighteen years feels a lot farther in the past relative to today than it was relative to todays of yore.
The show was hosted by NPR’s Ira Flatow and featured guests Brewster Kahle and Carl Malamud.
Caller topics captured the breadth of issues on the minds of internet users in those days: from virtual worlds to information credibility to information glut. One caller dialed in from his $8000 Unix workstation. (Maybe I can afford that new SSD.)
Here are some snippets I collected from the text transcription. Remember, this is from 1993.
Kahle portends the rise of social networks:
The new communities that are coming up around the Internet are the most fascinating for most of us. We’re starting to become good friends with people we’ve never physically met. And the idea that it’s actually gonna keep us in our homes and make it so we don’t have to travel I think is actually absolutely false. We’re starting to get on planes more to actually go and put a face behind some of these connections that we’ve been making, these global villages rather than one global village that we’re constructing.
Even in 1993, information overload was becoming a problem. Flatow:
And you’re talking to so many people around the world that…it gets to be a glut of information. My father-in-law… said that it’s [like] the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where all those brooms came back, all that water. You don’t ask for all that stuff, and suddenly it comes back and you don’t know what to do with it.
Kahle’s response to Flatow:
Well, you know, that’s true. But on the other hand, if you go into a library and look at that library and say, I’m going to read every single book because it’s there, you’ve got a glut of information, too. And one of the things we’re learning how to do is how to ignore information. And that’s one of the most important things the Internet will let you do.
Eighteen years later, are we better at ignoring information?
One caller perceptively described the internet as the “media of the people”:
I’m so excited. I have to tell you, I look on this kind of technology as being the opportunity to end the geographic isolation that people like myself feel, you know, in rural areas, where sometimes you don’t go out for months, you know? I think that this is media of the people. And when you’re talking about a glut of information in the media we’re using now, we get a glut of that, but it’s all been filtered through the reporters. I think this is media of the people. And one of the new things that I hope this technology can do is really redesign government. I see an enormous potential there.
How right will she end up being?
Okay, this may be my favorite bit. It’s an exchange between Flatow and one caller that presciently alludes to web-based music outlets like iTunes:
Flatow: What use do you most put the Internet to? What do you like to do with it or how is it most useful to you?
Caller: Well, I kind of like to listen to music or I’d like to download libraries of the CD collections or whatever music. Let’s say I find some song I really like, it’d be nice to go to like Sony or RCA or wherever these record companies are and download a particular song. And if I like it, you know, upload a credit card number.
Flatow: I see. You’re saying instead of having to go buy a CD, you could just download the CD on the Internet?
Caller: Yeah. That’d be great.
Flatow: That’s a great idea.
A few practically efficient takeaways
- Life is happening really fast right now. Expect it to get faster. We will likely see more innovation in the next nine years than we saw in the last eighteen.
- As a technological society, we’re stumbling into completely new market spaces at a much faster rate than ever before. Life has turned into an open-ended video game, in which each success unlocks a new level.
- Don’t undervalue your ideas. There are lots of things that are possible now that weren’t possible just a few years ago. If you have an idea that leverages new tools, there’s an excellent chance that you’re the first one to think of it. Act sooner than later.
- Don’t ignore your rear view mirrors. Maintaining an anchor in the past can help you navigate uncharted waters. Some things are brand new, but some things will never change. Like relationships, for example. I think social networks are just humanity’s way of bending technology back around the core of what’s most important: people.
- Building on that last point, try hard to focus on the human side of technology in the 21st century. Whether you’re a developer or user of software, know that true innovation occurs when technology leverages the human mind instead of attempting to marginalize it.