Late last week, Marc Andreessen pulled a quote from a New Yorker article written in 1951 about television:
The most encouraging word we have so far had about television came from a grade-school principal we encountered the other afternoon.
“They say it’s going to bring back vaudeville,” he said, “but I think it’s going to bring back the book.”
Before television, he told us, his pupils never read; that is, they knew how to read and could do it in school, but their reading ended there. Their entertainment was predominantly pictorial and auditory — movies, comic books, radio.
Now, the principal said, news summaries are typed out and displayed on the television screen to the accompaniment of soothing music, the opening pages of dramatized novels are shown, words are written on blackboards in quiz and panel programs, commercials are spelled out in letters made up of dancing cigarettes, and even the packages of cleansers and breakfast foods and the announcers exhibit for identification bear printed messages.
It’s only a question of time, our principal felt, before the new literacy of the television audience reaches the point where whole books can be held up to the screen and all their pages slowly turned.
This sounds far fetched and Andreessen belittles the prediction, but is it really that outlandish? Literacy rates in the US have risen since the advent of television (I am not suggesting a correlation) and Steven Johnson suggests in Everything Bad Is Good For You that TV is making us smarter.
If you stop thinking of TV in the specific sense as a box on which ABC, CBS, and NBC are shown and instead imagine it in the general sense as a service that pipes content into the home to be shown on a screen, the prediction hits pretty close to the mark. The experience of using the web is not so different than reading pages of words that are “held up to the screen” while we scroll slowly through them. If we can imagine that what Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush described as the “televised book” and the “memex” corresponds to today’s web, why not give our high school principal here the same benefit of the doubt?
So, whoa. The commonly accepted wisdom is that Vannevar Bush’s seminal As We May Think, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945, was the first time anyone had described something like the modern desktop computer and the World Wide Web. Not so, says Alex Wright in Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (@ Amazon). A Belgian chap named Paul Otlet described something called the “radiated library” — or the “televised book” — in 1934:
Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.
Sweet fancy Macintosh, if that’s not what we’re all doing right here on the web all day.
Much of the section in the book on Otlet was first published by Wright in a Boxes and Arrows essay called Forgotten Father: Paul Otlet. Wright’s extensive online bibliography for Glut should keep you busy for a few hours when you’re done with that. (I wish all the books I read were accompanied by such bibliographies.) I’ll also recommend a related read and one of my favorite technology books, The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (@ Amazon):
It points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today: hype, skepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace, and so on. In the process, I get to make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way (in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my televised book.
As We May Think by Vannevar Bush. This influential essay that introduces Bush’s Memex concept was published 60 years ago this month.