[extropy-chat] Damien predicts Google (sort of) in 1985

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Thu Dec 14 05:52:48 UTC 2006

No, I'd never heard of Xanadu, although I did drop a version of 
ARPANET (AussieNET) into a 1981 story. What follows is from an 
extensive review I published of the Encyclopaedia Britannica 21 years 
ago. (Here just for laughs, and an eerie sense of Moore's Law.)


If the encyclopaedia could be plugged into the back of my head, with 
access through an electro-neural index, how happy I'd be. I'd have 
the thing grafted in, take my word for it. Don't laugh. Just because 
the Britannica is in printed form today, it need not be so in the future.
             It takes about 250 million bytes of storage to contain 
the sum of human knowledge, as represented by the words in 
Britannica. A quarter of a gigabyte. Suppose we wanted to store that 
in a computer instead of 32 fat volumes. My venerable Kaypro-II 
computer uses two single-sided diskettes with a combined data 
capacity of just under 400 kilobytes. A Kaypro 10, which today is 
just about the same price as my primitive machine three years ago, 
has hard disk storage built in, which can contain 25 times that much 
information--10 megabytes. That's a lot short of the whole 
Britannica, admittedly. But wait.
             Consider the common or garden laser-read Compact Disk 
record. A couple of years ago these astonishingly high-fidelity 
musical recordings were well beyond the financial range of all but 
demented audio fiends. Today, CD players cost about $500, and the 
price is still falling. The disks themselves are now about the same 
price as an old-fashioned LP record, and contain no less than 540 
megabytes of information. And the worse-case time to locate and 
access any particular part of that information (once you've loaded 
the disk into the machine) is one and a half seconds.
             So think of a single mirror-shiny CD disk containing the 
entire text of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with enough space left 
over for at least some of the illustrations. (Pictures are 
data-costly, and there are 24,000 of them, including 1300 maps.) Use 
it as a Read-Only Memory mass storage medium for a simple home 
computer, and you have the ideal Encyclopaedia of tomorrow. It could 
cost less in mass production than a home movie videotape.
             You'd have an almost instantaneous index, instead of two 
biggish books to lug off the shelf, an index that would search for 
any topic you key in, tracing all kinds of possible pathways for you 
as swiftly as you can respond to the little blinking cursor on the screen.
             What's more, a computer could pull out all the relevant 
bits and pieces from a hundred articles stored throughout the 
Encyclopaedia Britannica and paste them together into a big, 
custom-tailored piece to fit the information requirements you 
nominate. In fact, this is just the sort of thing the dreaded 
Propaedia attempts so unsuccessfully to let you do by hand now.
             I'm told that Chicago have decided against retailing a 
computerised Britannica in the foreseeable future, deeming the 1985 
up-graded edition suitable until the 21st century, but I wouldn't be 
at all surprised if the pressure of technology forced them to change 
their minds.
             You see, while CD Random Access might be one way of 
plugging the Britannica into your computer, there's no reason why it 
shouldn't be physically built in. This is what the science writer 
Nigel Calder has to say in his futurological study "1984 and Beyond":

             "All the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica could be 
transmitted from New York to Washington DC in one second by the 
lightwave optical-fibre telecommunications link now in service. The 
words could also be stored on a wafer of silicon no wider than a saucer."

That's as may be. What about right now? It's a little like the 
question teasing so many middle-income minds: should I buy a computer 
now or wait for Utopia?
             Yes, you can always go up the road to the public library 
and use their set (except at the weekend, and the morning, and at 
night when they're closed...), just as you can always use public 
transport when it's running. Public is cheaper and more socially 
redemptive; you have to wait until it's available, assuming it is; 
and the truth is, most people have cars and go places in them.
             I've found this: having the Britannica around the place 
is more-ish, like cashews.
             The only thing better for comprehensive answers to 
virtually anything you're likely to wish to know, all in one place, 
is the Junior Woodchuck's Handbook.
             Devotees of Donald Duck comics dream of finding a copy 
of that fabled vade-mecum. The triplets Huey, Dewy and Louie were 
never without a copy. It fitted neatly into a back pocket, and was 
absolutely exhaustive, practical, wise and simple to understand. What 
a shame it doesn't exist.
             Emerging technology might make the Junior Woodchuck's 
Britannica possible inside ten years, and then all the disadvantages 
of bulk and eye-testing print will be forgotten. The entire 250 
megabytes will be there in the palm of your hand, ready to be 
consulted on a flat screen...


Wow! The Wonderful World of the Future!

Damien Broderick

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