The World Science Festival recently took place in New York City, and one of the discussions centered around the invention of the Internet. While most recognize the contributions of Vinton Cerf, who was on hand at the event, and others in creating the Internet, one rather obscure name was mentioned by one of the panelists for the role he played in conceptualizing the Internet as far back as 1934: Paul Otlet.
One of the panel members at the event, Alex Wright, took note of Otlet’s ideas about the potential of communication technology that would incorporate several of the modern technologies of his time. Otlet considered the potential of technologies like radio waves, telephones, and television, and how they may one day connect people to information from all over the world.
Otlet imagined calling a large database by telephone, where the requested information would be transmitted by an individual working at the database (or library, as you might call it) to a screen in the user’s home. What’s more, his vision included dividing the screen into several sections to allow multiple documents to be viewed at the same time, which is very similar to the use of tabs on a typical browser today.
He even imagined a loud speaker to accompany the images if audio was required in addition to the image displayed on the screen. Otlet imagined cinema, phonograph, television, radio, and telephone combining to become ‘the new book’ that allowed easier and more direct sharing of the world’s knowledge and information.
His vision is remarkably similar to today’s reality of the Internet. Most in need of information consult the Internet before they consult books, and cinema, music, text, and other mediums combine to create a vast information sharing network that connects people to other cultures, knowledge, and ideas. Perhaps nowhere is this vision better represented than in the Usenet newsgroups, where ideas, information, and files are shared and discussed among users from countries and cultures all over the globe.