Zoya and the ‘Phantom of the Internet’

June 12, 2015 11:21 PM (UTC+8)


By Raja Murthy

As parched Mumbai awaits the Monsoon, I cannot help musing that June marks the intersection in more ways than one, of the life of a young Indian woman, and the man I shall dub the “Phantom of the Internet.”

June is the 25th death anniversary of Joseph Licklider, the man who originally conceived of an idea called the Internet. Coincidentally, also arriving in Mumbai this month is Zoya, a member of the so-called millennial generation who is launching her career as a designer 21 years after starting her life in Kolkata. Her unique peer group was born into the World Wide Web, and unlike her parents, Zoya has never known known a life without the Internet.

“June” comes from the Latin word “iuniores” meaning “younger ones,” and perhaps it is in the ready reckoning of the cosmos that Zoya John – representative of her young Internet generation – starts her professional life the same June month that the Phantom of the Internet passed away 25 years ago, on June 26, 1990.

In life, the “phantom” was an American named Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (1915 – 1990). A St. Louis, Missouri-born psychologist and computer scientist, Licklider was the visionary who thought of an interconnected network of computers across continents that would link billions of users. In 1962, he called this concept the “Galactic Network” — and opened an Aladdin’s cave of technological wonders of Zoya’s days.

Joseph Licklider
Joseph Licklider

I was at the Statesman office in Mumbai when Zoya’s father informed me of her arriving in the world 21 years ago. “Happiest day in my life,” I responded over a brick-sized instrument with a rotary dial — telephone of the pre-Internet Age, a version that did not function in manically multiple ways as camera, mail box, shopping and identification device, music juke box, torchlight, game station, TV, a warehouse of videos, images and “apps” — including a gurgling sound effect to remind its owner to hydrate with a swig of water.

1990s telephone -- the kind that only made telephone calls
1990s telephone — the kind that only made telephone calls

“It’s a Whole New World’, fittingly, was Grammy Award winning song of 1994, the year Zoya was born. Alan Menkin’s and Tim Rice’s work in the Walt Disney animation hit “Aladdin” could well have been a ballad to the interconnected marvels in our life.

Those marvels, and Zoya’s new fashion blog, are courtesy the Phantom of the Internet.  The year he died, 1990, was the year Tim Berners-Lee carried forth the baton to create HTML, and the “www” of the World Wide Web we know today. From search engines to Skype, e-mail to e-commerce, cloud computing to online banking – we owe our Internet-enabled lives to the little-known Joseph Licklider.

Licklider’s biographer Mitchell Waldrop chronicled: “Sitting in a nondescript office in (U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara’s Pentagon, a quiet…civilian is already planning the revolution that will change forever the way computers are perceived. Somehow, the occupant of that office … has seen a future in which computers will empower individuals, instead of forcing them into rigid conformity. He is almost alone in his conviction that computers can become not just superfast calculating machines, but joyful machines: tools that will serve as new media of expression, inspirations to creativity, and gateways to a vast world of online information.”

Licklider’s guiding spirit led to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the early packet switching information sharing system across telephone networks – the foundation on which Internet pioneers Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn built on to creating the wonders of Zoya’s days.

Too often we take for granted those wonders, like the online “magic carpet” ride across continents and time. We forget to marvel. Not even in science fiction did I read 21 years ago that I could, as I do now, click on earthcam.com in Mumbai and see street life live in New York — a balcony view of planet earth — seeing pedestrians passing by the red-canopied ice cream shop in Mulberry Street, Little Italy. Or live images outside Earth, from the International Space Station.  “Unbelievable sights, indescribable feeling,” Aladdin’s magic carpet ballad went, “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling through an endless diamond sky.”

It was as if the Internet had become Aladdin telling the princess, “I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid …” It did. With a staggering 4.66 billion indexed web pages in Zoya’s reach (as of June 9, 2015, according to WorldWideWebSize.com).  Even the photo you see of her childhood is a gift from the Phantom of the Internet. From one of those old paper albums, it was re-shot with her father Ajoy John’s Sony RX 100 digital camera, edited online using a free photo-editing service on the Internet and emailed.

“In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face,” the Phantom of the Internet wrote in 1968 (*1). “That is a rather startling thing to say, but it is our conclusion … we believe that we are entering a technological age in which we will be able to interact with the richness of living information — not merely in the passive way that we have become accustomed to using books and libraries, but as active participants in an ongoing process, bringing something to it through our interaction with it, and not simply receiving something from it by our connection to it.”

In a few years, people will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face …  said the Phantom. In ten years of writing for Asia Times, I (and perhaps most of my AT colleagues worldwide) have never met — or even had a telephone chat — with any of the past editors Allen Quicke, Tony Allison and the current Doug Tsuruoka. Brief (less than ten words usually) but cheery emails are sufficient. “Less said the better” seems to be formula for cordial working equations across continents.

Technology-enabled recluses like me were a non-existent species the year Zoya was born in 1994. That year, her parents Ajoy and Sabarni were senior editors of leading publications in Kolkata. Background research then meant wading through mountains of old magazines and newspapers in public libraries, scribbling on paper and pounding out the “masterpiece” on a typewriter, amid steaming cups of tea and a fog of Wills Navy Cut tobacco smoke.


Today, this sunny afternoon in Mumbai, I cannot remember the last time I went to a public library, the paper and pen rarely meet, the typewriter is gone and cigarettes have gained rightful status as a suicide and murder weapon (estimated 41,000 fatal heart diseases each year in the U.S. alone from second hand smoke, says Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — instant info courtesy, Phantom of the Internet). Tea and coffee, thankfully, have survived.

The Phantom came to Mumbai, circa 1995, and spread owing to pioneers like Vijay Mukhi and his Internet Users Club of India. With gratitude, I remember the fascinating first steps into the “World Wide Web,” late nights from Mukhi’s computer training institute in Tardeo. Yahoo, Hotmail and email were in their babyhood, downloading a 1 MB file took all night and the likes of Mukhi’s among earliest email IDs in South Asia. In the true original spirit of the Internet, Mukhi and friends shared Internet access free of cost.

Much has changed after 21 years, and much has not in the 21st century. As in millennia past, we are not yet free from primeval vulnerabilities — like searching for the bare necessities of life.  Even as the monsoon clouds gather this June, Mumbai suffers a water shortage crisis this month and this megapolis of 21 million anxiously awaits the generosity of the rain gods.

Like the Internet, water scarcity has gone global from California’s drought to nearly all major South Asian cities. But thanks to the Internet, a search for “Rain water harvesting” and “water recycling process” helps urban water planners to ensure the survival of millions.

Problem-solving was part of Licklider plans for his ‘Galactic Network’.  In the path-breaking 1960 paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” he explained the heart of the ideas that led to computers and the Internet Age, and changed forever man-machine relationship:

“About 85% of my ‘thinking’ time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. Much more time went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it. Hours went into the plotting of graphs, and other hours into instructing an assistant how to plot … Several hours of calculating were required to get the data into comparable form. When they were in comparable form, it took only a few seconds to determine what I needed to know.

“Throughout the period I examined, in short, my ‘thinking’ time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight. Moreover, my choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability.”

Licklider predicted that a “thinking center” would be operating by 1975.  Networked computers will combine functions of book libraries, he said, with advanced information storage and retrieval systems, gigantic memories and sophisticated programs – its costs divided by the number of users — and expanding to “a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services.”

Licklider had sown the seeds for artificial intelligence and the Internet. Serious research, in another century, meant crossing thousands of miles across seas and deserts, to the ancient universities of Nalanda and Taxila in the Indian subcontinent, Alexandria in Egypt, or the library of Ugarit, Syria, 1200 B.C. In Zoya’s days, a Google search for ‘Alexandria’ fetches 140 million results in 0.52 seconds. The world in general — in particular millions of us whose livelihood depends on the Internet — owe much to the Phantom who lives online, after he died in Arlington, Mass., on June 26, 25 years ago.


(*1) ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ and “The Computer as a Communication Device’, the two landmark papers published by the Systems Research Center, Palo Alto, California, in honour of J. C. R. Licklider.

 When not doing some freelance words-assembling in Mumbai, Raja Murthy heads off to the Himalayas for the most beneficial work in his life: full-time practice of Vipassana and Metta

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