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For music and media, Licklider foretold a digital future


Wednesday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, known professionally as J.C.R., and to friends and acquaintances as “Lick” — a milestone most likely to be marked wherever computer science reigns. From a variety of posts — MIT professor, vice president at the consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, head of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) — Licklider envisioned and enabled the modern wired world.

His fascination with then-nascent digital computing led him to promote time-sharing computer networks and interactive computing, seeding the development of both graphical interfaces and ARPANET, the precursor to the modern Internet. Already in 1968, in an influential paper, “The Computer as a Communication Device” (co-written with Robert Taylor), Licklider could confidently predict that “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.”


Licklider, though, was not originally a computer scientist, but a psychologist, with a particular interest in acoustics and music. Much of his research was done in the burgeoning military-industrial complex, investigating ways to optimize radio communications and signal processing, problems that involved basic questions of how humans hear and process sound. Licklider’s 1951 paper “A Duplex Theory of Pitch Perception” remains a standard, proposing that the brain’s perception of musical pitch depends on both the cochlea’s ability to measure and transmit sonic frequency and the nervous system’s ability to autocorrelate, that is, to record and compare samples of that measurement over time. Such models remain crucial to both computerized music analysis and the design of digital audio compression formats; both auto-tune technology and the MP3 can, indirectly, trace their lineage to Licklider’s work.

Licklider’s polyvalent career — acoustics and ARPA, psychology and the Pentagon, auguring everything from online chat rooms to digital music to cloud computing — created an almost uneasy sense of prophecy. In a 2009 blog post, musician David Byrne only half-jokingly wondered if Licklider was an “Internet antichrist,” anxiously questioning (like so many) how the digital network’s accelerating ubiquity, the interconnectivity and lack of privacy resulting from “this volatile, disembodied mixture that Licklider predicted” would change society.


Licklider, for his part, never recanted his initial enthusiasm. In a 1988 interview — two years before his death at 75 — he recalled that early conviction. “I was just a true believer,” Licklider said. “I thought, this is going to revolutionize how people think, how things are done.”

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.