ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Coming Information Utility, Now Gone and Everywhere —


The file is downloadable here. Here’s a local copy of this file: WesternUnionStrategicPlans_1965

I don’t expect a person coming in from the cold to spontaneously read a 17-page, weirdly-scanned document without some sort of context. So let me give it that context.

This internal Western Union memo from 1965, from what I believe is either a researcher or engineer to another manager, lays out a potential future for Western Union in the coming half-century. He does an amazingly good job. In many ways it all happens, just not to Western Union.

The writer visualizes a future where there will be a need for an Information Utility, not unlike the utilities we have for water, phone, and gas. With this new Utility in place, a network of computers and electronics will provide storage of knowledge for government, businesses and education. It will allow people to utilize this growing network of data to go shopping, send all range of messages, rent cars and book travel, leveraging the current multi-thousand collection of Western Union offices to take on the Bell System’s eventual move into this inevitable realm.

Personally, I think it’s fascinating reading – to watch this guy grappling with concepts from the point of view of the past that now dominate many of our lives and waking hours. Check out, please, page 3, where a world where all sorts of entities know vast amounts of information at a moment’s notice: “Schools and colleges can pool and exchange information and make the libraries of each available to one another; airlines, railroads, bus and truck lines can keep in closest touch with passenge freight, weather, waybills and other pertinent data; business generall can expedite sales production, payroll and other functions – this list is virtually endless.”

Imagine coming up with all these ideas for your bosses, having to indicate that the future of the company was not just in a few data networks in the sense of your telegraph history, but a whole new reboot of your infrastructure and a total rethinking of what your company stood for.  It is not easy to determine the name of this person or group of people who assembled this report, but I hope they lived a good long life and saw that, after a fashion and without Western Union being at the forefront, all these ideas came true.

Well, okay, except this one: “…no matter how many telephones are installed for use by the general public, or private wire and other systems put into service for business, press, government, etc, there will always be a substantial continuing need for the public telegraph services which Western Union alone provides.” Oops. Well, still, A+, guys.

I promise you, it’s worth a pleasant holiday read.

A big thank-you to Phil Lapsley for letting me know about this document, which was pointed out to him by Michael Ravnitzky. And a bigger thank you to the crowd of people who scanned the original Western Union documents.


Categorised as: computer history

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  1. Chris says:

    So, had things gone a little differently, Western Union could have been a combination of Compuserve, Netscape, AOL, and maybe Apple and Microsoft, too. This almost sounds like the Xerox PARC story, somewhat. Back in the early 70’s, the engineers and scientists at PARC developed networked computing, the GUI, and a lot of other things that we take for granted today, but at the time, the brass at Xerox never recognized the value of their work. Fools.

  2. Chris Barts says:

    Well, Bell Labs, Honeywell, et al. didn’t have any better luck with Multics. The whole notion of a centralized ‘information utility’ similar to a power utility or, back then, a phone utility was doomed by, first, the inability to scale 1960s hardware to meet that requirement and, later, by the rise of more ad-hoc networks, including UUCP, BITNET, Fidonet, and others, all running on hardware and software that was significantly behind the state of the art even then.
    In short, the low-end killed the high-end much like weeds might choke out the beginnings of a rose garden. Long live weeds!

  3. Philippe Latulippe says:

    Here’s a similar kind of quote from Andrei Sakharov, one of the physicist who developed the Soviet atomic bomb.

    “I foresee a universal information system (UIS), which will give everyone access at any given moment to the contents of any book that has ever been published or any magazine or any fact. The UIS will have individual miniature-computer terminals, central control points for the flood of information, and communication channels incorporating thousands of artificial communications from satellites, cables, and laser lines. Even the partial realization of the UIS will profoundly affect every person, his leisure activities, and his intellectual and artistic development. Unlike television…the UIS will give each person maximum freedom of choice and will require individual activity. But the true historic role of the UIS will be to break down the barriers to the exchange of information among countries and people.” (Saturday Review/ World, 24 August 1974.)

    While it was written many years after the Western Union document, I think it’s amazing because he manages to foresee the social and political impact it would have.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Yeah, part of where I’m going with this is that this idea was bubbling like mad for decades, and it was finally pulled off. Sometimes people forget some ideas are inevitable. The exact details, of course, shift. Fascinating!

  4. Chris Barts says:

    The distinction between individuals connecting to centralized computers using terminals and individuals having their own computers hooked to a common network is huge. It is the difference between an organization being able to censor things like PGP and governments having to deal with the inevitability of good encryption being released into the wild. It is the difference between a network with arbitrary decency standards and a network with
    People make too much effort to give the benefit of the doubt to predictions, sometimes twisting the plain meaning of words to make something ‘fit’. Giving such benefit to predictions of an ‘Information Utility’ is a prime example. Such thinking distorts history by imputing ideas (like the Internet) to people who never had them (like Western Union, or Andrei Sakharov) while distorting the ideas they did have.

  5. […] my friend Mike pointed out, they got at least a little bit better at forecasting what was coming. Probably more importantly, they have been an innovative firm right from the start. […]