The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #3: lessons on ‘capturing the heavens’ from the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet & PC

Below is a short summary of some basic principles of the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet and the personal computer. I wrote it originally as part of an anniversary blog on the referendum but it is also really part of this series on effective action.

One of the most interesting aspects of this project, like Mueller’s reforms of NASA, is the contrast between 1) extreme effectiveness, changing the world in a profound way, and 2) the general reaction to the methods was not only a failure to learn but a widespread hostility inside established bureaucracies (public and private) to the successful approach: NASA dropped Mueller’s approach when he left and has never been the same, and XEROX closed PARC and fired Bob Taylor. Changing the world in a profound and beneficial way is not enough to put a dint in bureaucracies which operate on their own dynamics.

Warren Buffet explained decades ago how institutions actively fight against learning and fight to stay in a closed and vicious feedback loop:

‘My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative”. In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligence, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned the hard way that isn’t so. Instead rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

‘For example, 1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law, any institution will resist any change in its current direction. 2) … Corporate projects will materialise to soak up available funds. 3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will quickly be supported by … his troops. 4) The behaviour of peer companies … will be mindlessly imitated.’

Many of the principles behind ARPA/PARC could be applied to politics and government but they will not be learned from ‘naturally’ inside the system. Dramatic improvements will only happen if a group of people force ‘system’ changes on how government works so it is open to learning.

I have modified the below very slightly and added some references.


ARPA/PARC and ‘capturing the heavens’: The best way to predict the future is to invent it

The panic over Sputnik brought many good things such as a huge increase in science funding. America also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, which later added ‘Defense’ and became DARPA). Its job was to fund high risk / high payoff technology development. In the 1960s and 1970s, a combination of unusual people and unusually wise funding from ARPA created a community that in turn invented the internet, or ‘the intergalactic network’ as Licklider originally called it, and the personal computer. One of the elements of this community was PARC, a research centre working for Xerox. As Bill Gates said, he and Steve Jobs essentially broke into PARC, stole their ideas, and created Microsoft and Apple.

The ARPA/PARC project is an example of how if something is set up properly then a tiny number of people can do extraordinary things.

  • PARC had about 25 people and about $12 million per year in today’s money.
  • The breakthroughs from the ARPA/PARC project  created over 35 TRILLION DOLLARS of value for society and counting.
  • The internet architecture they built, based on decentralisation and distributed control, has scaled up over ten orders of magnitude (1010) without ever breaking and without ever being taken down for maintenance since 1969.

The whole story is fascinating in many ways. I won’t go into the technological aspects. I just want to say something about the process.

What does a process that produces ideas that change the world look like?

One of the central figures was Alan Kay. One of the most interesting things about the project is that not only has almost nobody tried to repeat this sort of research but the business world has even gone out of its way to spread mis-information about it because it was seen as so threatening to business-as-usual.

I will sketch a few lessons from one of Kay’s pieces but I urge you to read the whole thing.

‘This is what I call “The power of the context” or “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points”. Science and engineering themselves are famous examples, but there are even more striking processes within these large disciplines. One of the greatest works of art from that fruitful period of ARPA/PARC research in the 60s and 70s was the almost invisible context and community that catalysed so many researchers to be incredibly better dreamers and thinkers. That it was a great work of art is confirmed by the world-changing results that appeared so swiftly, and almost easily. That it was almost invisible, in spite of its tremendous success, is revealed by the disheartening fact today that, as far as I’m aware, no governments and no companies do edge-of-the-art research using these principles.’

‘[W]hen I think of ARPA/PARC, I think first of good will, even before brilliant people… Good will and great interest in graduate students as “world-class researchers who didn’t have PhDs yet” was the general rule across the ARPA community.

‘[I]t is no exaggeration to say that ARPA/PARC had “visions rather than goals” and “funded people, not projects”. The vision was “interactive computing as a complementary intellectual partner for people pervasively networked world-wide”. By not trying to derive specific goals from this at the funding side, ARPA/PARC was able to fund rather different and sometimes opposing points of view.

‘The pursuit of Art always sets off plans and goals, but plans and goals don’t always give rise to Art. If “visions not goals” opens the heavens, it is important to find artistic people to conceive the projects.

‘Thus the “people not projects” principle was the other cornerstone of ARPA/PARC’s success. Because of the normal distribution of talents and drive in the world, a depressingly large percentage of organizational processes have been designed to deal with people of moderate ability, motivation, and trust. We can easily see this in most walks of life today, but also astoundingly in corporate, university, and government research. ARPA/PARC had two main thresholds: self-motivation and ability. They cultivated people who “had to do, paid or not” and “whose doings were likely to be highly interesting and important”. Thus conventional oversight was not only not needed, but was not really possible. “Peer review” wasn’t easily done even with actual peers. The situation was “out of control”, yet extremely productive and not at all anarchic.

‘”Out of control” because artists have to do what they have to do. “Extremely productive” because a great vision acts like a magnetic field from the future that aligns all the little iron particle artists to point to “North” without having to see it. They then make their own paths to the future. Xerox often was shocked at the PARC process and declared it out of control, but they didn’t understand that the context was so powerful and compelling and the good will so abundant, that the artists worked happily at their version of the vision. The results were an enormous collection of breakthroughs.

‘Our game is more like art and sports than accounting, in that high percentages of failure are quite OK as long as enough larger processes succeed… [I]n most processes today — and sadly in most important areas of technology research — the administrators seem to prefer to be completely in control of mediocre processes to being “out of control” with superproductive processes. They are trying to “avoid failure” rather than trying to “capture the heavens”.

‘All of these principles came together a little over 30 years ago to eventually give rise to 1500 Altos, Ethernetworked to: each other, Laserprinters, file servers and the ARPAnet, distributed to many kinds of end-users to be heavily used in real situations. This anticipated the commercial availability of this genre by 10-15 years. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

‘[W]e should realize that many of the most important ARPA/PARC ideas haven’t yet been adopted by the mainstream. For example, it is amazing to me that most of Doug Engelbart’s big ideas about “augmenting the collective intelligence of groups working together” have still not taken hold in commercial systems. What looked like a real revolution twice for end-users, first with spreadsheets and then with Hypercard, didn’t evolve into what will be commonplace 25 years from now, even though it could have. Most things done by most people today are still “automating paper, records and film” rather than “simulating the future”. More discouraging is that most computing is still aimed at adults in business, and that aimed at nonbusiness and children is mainly for entertainment and apes the worst of television. We see almost no use in education of what is great and unique about computer modeling and computer thinking. These are not technological problems but a lack of perspective. Must we hope that the open-source software movements will put things right?

‘The ARPA/PARC history shows that a combination of vision, a modest amount of funding, with a felicitous context and process can almost magically give rise to new technologies that not only amplify civilization, but also produce tremendous wealth for the society. Isn’t it time to do this again by Reason, even with no Cold War to use as an excuse? How about helping children of the world grow up to think much better than most adults do today? This would truly create “The Power of the Context”.’

Note how this story runs contrary to how free market think tanks and pundits describe technological development. The impetus for most of this development came from government funding, not markets.

Also note that every attempt since the 1950s to copy ARPA and JASON (the semi-classified group that partly gave ARPA its direction) in the UK has been blocked by Whitehall. The latest attempt was in 2014 when the Cabinet Office swatted aside the idea. Hilariously its argument was ‘DARPA has had a lot of failures’ thus demonstrating extreme ignorance about the basic idea — the whole point is you must have failures and if you don’t have lots of failures then you are failing!

People later claimed that while PARC may have changed the world it never made any money for XEROX. This is ‘absolute bullshit’ (Kay). It made billions from the laser printer alone and overall Xerox made 250 times what they invested in PARC before they went bust. In 1983 they fired Bob Taylor, the manager of PARC and the guy who made it all happen.

‘They hated [Taylor] for the very reason that most companies hate people who are doing something different, because it makes middle and upper management extremely uncomfortable. The last thing they want to do is make trillions, they want to make a few millions in a comfortable way’ (Kay).

Someone finally listened to Kay recently. ‘YC Research’, the research arm of the world’s most successful (by far) technology incubator, is starting to fund people in this way. I am not aware of any similar UK projects though I know that a small network of people are thinking again about how something like this could be done here. If you can help them, take a risk and help them! Someone talk to science minister Jo Johnson but be prepared for the Treasury’s usual ignorant bullshit — ‘what are we buying for our money, and how can we put in place appropriate oversight and compliance?’ they will say!


As we ponder the future of the UK-EU relationship shaped amid the farce of modern Whitehall, we should think hard about the ARPA/PARC example: how a small group of people can make a huge breakthrough with little money but the right structure, the right ways of thinking, and the right motives.

Those of us outside the political system thinking ‘we know we can do so much better than this but HOW can we break through the bullshit?’ need to change our perspective and gain 80 IQ points.

This real picture is a metaphor for the political culture: ad hoc solutions that are either bad or don’t scale.

Screenshot 2017-06-14 16.58.14.png

ARPA said ‘Let’s get rid of all the wires’. How do we ‘get rid of all the wires’ and build something different that breaks open the closed and failing political cultures? Winning the referendum was just one step that helps clear away dead wood but we now need to build new things.

The ARPA vision that aligned the artists ‘like little iron filings’ was:

‘Computers are destined to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for everyone in the world universally networked worldwide’ (Licklider).

We need a motivating vision aimed not at tomorrow but at changing the basic wiring of  the whole system, a vision that can align ‘the little iron filings’, and then start building for the long-term.

I will go into what I think this vision could be and how to do it another day. I think it is possible to create something new that could scale very fast and enable us to do politics and government extremely differently, as different to today as the internet and PC were to the post-war mainframes. This would enable us to build huge long-term value for humanity in a relatively short time (less than 20 years). To create it we need a process as well suited to the goal as the ARPA/PARC project was and incorporating many of its principles.

We must try to escape the current system with its periodic meltdowns and international crises. These crises move 500-1,000 times faster than that of summer 1914. Our destructive potential is at least a million-fold greater than it was in 1914. Yet we have essentially the same hierarchical command-and-control decision-making systems in place now that could not even cope with 1914 technology and pace. We have dodged nuclear wars by fluke because individuals made snap judgements in minutes. Nobody who reads the history of these episodes can think that this is viable long-term, and we will soon have another wave of innovation to worry about with autonomous robots and genetic engineering. Technology gives us no option but to try to overcome evolved instincts like destroying out-group competitors.

Watch Alan Kay explain how to invent the future HERE and HERE.

This link has these seminal papers:

  • Man-Computer Symbiosis, Licklider (1960)
  • The computer as a communications device, Licklider & Taylor (1968)

Part I of this series is HERE.

Part II on the emergence of ‘systems management’, how George Mueller used it to put man on the moon, and a checklist of how successful management of complex projects is systematically different to how Whitehall (and other state bureaucracies) work HERE.

Ps. Kay also points out that the real computer revolution won’t happen until people fulfil the original vision of enabling children to use this powerful way of thinking:

‘The real printing revolution was a qualitative change in thought and argument that lagged the hardware inventions by almost two centuries. The special quality of computers is their ability to rapidly simulate arbitrary descriptions, and the real computer revolution won’t happen until children can learn to read, write, argue and think in this powerful new way. We should all try to make this happen much sooner than 200 or even 20 more years!’

Almost nobody in education policy is aware of the educational context for the ARPA/PARC project which also speaks volumes about the abysmal field of ‘education research/policy’. People rightly say ‘education tech has largely failed’ but very few are aware that many of the original ideas from Licklider, Engelbart et al have never been tried and the Apple and MS versions are not the original vision.


2 thoughts on “The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #3: lessons on ‘capturing the heavens’ from the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet & PC

  1. “NASA dropped Mueller’s approach when he left and has never been the same, and XEROX closed PARC and fired Bob Taylor.”

    These are quite different cases: Mueller was an unqualified success for NASA’s goals, whereas Xerox didn’t work out how to make money from PARC (as you’ve previously observed, Apple and Microsoft were much more successful). From a commercial point of view, shutting down PARC made sense, though presumably the right approach would have been to improve the management of Xerox to be able to use the innovations coming out of PARC. Or (big picture) to move PARC from the private to the public sphere.

  2. Indeed – in the 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther your have an even earlier example. Primary agent capture leads to the interests of the orgnanisation being seen as identical to the objectives it seeks to achieve. David Rennie’s farewell Charlemagne on the European Commission is a good read on this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s