Pournelle on ebooks, from 1980

Late in 2015, I read an issue of Destinies (a “paperback magazine”) from 1980; it included a piece by Jerry Pournelle called “The Brains Keep Coming,” which included some remarkably accurate predictions about the then-future of computing.

Here, with permission from Pournelle, are several paragraphs from that article, along with some comments from me.

The publishing industry as we know it is inevitably doomed. I've described this before, but it can't hurt to repeat it: once the big brains become easily available to everyone, “publishing” will consist of writing your book and depositing it in a central information utility. Those wanting to read it simply ask for it; their credit card information is already on file as part of their access to the big computer. The book appears on their screen and their account is charged for the service. A royalty is simultaneously credited to the author's account.

That seems to me to be a remarkably good description of self-publishing on (for example) Kindle. Hasn't replaced traditional publishing yet, but still may do so; and regardless, a very prescient description.

This could be done now, but it won't happen for a few years. At the moment, books are more convenient: you can carry a book around with you, from room to room or even out of the house, while to read via computer requires you to stay next to the terminal. However—they'll soon improve the terminals. There's no reason you couldn't have a [handy] flat screen, not a lot bigger or heavier than a book, something easily held in your lap, with controls for “turning pages” backward or forward. The first ones will have a cable running to a wall jack, but later improvements can let your pocket terminal communicate wirelessly via satellite, giving all the handiness of a book—and the convenience of carrying a whole library.

Exactly, except for the one specific detail of the satellite per se.

Now publishing by computer has problems. One severe difficulty will be piracy—but then piracy is already a problem in these days of cheap copying machines and offset presses.

Yep. And a good reminder that piracy predated widespread Internet use.

[after talking about Zork] In fact, the adventure-oriented game may well become a rival to the adventure novel...

Indeed. Hello, World of Warcraft (and many others).

A couple of items that are nice reminders of how far and fast we've come along the Moore's Law curve:

...you can now buy 64,000 bytes [of memory] for under $500...

...There is already a reliable hard disk for home computers selling for under $5000...

(Both of those were followed by notes saying that they were continuing to get cheaper, of course; I'm not quoting them to be critical of them, I'm just always amazed and pleased at seeing reminders of Moore's Law in action.)

Information networks will sprint into existence. Some will be frivolous: perhaps electronic fanzines (something like that already exists); but others can be quite serious. National organizations with near-instant communications between members are not only practical but inevitable; the effects on our domestic politics should be interesting.


The information collecting capabilities are formidable. I will not soon forget the afternoon when John McCarthy of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratories plugged his hand-carried terminal into the telephone on my desk, called Stanford, and asked for “hot news on fusion power”; the result was a precis of a number of items, including some from sources you'd never think to look at. I wish I had access to something like that every time I have to do a particularly hairy research article.

And now I see this every morning in Google News.

And of course the potential for abuse is obvious. Big computers make collecting dossiers on nearly everyone quite simple; Congress has already had to deal with that.


But the big machines also make really secure codes quite practical; we already know how to [...] let you encipher whatever you'd like—letters, your diary, records of illegal bets, anything you choose—in a way that even the most powerful machines available to government can't break.


I have no larger point here; just thought it was a nice collection of predictions that were surprisingly accurate.

All quotations here are from “The Brains Keep Coming,” by Jerry Pournelle, from Destinies vol. 2, number 1, February–March 1980, pp. 134–151.

(See also Facebook thread for this post.)

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