Encyclopedia Project

In 1980 when I was trying to figure out the next stage of my life, I spent the first six months working nights as a waiter and my days reading in the Santa Monica Library. Early on, the work being done at the Architecture Machine Group lab at MIT (see the Movie Manual demo from this period)  and the interactive laserdiscs being produced by MCA/IBM caught my attention and I focused on the idea of an Intelligent Encyclopedia.  In large part through blind luck I ended up being hired as a consultant to Encyclopedia Brittanica and got to spend six months writing the . The blind luck arose as a result of a letter to Dennis Hadley at Random House inquiring about the possibility of licensing the Random House Encyclopedia. A friend asked me what I was into at that point in my life and I sent her a copy of the letter, completely unaware (honest) that her father was on the board of the Encyclopedia Britannica. She gave the letter to her father who in turn gave it to Chuck Swanson, Britannica’s CEO. Swanson called me up and said “If you know so much why don’t you come talk to us.” In reality I didn’t know anything at that point, but i found the one guy in the U.S., Rod Daynes, who had made a bunch of interactive discs for the government and invited him to go with me to Chicago to do a presentation for Swanson and Charles van Doren (yes the Quiz Show contestant) who was the head of editorial. 

Rod Daynes put on a flawless demonstration and I got hired to write the paper below with Charles van Doren as my editor and project cheerleader.

A key idea in the paper, that propelled my work forward for the next many years was a new definition of a book, one which  focused on the way a book is USED, rather than its physical nature. I realized that in 1981 books might be considered a user-controlled medium because readers controlled both pace and sequence of access; in contrast to audio and video which at that time were entirely producer-controlled in that pace and sequence was set by the maker. But this was the moment that digital control was becoming a factor in all audio and video playback meaning that all media would soon start to resemble books in terms of user-control. That plus the understanding that the internet and artificial intelligence were coming made the moment seem ripe for a daring re-conception of what learning could be in the digital era.

It’s interesting to read these docs now. Our vision (and it was a collective one) was boundless but also idealistic . . . in the sense that while we imagined a much richer media landscape than the one we now have, nearly forty years later, we completely missed the potential power of the network to harness the efforts of people in their millions . . . we were still basically stuck in the print era construct of central editorial body commissioning experts and funding rich multimedia and AI components. We literally couldn’t have imagined the wikipedia at that time. What would be interesting to look at now would be how to consider how to integrate some of the blue-sky ideas we generated into the current landscape. 

This is a subset of the “complete” encyclopedia project papers which includes dozens of documents and well more than a thousand pages.

When I finished the Britannica gig I basically sent the paper to anyone I thought might be interested enough to hire me to work on a related project. Since I had written in the paper that the future Britannica might be a joint venture with Xerox (Parc) and Lucas Film, when Alan Kay left Xerox to become Atari’s chief scientist, I contacted him right away. Alan invited me up to Atari, read all 120 pages while i was sitting there, looked up and said, “This is exactly the sort of project I want to work on here. Why don’t you join me in the research group?” 

Alan Kay Atari Memos, Part One

Part one of a set of memos either to or from Alan Kay regarding the Encylopedia Project at Atari

Alan Kay Atari Memos, Part Two

The Atari Drawings

Brenda Laurel and I designed a series of scenarios to give Warner execs (the owners of Atari) a sense of what the Encyclopedia Project was all about.  Alan Kay arranged for Glen Keane, the famous Disney animator to render the scenarios in these charming drawings.

Charles Van Doren visits the Atari Research Group

When I was writing the paper for Britannica, my champion there was Charles Van Doren who could not have been more excited about the potential of new interactive technologies to transform the nature of the encyclopedia. Early on, I brought Alan to meet Charlie at Britannica’s office and from that moment Charlie was 100% committed to working with Alan and I to make something happen. In December of 1982 we brought Charles to Atari for a two day seminar with the people on the Encyclopedia project. These are the notes from that meeting. 
Whither the Encyclopedia Project, AKA, The Do It! memo. 
When you look at the scope of what was being proposed, you can imagine how exciting it was to be told simply to Do It!  Atari imploded shortly thereafter (the ET cartridge debacle) so the research group disbanded and the dream of an Intelligent Encyclopedia landed on the shelf of dreams.

Question Journal
In 1982 we were contemplating an encyclopedic that was so “complete” that you could ask any question and have a bit of confidence that you would get a useful answer. The only problem was that we had no idea what the range of possible questions might be. Realistically at that time most questions that might have occurred to you would flit quickly out of consciousness because you knew that getting an answer would be impossible or not worth the prodigious effort. So, we bought a bunch of micro-tape recorders which we gave to people and asked them to be conscious of those fleeting questions and record them.  Michael Naimark, one of my colleagues at the lab took some tape recorders to a rural area of the Philippines. This is his report.

Letter from Jay David Bolter who was one of the first humanities scholars to embrace the potential of digital technology