How James Martin predicted the rise of the internet

Computer scientist James Martin was beguiled by the opportunities technology presented in answering the big questions of the future.

When the celebrated futurologist James Martin set up home on an isolated island off Bermuda in 1997, he acquired an aura of mystique. There was something faintly Prospero-like about this great visionary issuing portents from his lonely island realm. Curiosity about Martin intensified in 2004 when apparently out of the blue he became the greatest benefactor of Oxford University in its 900-year history, donating a total of $150m. It seemed somehow fitting that his death last week was also mysterious: his body was found by a kayaker in waters off Bermuda. Local police have since maintained "there were no suspicious circumstances".

Futurology is a notably hit-and-miss science, but Martin was a practitioner par excellence, says Wired. "A man whose curiosity was bettered only by his intellect", he spent his career "relentlessly scanning the future, eager to pick out trends".

A technologist by training, he is still best-known for his 1977 book, The Wired Society, which presciently predicted the impact of what we now call the internet at a time when even personal computers (let alone ones that could talk to each other) were still in the realms of science fiction. In the last decades of his life, however, Martin cast his lens much wider. He endowed the Oxford Martin School with the instruction that it address "the biggest questions facing humankind in the 21st century" (see below).

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Martin himself was very much a product of the 20th century, says The Guardian. Born in 1933, in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, the only child of working-class parents, he was a grammar school scholarship boy who went up to Keble College, Oxford in 1950. Although nominally a physics student, "he was an eclectic scholar", sitting in on the philosophy lectures of Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin. In 1959, he joined IBM as a data-processing analyst.

After spending his early years at IBM working on real-time airline reservation systems, Martin transferred to its in-house 'university', the Systems Research Institute in New York in the mid-1960s. He later described the think-tank as "a hornet's nest", says The Independent. But it gave him the chance to think beyond the minutiae of operating systems. Taking a year's sabbatical to write Wired Society, he never went back.

He made $1m from the book and "discovered he could make a lot more" travelling the world "lecturing business executives on the coming computer revolution". He eventually wrote over 100 books. For all his prowess at the lectern, Martin was a shy man who struggled with small talk. But he was not the recluse he's sometimes made out to be, regularly welcoming guests to the colonial-style house on Agar's Island where he lived with his wife. "Warm, kind, unfailingly courteous," is how one colleague describes him. Yet he retained an enigmatic quality right to the end.

Omens of a new Dark Age

By the 1980s, Martin was issuing warnings about the future that went well beyond technology, says Ian Goldin in Wired. His book Technology's Crucible, published in 1987, "features a scenario depicting Arab terrorists and a major attack on New York". More than a decade later, September 11th was the catalyst that led him to endow the Oxford Martin School. On the day after the attacks, Martin gave a lecture to executives in Hong Kong, revising his talk to include his thoughts on the implications. When he asked for audience questions, the only one forthcoming was a query about IBM's new 64-bit z/OS. It wasn't what he wanted to hear.

"Martin saw the world as increasingly complex, but the response from executives, academics and policymakers as increasingly siloed." Hence his decision to create an incubator for original thinking in Oxford, where researchers across all disciplines would collaborate to identify "extraordinary opportunities" and "potentially cataclysmic threats". Research topics range from climate change and cyber-security to the Malthusian debate about the impact of growing populations on resources.

Martin never lost faith in technology's ability to tackle seemingly intractable problems, says Marcus Williamson in The Independent. But he never lost sight of the risks either. As he observes in The Meaning of the 21st Century, "We can create much grander civilisations or we could trigger a new Dark Age."