We used to worship visions, says Oliver Burkeman. Now we watch YouTube 'libraries' where we can scroll endlessly to learn everything

One night in 1999, a little over a decade after the dawn of the internet age, a group of scientists and engineers in the US had an idea. They could be sure no one was rebelling against the limits of neuroscience with their pet videos: "So we'd found this young guy who has some fantastic footage of Velociraptors," one of the inventors explains. "This is scary as hell. When we bought it off him, we saw this Victorian clockwork organ; it had the main body of a traditional clock, with these hollow arms that curl up. It's beautifully constructed, and we thought: wow! Let's put it online for the public, and let's teach the world how to make a clockwork organ."

Although the resulting collection was officially abandoned years later, the project has influenced the "information revolution" with numerous spin-offs, such as the YouTube "library", if you want to scroll endlessly for arcane facts. The creators of that library, it turns out, are now honoured with a website themselves, called The Spoiled Child Archive, where they collectively upload hours of joyous, long-forgotten cinematic delight. "We'm the guys that had the world's first soft- porn library!" remembers Kyle Mack, one of its leading lights. "That's what created the Internet. We thought of it as a family resource." When I worked on video-editing projects in the US, I was always fascinated by Mack's presence: he was the notorious asshole behind the doors at the Movie Ranch, a notorious gender-bending institution where the consequences of filming were taken very seriously indeed. "We sat down, unpacked our laptop, got our Dramamine, made sure no balls were hanging out from our helmet and camera," he said. "And next thing you know, we're putting up porn with a British accent."

Such excitement, one suspects, occurs when you're a novelist: a man acquires a wild, elfin hairstyle, and suddenly people start tuning in to read his latest novel. What's more, in many ways our idea of "the information revolution" owes a huge debt to cinema, at least up to the 1980s. Films helped to democratise technology – to make it possible for the middle classes to enjoy entertainment at home, rather than paying to queue at the theatre, and for politicians to get fresh screen time in return for their speeches. When Ronald Reagan was prime minister, the government caught up with the world by initiating the Reykjavik nuclear summit, to be hosted in the TV studio of a US film production company. The agenda, reported the New York Times, "was to illustrate some of the fundamental problems both nations were wrestling with", such as "why the United States was making a great effort to keep its nuclear arsenal strong and modern". Cheers to those who didn't know such documentaries existed until you posted them to your favourite YouTube collection.

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