Dr James Martin: Technology guru and philanthropist who predicted the rise of the internet

His seminal work ‘The Wired Society’ was only one of more than a hundred books in his oeuvre

James Martin was a visionary writer and technologist whose book The Wired Society (1978), one of more than a hundred he wrote, predicted the arrival of the internet and of much other communications technology that is now commonplace. Later in life, having succeeded in solving business problems, he turned his focus towards finding solutions for the bigger issues facing the world today.

Martin was born in 1933 in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, the son of a clerical worker. He gained a scholarship to read physics at Keble College, Oxford. He joined International Business Machines (IBM) in the late 1950s at a time when computers still filled whole rooms and required large teams of people to manage them.

By 1970 he was part of an elite group of computer scientists who were turning science fiction into reality, or, as he called it, “a think tank and internal university with an eclectic hornet’s nest of a faculty, opposite the United Nations building in New York”. He said of that time: “In the age of Nixon, we went to cocktail parties in the UN and it was like going to a different planet. The UN delegates had no clue about what was happening in technology, and we computer gurus had no vision beyond our own world.”

In 1977 he took a year off from IBM, during which time he wrote The Wired Society and ran the James Martin World Seminar series for executives about the new technology, which he foresaw revolutionising the world of commerce. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and that year’s work earned him a million dollars, convincing him to go it alone. For the next 25 years he toured the world, lecturing to business people on current and future technologies.

His powers of prescience continued to bring him success. In 1996, just as the world wide web was taking off, Martin published his 100th book, Cybercorp: the New Business Revolution. He accurately predicted how this new technology would provide huge opportunities for business, yet cautioned that, “The more the basic mechanisms become automated, the greater the need for people to concentrate on uniquely human roles such as inventing new ways to delight the customers.”

In 2004 Martin made a gift of £60 million to Oxford University to fund a new school, the largest ever donation of its kind. The school has as its aims “to formulate new concepts, policies and technologies that will make the future a better place to be”. In an interview for this newspaper in 2011, in which he spoke of the need for research on the planet’s multifarious problems, he explained: “The idea behind the school was to say that all of these subjects needed research of very high quality, and on all of them there would have be to multidisciplinary research. Yet there was almost no multidisciplinary research going on in universities.” A further gift of £30 million came five years later.

Having spent much of his life writing and providing advice on communications technology and business, in recent years he had turned his writing focus towards the complex systems which make up our world. His most recent work, The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future (2006) tackles these wider issues, emphasising the four main topics of natural resources, the double-edged sword of technological advances, the possible risks of this coming century and our prospects for the future. The film of the book, narrated by Michael Douglas, was released simultaneously.

He states in the book’s preface: “The 21st century is an extraordinary time – a century of extremes. We can create much grander civilizations or we could trigger a new Dark Age. There are numerous ways we can steer future events so as to avoid the catastrophes that lurk in our path and to create opportunities for a better world.”

But this is not some doom-laden prediction of disaster. Martin emphasises that it is within our capabilities to tackle these challenges using technologies which, for the most part, already exist. As with many issues, such as hunger, it is the political will to bring lasting solutions that is absent.

He continues in the preface, as if to emphasise the importance of his Oxford legacy, “A revolutionary transition is ahead of us, and our children have a vital role to play in it; so, there is so much that we need to teach them about their future.” Martin had lived on Agar’s Island, Bermuda, since buying it in 1997, using the technologies whose creation he had foreseen to keep in touch with the wider world. His body was found in the water near Hamilton Harbour by a kayaker. Police said there were no suspicious circumstances.

Professor Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, said, “James Martin was a true visionary whose exceptional generosity established the Oxford Martin School, allowing researchers from across the disciplines to work together on the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing humanity. His impact will be felt for generations to come, as through the school he has enabled researchers to address the biggest questions of the 21st century.”

Professor Ian Goldin, Director of the school Martin helped create, added: “The Oxford Martin School embodies Jim’s concern for humanity, his creativity, his curiosity, and his optimism. Jim provided not only the founding vision, but was intimately involved with the School and our many programmes. We have lost a towering intellect, guiding visionary and a wonderful close friend.”

James Martin, writer, technology expert and philanthrophist: born Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire 19 October 1933; married three times (one daughter); died Bermuda 24 June 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee