Early Computing's Long, Strange Trip
What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped
the Personal Computer Industry. John Markoff. xxvi + 310
pp. Viking, 2005. $25.95.
Does history matter? No one would think of reading Shakespeare
without learning enough of the historical context to understand the
Bard's words. But does the history of science and technology matter
in a similar way? Does knowing the first thing about the exotic
megalomaniac Nikola Tesla make any difference at all to a young
engineer plugging a computer into an alternating-current outlet (one
of Tesla's inventions that we take for granted today)? After all,
the AC outlet will work whether Tesla is remembered or not.
Let's focus the question more narrowly: Does the history of
computers as we experience them—the history of the
user-interface design, for instance—matter? I say yes. Like
Shakespearean English, the computer is a tool that must be
understood in depth to be deeply useful, and the richer the
information about context, the richer the understanding.
It is nothing short of bizarre, then, that it has taken so long for
a book to appear that chronicles the early cultural history of the
personal computer. John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said
(the title is taken from the lyrics of the Jefferson Airplane song
"White Rabbit") tells the story of the important period
when the personal computer and the Internet as we know them came
into being. He also describes how a new culture of drugs, sex and
rock and roll was created at the same time as the computers,
sometimes in the same rooms, by some of the same people. Some
readers may be shocked by the degree to which the design of modern
computing was a central component of the 1960s counterculture in
This is news that might interest young engineering students, for
reasons much more important than titillation. The computer and the
Internet are cultural as well as technical artifacts, and they are
still changing. We can now see for the first time the relation
between the aspirations of young idealistic designers and the actual
experiences of people using these tools on a massive scale in a
world newly rich with information. The story thus far is more
inspirational than not, but it is filled with drama and lingering uncertainties.
Markoff's book covers the years 1960 to 1975 and the area south of
San Francisco around Stanford University that would later come to be
known as Silicon Valley. I arrived in Palo Alto in 1980, after the
period described in the book, but got to know most of the people
Markoff depicts. I can report that if anything, he underplays the
degree to which they behaved in ways that would today be considered
outrageous and radical, and what I saw was said to have been mild
compared with what had come before.
The book captures what can only be called the funkiness of the time
and place. I well remember the boomerang-shaped Stanford Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory, hidden in the hills, at once a futuristic
science-fiction vision and a dangerous, dilapidated mess that would
be considered unfit for human use in the current climate of
liability litigation. Masses of wires blossomed out of the rear ends
of hot, giant early computers, looking rather like the hair on the
heads of the engineers building them. The ragged, broken walls and
ceilings were softened by the hippie décor and the fragrance
of marijuana and candles, which created a warm ambience. And yes,
there were drugs and naked people in the rooms where some of the
code that now drives your e-mail around the globe was first set
down. The people who conceived of critical aspects of modern
computing moved in the same social circles as the musicians who
became the Grateful Dead and the people who invented drug
"tripping" and New Age spirituality.
Markoff tells the deliciously scandalous true history of computing
in the '60s and also considers how that legacy matters. His
principal focus is on one of the enduring ideological conflicts that
first appeared then: the struggle between open and proprietary
software. He presents a marvelous chronicle of the first open-source
project, which was also the first video game: "Spacewar."
He also describes some of the early attempts to supplant the
open-community method with a proprietary regime, particularly those
of a kid named Bill Gates.
Markoff has laid down a reliable record and begun the process of
interpreting it, but much remains to be done. Many of the software
layers we still use without thinking, like the air we breathe, are
remarkably open, and this reflects the cultural context in which
they were invented. For instance, when I arrived in the Valley in
1980, it was still considered somehow uncool not to live
semicommunally. The ideal of communal living eventually came to be
tempered (and was nearly destroyed) by the reality of interpersonal
conflicts, which tore apart one group household after another in the
1980s. The architecture of e-mail as we know it was made up during
the communal period; had the protocols been defined just a little
later, a more realistic or even fatalistic model of human nature
might have held sway. The early crafters of the idea of e-mail could
have made it much harder to falsify a sender's identity, for
instance, and we might have been spared some of the deluge of spam
and viruses to which we are now subjected.
Markoff's narrative is organized around the stories of a few of the
most creative and influential individuals of the time, such as AI
pioneer John McCarthy and journalist/philosopher Stewart Brand. The
most beautiful and nuanced portrait, however, is of Douglas
Engelbart. Engelbart more than anyone else invented the modern user
interface, modern networking and modern information management. In
1968 he demonstrated a computer he had been building, one that had
rudimentary implementations of a mouse, windows, word processing,
databases, network file sharing and so on. This demonstration turned
out to be a transformative cultural moment—akin to the Moon
landing, even if it wasn't as widely publicized.
There's an almost mythic sadness to some of the stories of the
creative minds behind the modern computer. Engelbart wanted to build
user interfaces to support virtuosity in users—the sort of
virtuosity one would expect from a fine musician. But instead, to
his profound disappointment, a compromise took hold in which only
the less challenging of his ideas have come into widespread use. He
and many of the other pioneers—Alan Kay and Ted Nelson, for
example—labor on to this day, building the computer as they
feel it should be, even as the world at large has adapted on a
massive scale to a computer that to those pioneers is only half-born.
The book also captures an important early conflict between two
cultures of computing that seemed compatible on the surface but
actually had opposing aims. On the one side was the human-centered
design work of Engelbart, based initially at the Stanford Research
Institute, and on the other was artificial intelligence culture,
centered on the Stanford AI lab. Engelbart once told me a story that
illustrates the conflict succinctly. He met Marvin Minsky—one
of the founders of the field of AI—and Minsky told him how the
AI lab would create intelligent machines. Engelbart replied,
"You're going to do all that for the machines? What are you
going to do for the people?" This conflict between machine- and
human-centered design continues to this day.
What might all this mean to young engineering students? At the very
least, this book will probably serve as a hedge against complacency.
How can they read these stories without wanting to prove that they
can be more vital, revolutionary and inventive than a charming gang
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