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An interview with John Markoff

Greg Ross, Amos Esty

Journalist John Markoff has been covering technology since 1977, first for the San Francisco Examiner and now for the New York Times, which has nominated him three times for the Pulitzer Prize. In his latest book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, he traces the origins of modern personal computing to the San Francisco Bay Area between 1962 and 1975, where the combination of cultural upheaval, political ferment and recreational drug use were creating a sense of new possibility among the young men who staffed the Stanford computer labs.

"Out of that convergence came a remarkable idea," Markoff writes, "personal computing, the notion that one person should control all of the functions of a computer and that the machine would in turn respond as an idea amplifier." Ultimately, he says, that vision produced and drove the personal computer revolution of the last two decades.

American Scientist web managing editor Greg Ross and assistant book review editor Amos Esty interviewed Markoff by e-mail in April 2005.

The late Sixties saw prototypes of modern word processors, hypertext linking, e-mail, mice, spell-checkers and search engines. To what extent do we owe the era's breakthroughs to the individuals who made them? Were they due to be born anyway? John MarkoffClick to Enlarge Image

The point I try to make in Dormouse is that, Moore's Law notwithstanding, technological advance is not deterministic. [Intel co-founder Gordon Moore suggested that the complexity of integrated circuits doubles every 18 months.] Technology is shaped by culture, politics and economy. A classic example would be the invention of the integrated circuit, which grew out of the need to squeeze navigational circuitry into the nose cone of the Minuteman missile. The inventions were made by individuals, but they reflect their needs and desires and the world in which they were living.

What was it about computers that attracted so many, as you term them, "brilliant misfits"?

The relatively isolated and individualistic culture of computer hacking has been chronicled best by Steven Levy in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984). I believe that during the 1960s and early 1970s computing systems were a refuge for a community of young men who were naturally comfortable with computers, which provided worlds they could control and explore.

How do these pioneers feel today about that seminal work?

It's not possible to generalize. Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse, believes that no one understood his complete vision; Bill Duvall, who worked for Engelbart as a young programmer and who sent the first ARPAnet message, tends to dismiss all of the celebration as needless overdramatization. [ARPAnet is the progenitor of the global Internet; it was commissioned in 1969 by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, now renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.] His argument is that many of the things were obvious and it was work that needed to be done.

The Sixties saw the birth of the modern hacker ethic: that information should be free, authority is suspect, and merit trumps credentials. Why have these values persisted so long in the computing world?

Personal computing grew out of the collision between the hacker ethic and the other driving force in Silicon Valley, which I guess is best described as greed. I think the hacker ethic persists because there is a natural political inclination to share. I think these values resonate extremely strongly with the networked computer world, and they are being rapidly extended into the rest of society by the spread of digital media and digital networks.

How did this ethic coexist with the entrepreneurial urge to make money?

Uneasily!  I think the collision of these forces has been essential to shaping the computer world, but I think they have only recently begun to coexist. There are now a variety of companies exploring IP [intellectual property] strategies that attempt to leverage open-source technologies and blend them with proprietary extensions. That will probably be an increasingly common technology model, but it is one that the Grateful Dead used successfully for decades!

Gaming seems to galvanize interest in new technology among both hackers and hobbyists. Why?

John Carmack at Id Software is probably the best real-world example of this. Carmack is a true hacker in the best sense of the word, and he has relentlessly improved his gaming engines to offer more hyper-realistic computer games. The blend of technology and gaming was first noticed by Stewart Brand, who wrote about it in Rolling Stone in December of 1972 in a wonderful article titled "Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums."  I think personal computing offers this ability to create and maintain entire synthetic worlds, and that probably is more a factor than gaming per se.

Many of the anecdotes you discuss involve drug use. Did the people you interviewed think that drugs enhanced the creativity of their work, or were they simply a form of recreation?

Some but not all of the anecdotes! My view is there is no definitive evidence on the relationship between creativity and drug use. Some of the people I talked to thought that drug use enhanced creativity, but not all of them. There are some specific anecdotes, like the fact that the idea of "double-clicking" to select was a concept that was conceived by a stoned Xerox software designer. Beyond that, things get a bit murkier. My own belief is that the creativity of the period came from the more general cultural and political chaos of the times, which jarred people out of their day-to-day routines.

The Stanford computer labs were assailed for their Pentagon funding while many of their staff were young men trying to avoid the draft themselves. Did the war effort yield significant advances in computing?

Certainly in a broad sense, as opposed to the Vietnam War in particular. The Stanford AI Lab, Stanford Research Institute and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center all received DARPA funds. The technologies of personal computing and the Internet were invented there and later trickled out into the surrounding world.

Xerox PARC was doing famously innovative research during the same period, but seemed not to realize the value of its ideas. What accounts for this?

I think the criticism is not of PARC, but of its corporate parent. Xerox executives failed to recognize the importance of personal computing. In the company's defense, it is rare that a generation raised in one milieu understands the implication of the next generation of technology. Moreover, despite failing to benefit from the rise of personal computing, Xerox did profit handily from the invention of laser printing, another technology pioneered at PARC.

What do the programmers of the 1960s think about the direction the computer industry has taken over the past few decades? Did they expect it to become such a big business?

Doug Engelbart had a very clear vision of the power of computing and its impact on the world, and that has largely come to pass. I think there were many people who, beginning in the 1960s, came to share Engelbart's vision and his passion that computing could transform society in a positive way. Out of that grew personal computing and the modern Internet.

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