Turn on, tune in, log on
The PC and the Internet sprang from pot-smoking, acid-dropping California dreamers
Reviewed by Ian Garrick Mason
Sunday, April 24, 2005
What the Dormouse Said
How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry
By John Markoff
VIKING; 310 PAGES; $25.95
In the world of high technology, a visionary is a person whose obsessively held hunch happens to come true. For everyone else, fate holds either obscurity, or, for an unlucky few, habitual derision, as with Digital Equipment Corp. founder Ken Olsen, who has been unfairly held up as an example of technological cluelessness ever since he told a convention in 1977 that “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”
A similar fate was courted by Xerox Corp. when it elected not to commercialize the Alto, a prototype personal computer invented at its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973, almost a decade before companies like Apple, Radio Shack and IBM entered the PC market. In contrast, PARC itself would go down in business history as a nexus of farsighted West Coast researchers who were ignored by their buttoned-down East Coast masters.
John Markoff, a San Francisco technology writer for the New York Times, extends this visionary-centered narrative even deeper into the history of personal computing and the Internet. “What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry” is an enthusiastic argument in favor of the idea that it was the uniquely Californian scene that brought forth the technologies we depend on so much today — that the PC and the Internet sprang as much from a cultural environment of back-to-nature independence, personal freedom and psychedelic drugs as they did from engineering diagrams.
Based on the evidence Markoff presents, there is much to this. The most recent ancestors of modern PCs were the kit-based computers beloved by hobbyists in the mid-1970s (a favorite model was the Altair 8800), and one of the centers of the hobby movement was Menlo Park’s own Homebrew Computer Club, founded in 1975 by peace activist Fred Moore. Homebrewers swapped software and components and advised each other on how to build computers from the ground up — a do-it-yourself ethos with close links both to the Whole Earth Catalog phenomenon and to the ideas of radical educator Ivan Illich, who believed that technology should be limited to the human scale.
Homebrew was in turn an outgrowth of the storefront-based People’s Computer Co. (PCC), which played a vanguard role in selling hands-on computing time and training to anyone who walked in off the street. PCC was one expression of the era’s general reaction against corporate power, which in the world of computing was symbolized by the “glass house”: the room in which the central computer was kept, attended by its priesthood of operators. For frustrated scientists and hackers, the notion of having a computer dedicated to an individual was immensely attractive. As Ted Nelson declared in his influential 1974 manifesto, “Computer Lib/Dream Machines,” computing should be available to all, “without necessary [sic] complication or human servility being required.”
Surprisingly, many of the basic technologies behind personal computing were products of artificial-intelligence research. Douglas Engelbart, an electrical engineer at Stanford Research Institute, believed that computers should be used to augment a person’s existing powers of reasoning, rather than to replace or supersede them. By focusing on subjects such as knowledge-worker productivity and work-group collaboration, Engelbart’s team invented important tools for interactivity: text editors, cursors and the mouse.
Markoff emphasizes the link between Engelbart’s quest to technologically augment the human mind and another engineer’s attempt to do so pharmacologically. A senior designer at recording equipment manufacturer Ampex, Myron Stolaroff, established the International Foundation for Advanced Study in order to measure the effects of LSD on creativity. Drugs, in fact, are an ever-present backdrop in Markoff’s book: Pot is smoked freely in Engelbart’s lab (causing his researchers increasingly to be seen as “stoned goofballs” by the other scientists at SRI), and brilliant programmers and writers drop acid with near abandon. The author even recounts how Apple founder Steve Jobs once told him that “taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.”
The implication throughout is that drugs were somehow one of the necessary conditions for the development of innovative PC technologies. Yet nowhere is that implication turned into a clear assertion — the closest thing is a comment by highly inventive programmer (and occasional LSD user) Dan Ingalls: “Well, where do you think these ideas came from?!” But Ingalls was joking, and elsewhere there is little evidence that drug use actually improved the ability of researchers to come up with ideas. Engelbart himself took LSD as part of Stolaroff’s program and found its results disappointing. The only product he invented while under its influence was a “tinkle toy,” a floating waterwheel for toilet training that spins when urinated on.
The tendency to make too much of things is a major flaw in Markoff’s book. After conflating today’s trend toward “open source” software with the very different debate over content “sharing” (known by its opponents as intellectual property theft), he reduces both to a black-and-white battle between “information propertarians” and “information libertarians”: “a fault line that today has become the bitterest conflict facing the world’s economy.”
He romanticizes both the era — “how unlike the cynical, selfish nineties” — and his subjects, even to the point of paradox: Researchers at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab “shared a passionate belief in an unbounded future, coupled with a slightly dark and sardonic worldview that only people with a truly deep understanding of the way things work could have. ” And his profiles are so uniformly of the brilliant-misfit-leaves-East-Coast- culture-to-find-freedom-in-San-Francisco kind that after what seems like two dozen such sketches, one dreads meeting a new character.
Ironically, it’s the ever-splintering counterculture that lends some much needed balance to the book. Diligently following each radical thread, Markoff shows how the military funding behind SRI’s computer science programs led increasingly militant protesters to oppose the very research that would ultimately produce the PC.
Yet when one of the labs is occupied by activists, a student saves the mainframe from destruction by convincing his fellows that the machine is “politically neutral.”
Not a visionary statement, perhaps, but a refreshingly grounded one.
Ian Garrick Mason is a Toronto writer and reviewer.