Sunday, December 31, 2006

31. What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff

Dormouse cover pictureI bought this book for my dad last xmas, after hearing a great interview with the author on the podcast Berkeley Groks. My dad liked it so much, he pressed it on to me to read, which I did on the way home for the holidays. I've read the two other classics of computer history "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder and "Hackers" by Steven Levy and my father was on the peripheries of it while it was going on, so I have a decent general idea of the history. What the Dormouse Said makes explicit and emphasises the idea that the radical changes in society and thinking that transformed America in the 60s strongly informed the ideas of the people who started the computer revolution as well.

It's an interesting idea. Markoff lays it out by going through the lives and personalities of many of the important players, first showing the development of their ideas and values and then their impact on the computer world. Most of the action takes place at Stanford's SAIL laboratories and later at Xerox PARC. He has done excellent research and tells a fascinating story. These engineers and programmers really were freak. Even the earliest pioneers, the 50s guys wearing black ties and white short sleeve shirts, were participating in organzed LSD experiments while building some of the earliest network machines whose software backbone (ftp for instance) and hardware concepts are still with us today, buried deep in the structure of the internet.

I have trouble reading histories that have a lot of players and particularly during the first half of the book, I got kind of confused. The organization becomes clearer in the second half as it focuses on fewer characters. Things also get really wilder at that point, as the 60s heat up with social and political conflict reaching a head. The programmers found themselves caught between the angry forces of the anti-war movement and their own desire to change the world through technology, technology which was generally funded by the military-industrial complex. At the SAIL labs, things were really crazy. Programmers were smoking dope downstairs while engineers were working on helicopter bombing simulations for the Vietnam war upstairs.

What the Dormouse Said is a rigorous book. Markoff doesn't pull punches and isn't afraid to show where mistakes were made. In fact, one of his stronger theses is that no matter how succesful a wave of technology is, there is always another one on the way that will completely undermine the previous one and cannot be predicted by the riders of the previous one. The leaders at PARC were driven by the idea of shared computing. They thought the idea of an individual personal computer was frivolous (though they were all aware of Moore's law at the time). The guys at Xerox Parc were a little more hip to it, but it was individual hobbyists who blew the whole thing wide open. They borrowed lots of tech and ideas from their predecessors (the mouse, windows) but ended up going off in an entirely different direction, leaving Xerox's entry into the computer industry as a famous failure. Interestingly, today, we are seeing the pendulum swing back, as the internet and shared apps start to take hold. Who knows where we will go from here, but Markoff's emphasis on the poor judgement of contemporary pundits on the future is a lesson we should not forget.

This book is an important read. The irony of the computer revolution is how so many of its leaders were against corporations and capitalism and were looking for ways to make the world a better place through radical social change (obviously, this doesn't include Bill Gates). They ended up creating the wealth engine of the 20th century. I still believe that there is a role for technology to help make the world a better place beyond just increasing production and trade, but we humans need to get past our short-term greed and social fear for that to happen. The tools are there and this book is a reminder that some very smart and hard-working people created these tools so we could attempt to do that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've had this book on my list for a long time as well. I actuall expected it to be less rigorous and more of a character exploration of the people involved in the early days of the industry.

Your review makes me want to read it all the more.