Last year, I sent the L. A. Times a review of John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said. Unfortunately, it arrived in between editorial regimes, and it never got published. So, I'm posting it here.
I don't mention it in the review, but Peninsula School, where my kids go, makes several appearances in the book. I hadn't realized that the school had this subterranean connection to the origins of personal computing, but it does. Really a fascinating place.
[To the tune of Gil Evans, "Little Wing," from the album "& British Orchestra / BBC".]
Technorati Tags: culture, history of science, menlo park, Peninsula School, Silicon Valley, What the Dormouse Said
John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer. New York: Viking, 2005.
"Revolutionary:" is there a more over-used adjective for describing computers? Today, Silicon Valley press releases spin any new product or upgrade into the Second Coming of the printing press. But thirty years ago, the personal computer really was revolutionary. The first generation of PCs—the Apple II, TRS 80, Commodore 64, and their kin—were underpowered and nearly useless. Still, to many who had worked with time-sharing systems—who, in effect, had had their own virtual computers, and yearned for the real thing—they were artifacts of a New World, full of wonders and tricks and infinite potential. The PC—or microcomputer, as it was first called—was a Promethean technology, taking fire that had previously been reserved for a technical priesthood cloistered in academia or working for the military, and giving it to the people.
Indeed, for the small group that was designed, programmed, and evangelized the PC in the 1970s, the notion that computers were revolutionary wasn't just colorful talk; for them, the personal computer was a child of the Sixties. The provocative thesis that the PC was political radicalism poured into silicon and magnetic memory, and reflected the spirit of the age every bit as much as tie-dyed shirts or the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, has been advanced in short essays by Theodore Roszak (author of the 1968 classic Making of a Counter-Culture) and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, but it has never been explored extensively. John Markoff's new book, What the Dormouse Said, shows in detail how a blend of high technology, cultural innovation, political radicalism, and—shall we say—pharmacological experimentation spun together in Silicon Valley in the 1960s to yield the personal computer. In so doing, Markoff greatly enriches our understanding of the origins of the personal computer, the history of the Sixties, and the nature of innovation.
A casual visitor to the Peninsula in the early 1960s—it would only come to be called "Silicon Valley" a decade later—would have seen a quintessentially Cold War American tableau. The electronics and aerospace industries were expanding at a ferocious pace, made rich by exploding consumer demand and military contracts. Employers like Lockheed, NASA, Hewlett-Packard and Stanford, and pleasant towns like Palo Alto and Menlo Park, attracted thousands of well-educated, middle-class families. But tucked away in some neighborhoods was a long bohemian and radical tradition: artists, writers, and misfits congregated in Menlo Park's Willows and the hills above Stanford, attracted by cheap housing and beautiful surroundings. The two worlds coexisted but didn't interact until the early 1960s, when several things brought them together.
First, industry insiders were marveling at the spectacular growth in microprocessor power—a phenomenon, Markoff makes clear, that was known to many but best codified by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. The prospect that computing power would grow exponentially for decades gave some far-sighted researchers the freedom to think about the future of computing in outsized, science-fiction terms, and assume that the technology would deliver whatever capabilities they would need to make their dreams reality. Designing for a radical future became the norm, and Silicon Valley began its addiction to ever-cheaper, ever-stronger microprocessors.
Second, Stanford University attracted two remarkable, but very different computer scientist-evangelists. Douglas Engelbart arrived at Menlo Park's Stanford Research Institute to build computer systems that could augment human intelligence and multiply the power of collaborators, not just automate services or business processes. At the same time, John McCarthy founded the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Palo Alto; his group didn't want to augment human intelligence, but reproduce it electronically. Engelbart's Augmentation Research Lab and McCarthy's SAIL brought together Stanford Ph.D.s, hardware wizards, software hackers, and even high school-age hangers-on—most famously, Apple co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.
Finally, a small coterie of engineers and scientists, led by Ampex engineer Myron Stolaroff, discovered LSD. The drug would later become notorious, thanks to the Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests; but at Stolaroff's International Foundation for Advanced Study, LSD was a tool for stimulating creativity. They sought out scientists and engineers who had been working on some difficult technical problem for at least three months; until LSD was outlawed in 1967, several hundred of the region's best minds dropped acid, many under the guidance of psychologist Jim Fadmian. For this group, LSD was the ultimate high tech, a road to Nobels and patents rather than Nirvana and inner peace.
Out of this brew, Markoff argues, came the personal computer. Moore's Law suggested that today's expensive minicomputer would eventually be affordable to hobbyists. ARC and SAIL invented many of the key technologies of the digital age, sketched out what a future with abundant computers could be like, and inspired a generation of engineers to want machines of their own. Finally, the tech-savvy counterculture experimented with computers as tools for community organization, activism, and personal growth. As Markoff puts it, "The idea of personal computing was born in the sixties; only later, when falling costs and advancements in technology make it feasible, would the box itself arrive."
Ironically, neither ARC nor SAIL would create that box. Despite Engelbart's brilliance and charisma, the world showed little interest in ARC's powerful but complex system, and the "strong AI" dream of creating intelligent machines collapsed in the 1970s. When Xerox decided to fund its blue-sky Palo Alto Research Center, it rapidly attracted young ARC and SAIL veterans eager to do their own work on personal computing, networks, user interface design, and graphics. A more informal outlet but equally important platform for exploring computers opened soon after. The Homebrew Computing Club attracted a mix of antiwar activists, Whole Earth Catalog veterans, and computer scientists; ultimately, two dozen companies, including Apple, would come out of Homebrew.
Some of this story is already familiar. Homebrew is remembered with great affection in Paul Frieberger and Michael Swain's Fire in the Valley and Steven Levy's Hackers. More recently, Michael Hiltzk's Dealers of Lightning mapped the complex legacy of Xerox PARC. Douglas Engelbart has become the Roy Orbison of computers, his contributions finally remembered and respected in his late years. Those familiar stories are told with greater depth than is usual; but Markoff also does three other important things.
First, Markoff makes a compelling case that Palo Alto and Menlo Park should figure as prominently as San Francisco and Berkeley in the history of the counterculture. Most narratives of the Sixties focus on the Free Speech Movement, anti-Vietnam protests, People's Park, the Black Panthers, and other events in San Francisco and the East Bay. Palo Alto, in contrast, has looked about as revolutionary as an Atlanta suburb.
But over the long run, what happened on the Peninsula was infinitely more important than the Summer of Love. People's Park may loom larger in popular memory than the People's Computer Center, but the former is still an undeveloped block in Berkeley (local activists and the university have fought to a stalemate over it). The latter helped spawn a new attitude to information technology.
Second, Markoff shows just how much the personal computer was the creation of a community, rather than a few individuals. Engelbart and McCarthy were dismissive of the idea of personal computers, and even Xerox PARC's leadership thought the first PCs were little more than toys (which was exactly right) with no potential (which was exactly wrong). No one in Markoff's story has the entire vision of what the PC would become, but everyone contributes something.
Finally, Markoff shows that even the most familiar, universal technologies are products of local environments. The personal computer that we use today—the inexpensive machine that we buy at the local electronics of big-box store—is a miracle of globalization and commodification. Were Adam Smith alive today, he wouldn't talk about the pin factory as a model of efficiency; he'd talk about contract manufacturer Flextronics, supply chains that link Taiwan, Mexico, Malaysia, and Ireland, and global brands like Samsung and Apple.
But the specific blend of establishment and counterculture, Markoff makes clear, is what made Silicon Valley in the 1960s great. Other places had one or the other. San Francisco an abundance of hippies, Princeton and Cambridge a surplus of computer companies, but only on the Peninsula did the two worlds intersect so completely. Buttoned-up engineers did acid; hippies worked at Hewlett-Packard; Engelbart's and McCarthy's labs were full of antiwar protesters whose salaries were paid for by military and government grants.
This mash-up of countercultural and corporate worlds may seem contradictory, but what matters is that it was immensely productive, and it remained so for decades. Steve Jobs liked to tell the designers of the Macintosh, the computer that brought the graphical user interface to the masses, "It's better to be a pirate than join the navy." But they weren't pirates; they were privateers, operating independently but always supported—and funded—by the corporate navy. It's why they succeeded.
But there's one piece of the vision of computing in the 1960s that we're only now starting to fulfill. Engelbart didn't see his work as just enhancing individual creativity; he wanted to boost the collective intelligence of groups, to improve collaboration, group memory, and problem-solving ability.
For a long time, that dream was dumbed-down into things like knowledge management and corporate intranets, and largely ignored by PC pioneers. Now, with the rise of the social software movement, and a deeper theoretical understanding of how groups can use technology to self-organize and cooperate, we're starting to see tools that can make groups smarter, and offer the prospect of putting diverse ideas and practices to good common use.
It's a movement that, for all its technical savvy, puts people and creativity ahead of gadgets. Making it all work will require the combined talents of humanists, designers, geeks, and anthropologists. The outlines of this new mash-up may be coming together in Silicon Valley. If it does, and if it delivers, journalists will write books like What the Dormouse Said about Palo Alto in the 2010s. If it doesn't, the town will become as tranquil as it looks, and the real action will move elsewhere.