What the Dormouse Said

I’ve been reading John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said. The subtitle is “How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer” and it’s about the computer communities at and near Stanford that pushed relentlessly on the interface innovations and use models that came to dominate personal computing. It’s quite interesting.

Let me say up front that I don’t actually believe Markoff’s thesis, insofar as he asserts that these researchers (principally Doug Engelbart’s SRI group that developed the mouse) and hobbyists (principally the Homebrew Computer Club (warning! sub-par Wikipedia entry, but the links are good and collected in one place)) actually drove the invention of the “personal computer.” As Paul Ceruzzi’s somewhat drier A History of Modern Computing argues, the first “personal” computers were also the products of the frontiers opened by minicomputer revolution. Markoff, by and large, conflates interface innovations (he’s big into the Engelbart-Xerox PARC-Apple story, and largely ignores the role of the command line in popular computing) with the power of having a computer all to yourself.

That gripe aside, it’s fascinating. In part, I enjoy any well-told yarns about the Elder Gods of computing. The sixties and seventies gave us some incredible advances in computing and it makes my heart sing to read of how it was done.

In greater part, though, I’m enjoying discovering just how deeply wierd that era in that part of California was. We’re not talking about the usual media images of hippies at music festivals; we’re talking about the deep interpenetration the straightlaced and the psychedelic. We’re talking engineers taking LSD together at work in hopes of achieving groundbreaking technical insights. We’re talking Doug Engelbart attempting to make his research group run more effectively with encounter groups. We’re talking Stewart Brand attempting—and nearly failing—to give away $20,000 at a party.

I’m not sure whether it changes my views of modern computing to know that some of its pioneers thought computers would augment human consciousness in exactly the same way that LSD, meditation, free love, and wholly self-directed education would. But I’m enjoying finding out how they did.

When I read Kary Mullis’s fascinating and self-serving memoirs, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, I learned that LSD and the like were partly responsible for his development of PCR. This is the molecular bio technique of amplifying DNA, for which he won the Nobel Prize, and without which a lot of subsequent advances (like genome sequencing) would’ve been a lot slower in the making. So maybe those computer engineers were both on something and on to something.