A Dinner Party is Not a Revolution

At the beginning of Winesburg, Ohio Sherwood Anderson conjures up a writer with a theory of truth — “That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth.  Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts.”

The writer, an old man, had made a list of many such truths — several hundred of them, all of them beautiful, naturally. (Winesburg was published in 1919.) “There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon.”

But at a certain point, people came along who the writer knew.  Each snatched up one of the truths. “… [S]ome who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.”

The writer’s theory was that the moment one of the people appropriated one of the truths, called it his own and tried to live by it, he became a caricature of himself — a grotesque — and the truth he had embraced became a falsehood.

The writer himself pretty nearly evaded this fate, according to Sherwood Anderson — by the simple expedient of never publishing the book. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.”

I thought of this while reading What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, by John Markoff. Such a good newspaper reporter (he works for The New York Times), I thought.  Too bad that there is so much more to the story than what he tells.

Dormouse had its beginnings, Markoff relates, in a dinner party a few years ago (on a houseboat in Sausalito, California) honoring Douglas Engelbart, a visionary computer engineer.

It was in 1950 that Engelbart, an electric engineer with two years servicing Navy radars behind him, had a sudden inspiration — he imagined himself sitting in front of a screen displaying, instead a single ghostly image, essentials from the information that could be obtained from an enormous electronic data trove — text, graphics, computation, instantaneous communications with colleagues halfway around the world.

Unable to turn his vision into PhD at Berkeley, Engelbart went to work in 1957 at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park instead. There, as head of SRI’s Augmented Human Research Center, he presided over important contributions to personal computing in the course of the next forty years, often in collision with John McCarthy’s Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, in the town next door.

Hearing stories that night which he had never heard before, Markoff resolved to set down a history of the brief and turbulent period before personal computers were in the news — before Steve Jobs and his pals in the garage headquarters of the Homebrew Computer Club gave the world the first mass-market personal computer, the Apple; before Xerox Corp’s Palo Alto Research Center created the mouse, the icon and many other dashboard tools that rendered PCs easy to use. 

The co-evolution of Engelbart less-well-known academic center and McCarthy’s one forms the spine of What the Dormouse Said. (In Grace Slick’s drug/gnostic 1967 anthem for the Jefferson Airplane, the woozy little guy recommends: “Feed your head! Feed your head! Feed your head!”) There are lots of stories about Ken Kesey pranks, Grateful Dead concerts, anti-Vietnam War dodges, Little Red Book-spouting and other Bay Area high-jinks mixed in with the technological war stories. 

Markoff thinks that Stewart Brand was right when the creator of The Whole Earth Catalog asserted in an essay called “We Owe It All to the Hippies” that “the counterculture’s scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations not only of the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal computer revolution.” 

“In a period of less than two decades and within the space of just a few square miles,” says Markoff, occurred a remarkable convergence of politics, culture and technology that fundamentally shaped a revolution — “the notion that one person should control all of a functions of a computer and that the machine would in turn respond as an idea amplifier.”

And that, naturally, raises California’s favorite question. What were the great cities of the East doing while the orchards south of San Jose were blossoming into Silicon Valley?

“All the intellectual ingredients for personal computing existed on the East Coast,” according to Markoff. “Why, then, did the passion for the PC and later the PC industry emerge first around Stanford?”

Because, he answers, “The old computing world was hierarchical and conservative.” The industrial culture of the East Coast, all those manufacturers of mainframes and minicomputers, simply didn’t “get it.”

Well, yes and no. It is certainly true that West Coast advances, most notably by Microsoft and Intel, took IBM Corp and Digital Equipment Corp. by surprise. In fact, the East Coast didn’t worry overmuch about the PC because its relevant powers — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bolt Beranek & Newman, Digital Equipment Corp. and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Defense Department in Washington — were too busy creating the invention that ultimately would render the PC all but obsolete: the Internet.

And at every step — whether it was the rivalry of MIT’s Servomechanism Laboratory  with Harvard’s Computation Lab, the SAGE Project with UNIVAC et al,  DEC with IBM, or countless lesser battles, the script was the same: democratize computing by putting affordable, easy-to-use hardware in the hands of  individuals, long before they knew they needed it.  This “long rebellion against the conception of computers as giant adding machines, and against the authoritarian mind-set that went with it,” is the subject of M. Mitchell Waldrop’s The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal.

Personal computing, it turns out, was, like baseball, very much an East Coast project before it spread to California.

The Dream Machine is one of those good things that were lost when they were overshadowed by events in 2001.  I’m sure the bad title had something to do with it, too, but the subtitle is clear enough: J.C.R. Licklider, who served two crucial tours at ARPA seeding computer research around the country, was the Johnny Appleseed of computer networking.  He was a fabulous character, “the interrogator and synthesizer” of “the small contentious community of interactive pioneers” who created the astonishing global network that has transformed the world in ways with which we are only now beginning to understand.

Indeed, so self-effacing was Licklider that it took Waldrop two years of reading up on the history of software before he “finally began to realize that windows, icons, mice, word processors, spreadsheets and all the other things that seem so important in the modern software industry actually come at the end of the story, not the beginning.”

By the beginning of the 1960s, he writes, “a full decade and a half before the microcomputer revolution began in the garages of Silicon Valley, and a full thirty years before the dawn of the Internet Age, the air around Cambridge was already alive with the essential ideas of interactive computing.”

Many people’s favorite stories are to be found in Waldrop’s book, too. But nobody has yet done a better job of putting them into a coherent account of how we got from the frantic days of World War II to where we are today.  If you’re looking for one book to read this summer about the history of technology, The Dream Machine is probably the one to choose.