Penguin books what the dormouse said



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PENGUIN BOOKS
WHAT THE DORMOUSE SAID
John Markoff is a senior writer for The New York Times who has coauthored Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier and the bestselling Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw. He lives in San Francisco, California.
Praise for What the Dormouse Said
“At the core of Dormouse lies a valid and original historical point.”

The New York Times


“A convincing case…. This makes entertaining reading.”

The New York Times


“Evocative”

Newsweek


“Fascinating”

Computerworld


“Fascinating…Markoff is a wonderful writer and storyteller, and he effortlessly weaves together the stories of the main cast of characters. The individuals had the most unusual knack for crossing paths, and Markoff’s ability to show these sometimes tangential—but always important—relationships, without losing the thread of the story, is impressive.”

The Christian Science Monitor


“Nobody writes about computer technology better than Markoff, who gives us insights into the people, history and societal pressures that drive breakthroughs and new developments. Here he convincingly traces the birth of personal computing to the counterculture ethos of the Bay Area in the ’60s.”

San Jose Mercury News


“Shows how almost every feature of today’s home computers…can be traced to two Stanford research facilities that were completely immersed in the counterculture…. The combustive combination of radical politics and technological ambition is laid out so convincingly, in fact, that it’s mildly disappointing when, in the closing pages, Markoff attaches momentous significance to a confrontation between the freewheeling Californian computer culture and a young Bill Gates only to bring the story to an abrupt halt. Hopefully, he’s already started work on the sequel.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)


“A lively prehistory of Silicon Valley and its brilliant denizens of yore…. Technogeeks will know much of this history already, but Markoff does a fine job of distilling it here while pointing out how much bleaker the world might be if the pioneers had just said no.”

Kirkus Reviews


“Striking…. a fine job of recording the history of that exceptional time. Both informative and entertaining, this book should appeal to a broad audience of technology readers.”

Library Journal


“Thanks to the cunning of history and the wondrous strangeness of Northern California, the utopian counterculture, psychedelic drugs, military hardware and antimilitary software were tangled together inextricably in the prehistory of the personal computer. Full of interesting details about weird but not arbitrary connections, John Markoff’s book tells one of the oddest—because truest—of California tales and thereby helps illuminate the still unsettled legacy of the Sixties.”

—Todd Gitlin, author of Media Unlimited and The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage


“It is easy to see how the personal computer has shaped contemporary culture. But how did contemporary culture shape the emergence of the personal computer? In this innovative, lively narrative, veteran technology reporter and cultural critic John Markoff demonstrates how the values and obsessions of the 1960s, especially as centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, created the environment for the emergence of the personal computer as social tool and cultural catalyst.”

—Kevin Starr, author of Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990–2003


“John Markoff ’s wonderful recounting of the origins of personal computerdom makes a mind-blowing case that our current silicon marvels were inspired by the psychedelic-tinged, revolution-minded spirit of the Sixties. It’s a total turn-on.”

—Steven Levy, author of Hackers, Crypto, and Insanely Great


“Beautifully written, What the Dormouse Said does that important job of placing in a historical context the development of modern computer technology. It tells us not only what happened, but why. These people changed our world as much as any group ever and now I understand not only how it came to be but also why it was probably inevitable.”

—Robert X. Cringely, author of Accidental Empires and host of the PBS series Triumph of the Nerds


“Reviled and demonized, then trivialized by the official culture it so exuberantly opposed, the counterculture of the 1960s nevertheless remains the 2000-pound gorilla in the china closet of recent American history. With elegance and efficiency, What The Dormouse Said charts one of the most important and overlooked songlines from that mind-expanding moment. Tune in, turn on, boot up!”

—Jay Stevens, author of Storming Heaven: LSD and the America Dream and Burning Down the House


What the Dormouse Said
How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry
JOHN MARKOFF


PENGUIN BOOKS
PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,

Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

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Panchsheel Park, New Delhi–110 017, India

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Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

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Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:


80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Copyright © John Markoff, 2005

All rights reserved

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint an excerpt from “White Rabbit” by Grace Slick. © 1966, 1994 Irving Music, Inc./BMI. Used by permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE HARDCOVER EDITION AS FOLLOWS:

Markoff, John.

What the dormouse said—: how the sixties counterculture shaped the personal computer industry / John Markoff.

p. cm.


Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN: 1-4295-0217-7

1. Microcomputers—History. 2. Computers and civilization. 3. Nineteen sixties. I. Title.

QA76.17.M37 2005

004.16—dc22 2004061181

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
TO LESLIE
When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Knight is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s “Off with her head!”

Remember what the dormouse said:

Feed your head!

Feed your head!

Feed your head!
—Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” (1966)
PREFACE
There are, generally speaking, two popular accounts of the invention of personal computing.

The first roots the PC in the exploits of a pair of young computer hobbyists–turned–entrepreneurs, Stephen Wozniak and Steven Jobs. Wozniak, the story goes, built a computer to share with his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club, a ragtag group that began meeting on the San Francisco Midpeninsula in the spring of 1975. His high school friend, Steve Jobs, had the foresight to see that there might be a consumer market for such a machine, and so they went on to found Apple Computer in 1976.

The second account locates the birthplace of personal computing at Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center in the early 1970s. There, the giant copier company assembled a group of the nation’s best computer scientists and gave them enough freedom to conceive of information tools for the office of the future. Out of that remarkable collection of talent came a computer called the Alto, the forerunner of today’s desktops and portables. Although Xerox is reputed to have “fumbled the future” by not commercializing the device successfully, the dozens of spin-offs that resulted from PARC became the basis for one of Silicon Valley’s most oft-told fables: that in 1979 Jobs visited PARC and took away with him the idea of the graphical user interface.

Both stories are true, yet they are both incomplete.

This book is about what came before, about the extraordinary convergence of politics, culture, and technology that took place in a period of less than two decades and within the space of just a few square miles. Out of that convergence came a remarkable idea: personal computing, the notion that one person should control all of the functions of a computer and that the machine would in turn respond as an idea amplifier. By the late 1960s, that idea was already in the air on the San Francisco Midpeninsula.

Before the arrival of the Xerox scientists and the Homebrew hobbyists, the technologies underlying personal computing were being pursued at two government-funded research laboratories located on opposite sides of Stanford University. The two labs had been founded during the sixties, based on fundamentally different philosophies: Douglas Engelbart’s Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at Stanford Research Institute was dedicated to the concept that powerful computing machines would be able to substantially increase the power of the human mind. In contrast, John McCarthy’s Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory began with the goal of creating a simulated human intelligence.

One group worked to augment the human mind; the other to replace it.

Although the two groups had only sporadic contact during the sixties, within each lab was a handful of researchers and engineers who early on understood a fundamental truth about the microelectronics industry then taking root in Santa Clara Valley: Unlike with any previous technologies, the very nature of the silicon chip would inexorably lead to an increase in the power of computing. Moreover, as the transistors etched onto silicon wafers shrank in size, the pace of the process would accelerate. For each reduction of the size of transistors by half, the area for circuits on a chip quadrupled. Computer speed and capacity would continue to increase while costs fell and the size of computers shrank. It was a straightforward insight, but for those who made the leap it was the mind-expanding equivalent of taking a psychedelic drug.

In 1965, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore noted the phenomenon, which was later known as Moore’s Law and which became Silicon Valley’s defining principle. By the 1980s and 1990s, Moore’s Law had emerged as the underlying assumption that governed almost everything in the Valley, from technology to business, education, and even culture. The “law” said the number of transistors would double every couple of years. It dictated that nothing stays the same for more than a moment; no technology is safe from its successor; costs fall and computing power increases not at a constant rate but exponentially: If you’re not running on what became known as “Internet time,” you’re falling behind.

Although Moore received the intellectual credit for the paradigm, his law had actually been uncovered some years earlier by a handful of computing pioneers who were among the first to contemplate the new semiconductor-manufacturing technology based on photolithographic printing of transistors and logic circuits on the surface of silicon wafers. At the beginning of the 1960s, a small group of computer designers and engineers working with integrated circuits had realized that the technology held stunning economic implications, and not just for moon shots and nuclear-tipped missiles. As semiconductor-manufacturing capabilities were refined, it became apparent that computing, then in the hands of just a few, would eventually be available to everyone.

To these pioneers, the trajectory was obvious. As a result, while the early machines used by researchers at the Stanford laboratories were neither desktop-size nor personal, the central ideas of interactivity and individual control quickly became ingrained in everything they designed. The idea of personal computing was born in the sixties; only later, when falling costs and advancements in technology made it feasible, would the box itself arrive.

The engineers’ insight did not take place in a vacuum, however. The shrinking silicon chip did not emerge in isolation from the surrounding world but grew out of the twin geopolitical challenges of placing a man on the moon and squeezing navigational circuitry into the nosecone of an ICBM. Today, this is hard to appreciate, particularly because the pace of the semiconductor industry has made progress seem almost mechanistic as each new generation of chips arrives like clockwork. In a similar fashion, the two Stanford laboratories came into existence in a remarkable place during an extraordinary time. The San Francisco Midpeninsula during the sixties and early seventies witnessed an epochal intersection of science, politics, art, and commerce, a convergence comparable to that at such landmark places in history as Vienna after World War I.

Beginning in the fifties, the computer had come under attack as a symbol of large, centralized, bureaucratic institutions. Lewis Mumford, writing in The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power, asserted that the electronic computer had been created in opposition to human freedom and denounced the computer technicians who worked at creating superhuman machines. In the course of a single decade, however, that worldview changed. Computing went from being dismissed as a tool of bureaucratic control to being embraced as a symbol of individual expression and liberation. The evolution of the perception of the computer mirrored other changes in the world at large.

By the end of the 1960s, the United States had been transformed by a broad political and social upheaval that stripped away the comfortable middle-class veneer of the previous decade. The civil rights, psychedelic, women’s rights, ecology, and antiwar movements all contributed to the emergence of a counterculture that rejected many of America’s cherished postwar ideals. The computer technologies that we take for granted today owe their shape to this unruly period, which was defined by protest, experimentation with drugs, countercultural community, and a general sense of anarchic idealism.

Stewart Brand has argued in his essay “We Owe It All to the Hippies” that “the counterculture’s scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal-computer revolution.”1 Theodore Roszak has advanced a similar argument in From Satori to Silicon Valley (1986), a monograph that traces the rise of the personal-computer industry to countercultural values of the period.

In fact, the New Left and the counterculture were then split between modern-day Luddites and technophiles. Some espoused an antitechnology, back-to-the-land philosophy. Others believed that better tools could lead to social progress. Brand’s toolcentric worldview, epitomized by one of the decade’s most popular and influential books, the Whole Earth Catalog (1968), made the case that technology could be harnessed for more democratic and decentralized uses. The catalog ultimately helped shape the view of an entire generation, which came to believe that computing technologies could be used in the service of such goals as political revolution and safeguarding the environment.

Brand was the first outsider to catch a glimpse of this new cybernetic world and discern the parallels between mind expansion through the use of psychedelic drugs and through the new kinds of computing that were being developed around the Stanford campus. In 1972, he assembled a series of vignettes about the emerging computer scene into a Rolling Stone article: “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums.” Two years later, he expanded the article into the book II Cybernetic Frontiers (1974), in which he became the first to popularize the term “personal computer.” Brand caught the spirit of the times perfectly in his Rolling Stone piece, which describes how one of the nation’s most advanced computer-research laboratories was transformed in the evenings into a video-game arcade. “These are heads, most of them,” he wrote. “Half or more of computer science is heads.” 2

Brand was right. Listen to the stories of those who lived through the sixties and seventies on the Midpeninsula, and you soon realize that it is impossible to explain the dazzling new technologies without understanding the lives and the times of the people who created them. The impact of the region’s heady mix of culture and technology can be seen clearly in the personal stories of many of these pioneers of the computer industry. Indeed, personal decisions frequently had historic consequences.

If you put a stake in the ground at Kepler’s, an eclectic bookstore run by pacifist Roy Kepler that was located on El Camino Real in Menlo Park beginning in the 1950s, and drew a five-mile circle around it, you would have captured Engelbart’s Augment research group at SRI, McCarthy’s Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, as well as the hobbyists who made up the People’s Computer Company and the Homebrew Computer Club.

It is not a coincidence that although it was at the periphery of the established computing world, California is where personal computing first emerged. For most of its history, the computing establishment had been centered in the upstate New York mainframe factories of IBM and in the research laboratories and the emerging high-technology world surrounding MIT and Cambridge. Beginning in the sixties, however, the Midpeninsula, a relatively compact region located between San Jose and San Francisco, became a crucible not only for political protest and a thriving counterculture but also a new set of computing paradigms.

An argument can be made that the seeds of personal computing were planted simultaneously on both the East and West coasts. Certainly the idea of a single-user computer was alive around Route 128 in Massachusetts as well as on the Midpeninsula in the 1960s. Work had started on the LINC, the brainchild of MIT physicist Wesley A. Clark, as early as May 1961. That machine was used for the first time at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the following year to analyze a cat’s neural responses. The LINC appeared just a year before Ivan E. Sutherland’s Ph.D. thesis describing a remarkably innovative software-design program called Sketchpad. That program, which ran on an early MIT-designed TX-2 minicomputer, was the first program to embody a complete graphical user interface.

With figures like Sutherland, Vannevar Bush, J. C. R. Licklider, Robert Taylor, Theodor Nelson, and the computer hackers3 at MIT, all of the intellectual ingredients for personal computing existed on the East Coast. Why, then, did the passion for the PC and later the PC industry emerge first around Stanford?

The answer is that there was no discrete technological straight line to the personal computer on the East Coast. What separated the isolated experiments with small computers from the full-blown birth of personal computing was the West Coast realization that computing was a new medium, like books, records, movies, radios, and television. The personal computer had the ability to encompass all of the media that had come before it and had the additional benefit of appearing at a time and place where all the old rules were being questioned. Personal computers that were designed for and belonged to single individuals would emerge initially in concert with a counterculture that rejected authority and believed the human spirit would triumph over corporate technology, not be subject to it.

The East Coast computing culture didn’t get it. The old computing world was hierarchical and conservative. Years later, after the PC was an established reality, Ken Olson, the founder of minicomputer maker Digital Equipment Corporation, still refused to acknowledge the idea: He publicly asserted there was no need for a home computer. Digital, though it had pioneered the minicomputer, machines intended for corporate departments and laboratories, underestimated the significance of the personal computer until it was far too late to catch up with the West Coast.

In the sixties, the community surrounding Stanford University was a bundle of contradictions. Outwardly, it was a sleepy college community, complete with leafy, tree-lined streets, a properly stuffy neighborhood dubbed “Professorville,” understated shopping districts, and Leave It to Beaver high schools. But the Midpeninsula had never been a completely American-as-apple-pie Levittown. There had long been a bohemian fringe in the Bay Area, dating far back to the immigrant culture that created California, and even in the fifties and early sixties there was an undercurrent that ran at cross-purposes to the middle-class mainstream.

On the surface, the area’s economy was driven by the rise of the military-industrial complex. Early on, Stanford University spun off electronics companies such as Varian, Ampex, and Hewlett-Packard, and after World War II the Midpeninsula had become a center for high-technology military manufacturing and research and development. To the south, the Midpeninsula was bounded by Lockheed Missiles and Space Corporation, which was building the Polaris nuclear missile; to the north was the Stanford Research Institute, serving as a think tank for both military and industrial concerns.

But there were growing cracks in the facade. Outwardly middle-class, Palo Alto hid a more complex reality below the surface. The town played cameos in influential novels. Both Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, the largely autobiographical tale of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, as well as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 commence in Palo Alto. The bohemian spirit embodied by Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road animated a tiny counterculture. It was not, however, the sort of openly radical counterculture that has long defined Berkeley, on the other side of the bay. In the sixties, the Midpeninsula was a different kind of melting pot, with folk music and a beat scene as well as a tiny radical left. In Positively Fourth Street, Robert Hajdu describes how in the early fifties a Pete Seeger concert at Palo Alto High School ultimately had a life-changing influence on David Guard, a Stanford student and founding member of the Kingston Trio. Joan Baez also attended the same concert with her sister Mimi and remembered it as a “major moment” in her life.

And, of course, there was the Grateful Dead. Originally a pizza-parlor folk-rock band known as the Warlocks, during the mid-sixties the Dead literally became the house band for the Midpeninsula, their concerts offering a ready-made identity for members of all of the area’s unruly threads of political and cultural unrest. The group had emerged directly from a set of wrenching, mind-expanding LSD parties orchestrated by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters called Acid Tests, which would transform the culture of the Midpeninsula and ultimately the rest of the country.

Now, more than three decades later, the sixties are at best a hazy apparition. The joke, of course, is that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t really there. Today, it’s easy to laugh at the long hair, headbands, VW buses, and love beads that were trademarks of the counterculture. Two fingers held aloft in a V no longer stood for victory but for peace, and millions of people united in idealistic causes ranging from civil rights to ending the war in Vietnam. How unlike the cynical, selfish nineties, or even our own increasingly uncertain decade.

It’s easy to forget, too, especially from the vantage point of today’s “just say no” antidrug morality, and almost impossible to understand how different attitudes were toward drugs during the sixties. LSD, in particular, has become an incendiary subject. Demonized today, its impact is glibly dismissed. Yet four decades ago, LSD was a defining force in a cultural war. Consider the June 28, 1966, issue of Look, which reported on California and its “turned-on” people. “Many Californians, among them honor students and leading professionals, have used the drug in a most ‘serious’ manner, under careful controls,” the magazine reported. “These people have tried LSD neither for kicks nor therapy, but to gain glimpses of new and rich worlds of consciousness.” 4

For those who grew up during the 1960s, though, the decade is still a touchstone, having transformed everyone who lived through it—and that is especially true for many of the computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and hackers whom I interviewed for this book. Over and over again in my research, I ran into engineers and programmers who came to computing research in the sixties to avoid military service. While it was a convenient way of avoiding being drafted to fight in Vietnam, that generation was also certain it was going to change the world. Even those who weren’t standing at the barricades were deeply caught up in a set of events that was to thoroughly change America over the course of a decade and a half. It seemed inevitable that the old order would collapse and that a different, more spiritual path—to somewhere—lay just ahead.

For some of Silicon Valley’s most influential figures, the connection between personal computing and the counterculture has not been forgotten. Early in 2001, I met with Apple’s cofounder, Steve Jobs. I have interviewed Jobs dozens of times over two decades and have come to know his moods well. This was not one of our better conversations. A photographer had accompanied me, and if there is one way to insure that Apple’s mercurial chief executive will be irritated, it is to attempt to take his picture during an interview.

After only a handful of photographs, Jobs threw the photographer out, and things went downhill from there. Jobs was in a particularly bad mood. However, as our session ended, he sat down in front of one of his Macintosh computers to demonstrate a new program he had introduced earlier that morning before the legions of faithful. iTunes was to turn any Macintosh into a digital music player that stored and played CDs or music downloaded from the Internet. It included a simple visualization feature that conjured up dancing color patterns that pulsed on the computer’s screen in concert with the beat of the music.

Obviously pleased with the feature, Jobs turned to me with a slight smile and said, “It reminds me of my youth.” I responded by mentioning the names of several of Silicon Valley’s best-known pioneers who had taken psychedelic drugs in the 1960s. That ignited an unexpectedly candid and passionate response. It is widely known that Jobs, a dropout from Reed College in Portland, had experimented with drugs and pursued a countercultural lifestyle both before and after helping found the quirky computer maker. Despite the fact that he now flies around the world in his own corporate jet and has a personal net worth of more than one billion dollars, Jobs has maintained deep emotional ties to the era in which he grew up.

He explained that he still believed that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life, and he said he felt that because people he knew well had not tried psychedelics, there were things about him they couldn’t understand. He also said that his countercultural roots often left him feeling like an outsider in the corporate world of which he is now a leader.

Over the span of three decades, much of the original spirit of the sixties has been lost. For many today, the era serves almost as a historical Rorschach test: either an idealistic moment in time, symbolized by a protester placing a flower in the barrel of the gun, or a target for a conservative pundit like Newsweek columnist George Will to rail against, whether because of the evils of LSD or the millions of lives said to be ruined by the hedonism of the Grateful Dead.

The sixties likewise serve a similar function for attitudes about information technology. Today, the modern computing industry has become divided into two warring camps: On one side, giant Microsoft champions the private ownership of information. Software, the company believes, is a commodity to be bought, sold, and jealously guarded. Opposed to Microsoft are growing legions of computer programmers who have formed an open-source movement that is committed to the idea that information should be free and that shared software can be used to animate increasingly powerful computers.

The schism between information propertarians and information libertarians divides not only the computer industry but increasingly the entire digital world, affecting the consumer electronics, recording, and motion-picture industries. The defenders of information as private property make the case that unregulated information availability, whether in the form of file sharing or in the doctrines of the open-source movement, is a fundamental threat to industry as well as innovation. Led by Microsoft and the recording and film industries, there is a great cry that the vandals are at the gates and that information sharing is the digital-age equivalent of the threat communism posed to developing industrialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

When societal benefits are weighed against those of private interests, however, the consequences of allowing information to be shared without restriction become more nuanced. Consider the roots of Silicon Valley. The transistor was invented at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, but the giant telecommunications company was later forced to license the invention freely under the terms of an antitrust settlement with the Justice Department. The Valley’s very existence—the product of the most dramatic technological and entrepreneurial boom in the nation’s history—was made possible by the enforced availability of the transistor.

Likewise, the hacker’s ethos of sharing information lies at the very heart of the explosive growth of the personal computer. It is not a coincidence that, during the sixties and early seventies, at the height of the protest against the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and widespread experimentation with psychedelic drugs, personal computing emerged from a handful of government-and corporate-funded laboratories, as well as from the work of a small group of hobbyists who were desperate to get their hands on computers they could personally control and decide to what uses they should be put.

Science fiction writer William Gibson has said, “The future’s already arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”5 That observation is particularly true of a tiny microcosm that was as localized but has become as influential in the world as fifteenth-century Florence was when it gave the world the Renaissance half a millennium ago.

This book grew out of a spirited dinner held several years ago on a Sausalito, California, houseboat. The evening was an informal reunion of a computer-industry pioneer—Douglas Engelbart—with a small group of people who had once worked for him: Bill and Roberta English and Bill and Ann Duvall. Also present was Ted Nelson, an itinerant writer, inventor, and social scientist who can best be described as the Don Quixote of computing. Nelson was a contemporary of Engelbart in the sixties, and the two men had pursued many of the same innovations.

Engelbart, however, had been the first to demonstrate a vision that led directly to today’s computing world. He came early on to understand that computing had the potential to range far beyond crunching numbers. He foresaw that computers would become machines that could help human beings communicate and extend the reach of their intelligence.

When he began his crusade in the sixties, computing was almost exclusively the province of a handful of scientists, giant corporations, and the military. Several years earlier, Engelbart had begun to sketch a remarkable plan outlining a new set of information tools based on powerful computers. From that original inspiration, both personal computing and the Internet ultimately emerged. A soft-spoken man with a mane of prematurely silver hair, Engelbart was able to launch in 1963 a leading-edge computer-science experiment funded by the air force, NASA, and the Pentagon because he had been able to capture the attention of several far-seeing scientists who were at the time working in the Pentagon as program managers.

While it was a singular vision, Engelbart’s “Augmentation Framework” was brought to life by a small band of researchers who were deeply influenced by the political and cultural climate of the Midpeninsula. Indeed, within Stanford Research Institute, the research center where Engelbart began his work in Menlo Park, his researchers came to be seen as the lunatic fringe.

In the midst of this engineers’ world of crewcuts and white shirts and ties arrived a tiny band distinguished by their long hair and beards, rooms carpeted with oriental rugs, women without bras, jugs of wine, and on occasion the wafting of marijuana smoke. Just walking through the halls of the SRI laboratory gave a visitor a visceral sense of the cultural gulf that existed between the prevailing model of mainframe computing and the gestating vision of personal computing.

Setting aside its countercultural trappings, Engelbart’s view of the future of computing in the sixties ran directly counter to the precepts of the mainstream of the computing business. The era was dominated by a belief that artificial intelligence was at hand and would soon create a world populated by thinking machines. Engelbart’s notion of creating work groups where human intelligence was instead “augmented” by computers was thought of as quaint and beside the point. It might be suited for the office, or it could improve the skills of a secretary, but it certainly could not be considered real computer “science.”

Indeed, Engelbart’s augmentation philosophy was in many ways the polar opposite of the ideal of artificial intelligence, which sought to replace humans with machines. AI was in fashion both elsewhere in SRI and on the other side of the Stanford campus, where John McCarthy, a brilliant mathematician and computer-science researcher who had come from MIT, was busy creating his own research center, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. SAIL, as it came to be known, served as a second source for the ideas, people, and technology that were to come together beginning in 1970 at Xerox PARC. Yet though SAIL and Augment were philosophically opposed, the labs shared a computer hacker culture and deeply antiauthoritarian outlook. Funded by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, at the height of its most creative and unconstrained period, SAIL served as a home to many of the most inventive minds in the computing world. SAIL was as unconventional as it was innovative. Researchers lived in the attic above their offices, encounter groups met in the steam tunnels in the basement, and from that tumult emerged the technological insights that would help reshape both Silicon Valley and the entire world during the next decade.

At dinner with Engelbart, I realized that, in spite of reading widely about the history of Silicon Valley and computing, I wasn’t familiar with the stories being told that evening. What struck me was that the tales weren’t about the technologies but rather about the lives of the researchers themselves, their personal relationships, the drugs they took, the sex they enjoyed, the rock and roll they listened to, and the political protest in which they took part.

I’ve attempted to set down some of that history before it is lost. The stories collected in this book set out to explore the brief period in a turbulent place that gave the world personal computing.


San Francisco
December 2004

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