Friday, August 19, 2005

BOOK: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer

From Kevin Kelly's very cool blog, a book worth having on the shelf, perhaps even reading!
What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer

Review from Publishers Weekly as quoted on Amazon:
Since much of the research behind the development of the personal computer was conducted in 1960s California, it might seem obvious that the scientists were influenced by the cultural upheavals going on outside the lab. Very few people outside the computing scene, however, have connected the dots before Markoff's lively account. He shows how almost every feature of today's home computers, from the graphical interface to the mouse control, can be traced to two Stanford research facilities that were completely immersed in the counterculture. Crackling profiles of figures like Fred Moore (a pioneering pacifist and antiwar activist who tried to build political bridges through his work in digital connectivity) and Doug Engelbart (a research director who was driven by the drug-fueled vision that digital computers could augment human memory and performance) telescope the era and the ways its earnest idealism fueled a passion for a computing society. 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. Agent, John Brockman.(Apr.)
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tim said...

The early conceptualisation of the computer - from the Eniacs to the Cyracs to the Sinclairs to the Apples and beyond has always been of high fascination for me. My first "personal" computer was an Acorn BBC Micro B, but I think I worked backwards. My second PC was about the same age as me - a CPM / Terminal made in the mid 70's. From there I've soldered together PC's, owned Mac's and Pc's and so on. The origin of the "personal computer" still remains some fascination to me though. Much of my reading has been through the histories recorded on "emulator" fan sites, and oddly enough have indicated that the early life and times of personal computing in the "home computer" sense came out of cambridge, not california (that is, the life of computers such as the Dragon, Sinclair and Electron). Most histories i've read online skip the single register chip stage and high-tail it straight to the Commodore 16 and beyond, dedicating perhaps a paragraph to wonders such as Australias Cyrac (which brought the world digitally-generated music) and then sentance to then somehow jumping to a young bill gates with a quote about traffic lights.
I think I'll be heading over Amazon way and taking a good look at this book.

Leigh Blackall said...

Hey Tim,

You have some added insight that suggests the need for these historical perspectives to be edited in say, a wiki!

I can't say I know much at all about the origins of the PC, and this book interested me for the unimaginable connection computers could possibly have with peace, free love, sex and drugs! I am personally for from any of these when in front of a computer!

But you mention a few innovations outside the US, that ring a few bells. Especially on how self referential those yanks can be sometimes...