friday random ten, 2006 end-of edition
stuck in dixon with the memphis blues again

what the dormouse said

I just finished reading What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff (appropriately enough, I read it on my Treo … in 2006, we have phones with far more computing power than the earliest personal computers had). I’ve long felt, without much evidence beyond thinking that Stewart Brand seemed to cross both worlds, that computers were the psychedelics of their day, with their ability to offer users new worlds to experience. While I came early to personal computers relative to most people, I was a latecomer compared to the true pioneers … we got our first home computer in 1983 or thereabouts, while Markoff’s book ends in 1975.

I know I was fascinated by the first computers I saw. There were three, to be exact. Robin’s cousin Charol had a Xerox … I think it was a Star, although I’m not sure … we visited her in the summer of 1982, and I was so jealous. There was a trip to L.A., also in 1982 … a friend of Robin’s was getting married, we went down for the wedding, and at a party, somebody had a TRS-80 hooked up to The Source, the first time I saw anyone go “online.” (It also played the original Adventure game, as I recall.) Finally, friends of ours had an Apple II … I don’t remember when they got it, but they had theirs before we got our first machine. Then we got our VIC-20, and the rest was history.

In those VIC days, I could stay up all night just playing with the machine. I was never a proficient programmer, although I got so I could debug BASIC programs that messed up, and I got paid $1500 or so for a therapy program I wrote for a magazine. At first, though, writing little programs was pretty much all there was to do. You’d get something like Wumpus, change it a bit to make it “yours,” and that was that. Once we graduated to the Commodore 64 and were introduced to the world of pirated software, we had hundreds, even thousands, of programs to run, and it became less necessary to write our own. And in fact I haven’t written a computer program in more than 20 years, and wouldn’t know where to start if I wanted to write one now. Why bother, when someone else has already done it better than I ever could?

Anyway … I loved my computers from the very start, the way I could just climb inside them (figuratively speaking, of course), lose myself in the machine. Even at the beginning, I was charmed by the way the computer thought “just like me.” It opened up whole new worlds … that’s partly what I mean when I say that computers were the psychedelics of their time. Sometimes, when I’m using Quickpedia on my Treo to look up some obscure fact, and I get lost following hyperlinks, my brain can’t believe how lucky it is to live when it does.

None of this is exactly a review of Markoff’s book. But his book inspired my reveries. Knowing that the earliest computer geeks were also acid heads makes me feel good. I also like reading about people who are thinking of stuff that doesn’t yet exist. The cliche is that we get so used to things that we forget they aren’t natural but were made up somewhere along the line. Most of the things I am doing right now to compose this blog post feels “natural,” but there was a time when someone had to think it up … had to decide that computers should be for something more than just number crunching, and then taking that vision and doing something with it, so that now we have keyboards and mice and function keys and monitors and modems … somebody had to think of these things before they existed. At one point in the book, two guys are trying to put together a newsletter using the old-fashioned method of cutting-and-pasting collages of text and graphics onto paper, then mimeographing the results. One of them thinks aloud that what is needed is a computer and a monitor where you can do all the cutting and pasting on the screen, and then print from there. The other guy agrees, thinks it’s a remarkable idea, but then asks how it can be done. And the first guy has to admit, he has no idea … but it sure seems worth pursuing. Nowadays, we barely even need PageMaker any longer … we just post our stuff on blogs … but it’s cool to imagine a time, not that long ago, when someone first thought it would be easier to do it on a computer with a monitor.

I posted this link before, but it’s worth a second look. One of the heroes of Markoff’s book is Doug Engelbart, and one of the peak moments of personal computer history comes in 1968 when Engelbart and his cohorts do a presentation of some things they’d been working on. You could say the personal computer was invented right then and there, as Engelbart uses a mouse and a keyboard to manipulate words and images, while networked to another computer in another place entirely. It all looks so tame now, but Markoff is able to put us back in the moment and understand how monumental Engelbart’s presentation was. The entire thing is online as a series of videos, which can be found here.

One other thing. I tried to imagine a similar book set in an English department. Markoff’s book takes place mostly at Stanfurd and the surrounding area, and it makes the science departments seem important … from them come things like personal computers. And I wondered what an English department offered that was also important in a world-changing way. The best I could come up with, based on my time as a graduate student at Cal, was the introduction of New Historicism to the world of literary criticism. This was influential on English departments, which means it was influential on high-school English teachers who learned about literature from professors influenced by New Historicism, and thus it was influential on the kids in those high school classes, and it’s possible the mainstream consumer of popular culture has a bit of New Historicism in the way they look at the world around them. I don’t know, it seems pretty unimportant next to the introduction of personal computing into the world. Getting a home computer was one of the defining moments in my life, and other defining moments are also computer-related … I’d say the move online (which began soon after we got a computer in our case) and the move to broadband would count … whereas, for all the pleasure and learning I got and continue to get from academia, I can’t think of a single moment that I would call “defining” in that same way. Fulfilling, educational … I’m not trying to diss education here. But sometimes I feel like the short version of my life would be Was Born, Met Robin, Got Married, Had Kids, Got Computer. The computer is the biggest drug in my life, and reading Markoff’s book was a lot like reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (Kesey shows up a few times in Markoff’s book … at one point, he gets a tour of the labs where the computing future is being built, and he says “it’s the next thing after acid.”)