Review: What the Dormouse Said

[The Boston Globe commissioned me to write this. I told them I was a friend of John’s at the outset, but they forgot about it until it came time to publish. Then they decided it was a conflict. So here it is.]

"What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry", John Markoff, Viking, 297 pp., $25.95.

By Mitchell Kapor

Physicists trace the origin of the universe to the explosion of an infinitely compressed cosmos in the Big Bang. In "What the Dormouse Said", New York Times reporter John Markoff locates the ground zero of personal computing in the San Francisco Midpeninsula in the 1960’s.

Once, I tried to convey the dramatic sweep of progress in computing to my young son. "When I was your age," I told him, "a computer like your Macintosh would fill an entire room." He merely looked mildly puzzled and asked, "then where did people put them?" Markoff knows the answer: They were in converted quonset huts on the campus of the Stanford Research Institute.

After their invention during World War II, computers began to be used to automate business record-keeping and perform scientific calculations. Early computers excelled at repetitive, mundane tasks. Engelbart and others nurtured a radically different vision of computers as a medium of information and communication and in their power to make individuals more productive. Personal computing pioneers had to use fantastically bulky, expensive hardware, but they knew Moore’s Law would ultimately bring down the cost of computing to reach the masses by doubling speed and storage per dollar every 18 months.

Seeds planted in the 60’s bloomed fully forty years later, as our daily experience of using the net for email and shopping attests. The provocative thesis of "Dormouse" is that the ground from which personal computing grew was fertilized by counterculture movement centered in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960’s.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer, whose Macintosh computer first successfully commercialized the work of SRI and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, has attested publicly to the personal importance of LSD in his life. Markoff documents the participation of many computing pioneers in legal LSD experiments before it was banned in the U.S. in 1967.

As the book recounts, Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, the Farmer’s Almanac of the counterculture, was an assistant to Engelbart at the remarkable event demonstrating the new vision.

It also reveals the seminal influence of the activist Frederick Moore, who arguably sparked the anti-war movement with his 1959 protest at Berkeley of mandatory ROTC. In the mid-1970’s just before personal computers came to market Markoff tells us he became a principal in the People’s Computer Company, which pioneered store-front, drop-in computer access for the public.

In 1968 in San Francisco, Engelbart and his team gave a mind-blowing demonstration of their radical new vision. Sitting under a twenty-two-foot-high video screen, Engelbart was "dealing lightning with both hands," according an eyewitness cited by Markoff. This "mother of all demos" included not only the public debut of the computer mouse and the modern word processor but also seamless collaboration via voice, video, graphics, and text over a network.

We’ve come a long way since 1968. We take for granted one-click access to eight billion pages of information via search engines like Google, but some of the capabilities Engelbart demonstrated, like the complete integration of video and the sharing of information at will are still part of the dream, not the reality.

Like Brand and Moore, who brought the alternative sensibility of the 60’s to information technology, I too felt the urge to create a more intimate, personal connection with computers, something which was simply not possible in the mainframe era. In the early 1970’s, when I was still teaching Transcendental Meditation in Cambridge, I was inspired by Ted Nelson’s prescient book "Computer Lib" which advanced the then-radical notion of computers as personal devices to create new literary and artistic works. I had to wait another several years for the technology to catch up to the vision and the for the first consumer personal computers to come to market. After that there was no stopping me in my ambition to be a designer of software applications for these new machines, and my company Lotus Development Corp. was born shortly thereafter.

The creator of the modern vision of computing is Engelbart himself, who stands as a first among equals an engineer and visionary pursuing a dream of bootstrapping human capabilities and extending the power of human intelligence through technology. The counterculture’s emphasis on developing human potential resonated highly with this ideal, but as Markoff shows Engelbart’s lab was far from a "do your own thing" kind of place and Silicon Valley, which ultimately turned the Engelbart’s pioneering visions into reality, was birthed by the military industrial complex which funded its labs and the American inventor/tinkerer tradition out of which Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Henry Ford emerged.

"What the Dormouse Said" is at its strongest in relating previously unrevealed stories of computing pioneers like Fred Moore. Markoff’s style is smooth without being glib, and his reporter’s eye and ear for detail is put to good use in painting a picture in which the main figures are seen not only as brilliant creators but human beings struggling with the upheavals of the 1960’s. "Dormouse" is a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to know where and how the modern world of computing was born.

Mitchell Kapor is the founder of Lotus Development Corporation and the designer of Lotus 1-2-3, the "killer app" which made the PC ubiquitous in business (and a friend of the author).