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What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry
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What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

3.85  ·  Rating Details  ·  595 Ratings  ·  79 Reviews
Most histories of the personal computer industry focus on technology or business. John Markoff’s landmark book is about the culture and consciousness behind the first PCs—the culture being counter– and the consciousness expanded, sometimes chemically. It’s a brilliant evocation of Stanford, California, in the 1960s and ’70s, where a group of visionaries set out to turn com ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published February 28th 2006 by Penguin Books (first published 2005)
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Community Reviews

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Feb 05, 2010 Natali rated it really liked it
First the good: A very inspirational read for anyone who loves computers and history. Markoff tells the the underground tale of how personal computers evolved out of a (sometimes illicit) counterculture in the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area. The story made me homesick for the independent, creative, and brilliant spirit that permeates the Bay Area. I am proud to be from there.

Now a few drawbacks: The book is a little hard to follow because there were so many players. I really wanted to know
Jonathan Barry

The author wrote this in the same way in which I often write my essays: I start with a preconceived conclusion and generally try to shoehorn the rest of my essay into it, despite reality differing a little from what I though.

The rise of computers was undoubtedly parallel with the rise of the drug culture and the New Left, and many of the first computer scientists were active participants in these movements; however, it seems that by the author's sporadic intermingling of these separate events,

Apr 30, 2016 Chirag rated it it was amazing
I couldn't put this book down. Great to learn about the history of computing during the 60s, and it's fascinating to see how much of it has been in my own backyard.
Brett Provance
Jul 19, 2012 Brett Provance rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fun book. I have read it a few times, and have now incorporated it into my California History course, as it complements material on the Bay Area's cultural history, and it especially offers a solid knowledge base concerning the establishment and development of the industries of Silicon Valley. Indeed, one of the more groundbreaking insights that I gained when reading this work is the undeniable and significant involvement of government-financed projects in developing the foundational c ...more
Kevin O'Brien
Mar 23, 2012 Kevin O'Brien rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, technology
This was just a fun break from serious reading, but I quite enjoyed it. Before Steve Jobs, before Bill Gates, there were the real pioneers who gave us personal computers, people like Doug Engelbart, who probably did more than either of the above. This is the story of those unsung folks. And of course all of this took place in the Bay area around San Francisco just as the anti-war and hippie movements were active. It was not an accident that these things happened in the same place at the same tim ...more
Eric B. Kennedy
Nov 16, 2015 Eric B. Kennedy rated it really liked it
A really wonderful, personal account of the emergence of the personal computer... and the multitude of social and community dynamics in play behind it all. It's a tour through LSD and hacking, in the differences between east and west coasts, and through wildly successful product demos and deeply frustrating personal moments. It does a great job of highlighting the personal dimensions of innovation, and how the stories we tell ourselves - of 'great men' leading the way - are actually far better t ...more
Feb 01, 2011 Angela rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2011
Psychedelics and computer history, two of my favorite topics. This book would have been improved if I'd had the patience to chart a timeline while I was writing it, I think, because as other reviewers have stated, it's very difficult to keep track of the main characters. The structure isn't organized strictly by time (it jumps back and forth between years, particularly towards the end) or by subject (making it difficult to remember who a particular player is, when their only previous appearance ...more
Nick Sweeting
Jul 14, 2014 Nick Sweeting rated it really liked it
Great book, it lays out the history and impact of the silicon revolution by following the tales of several radical radical academics. These researchers piloted the future of computing into uncharted territory, accelerating research by experimenting with using LSD as a problem-solving aid. A good read if you enjoy an anecdotal story-telling style, on a very interesting topic.
Michael Burnam-fink
Nov 14, 2015 Michael Burnam-fink rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, sts, non-fiction, 2015
Markoff has recovered a remarkable hidden history of the origins of the personal computer in the fertile soil of Palo Alto in the 1960s. Linking together the immense vision of Douglas Engelbert that a computer could be under control of a single mind, renegade psychedelic psychiatrists and bohemian artists, and anti-war activists attempting to liberate technology in the shadow of the military industrial complex.

The structure is of many small narratives linked together, a few names appearing again
Richard Curry
May 27, 2015 Richard Curry rated it it was amazing
Survey of the topic. Myriad pertinent and idiosyncratic (!) details are included with just a paragraph or brief reference. Many of the topics covered (or perhaps omitted) have been (or could be) the subject of ponderous tomes: e.g. Steve Jobs is mentioned a little bit (see, e.g. ponderous tome Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson). Markoff's book chronicles a progression which has changed the course of human history in astounding ways very quickly. (!!!) Highly recommend it. Feed your head by reading ( ...more
Scott Holstad
Feb 21, 2015 Scott Holstad rated it really liked it
This book was a fascinating history of personal computing in America, most specifically in Northern California, most especially in the Stanford region. I swear, I had no idea that Stanford played such a strategic role in the development of the personal computer.

The book attempts to tie together nerdie engineers with counterculture LSD druggies with free love types with antiwar activists with students with hackers and the mix is considerably hard to pull off, even for a writer as accomplished as
Craig Werner
Apr 28, 2015 Craig Werner rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, sixties
Nifty book that unveiled a part of the sixties story I hadn't known at all. Markoff, whose book Hackers is a good journalistic intro to a part of computer culture I view from a distance (well, that covers all of computer culture, actually), makes an absolutely convincing argument that the personal computer revolution traces its roots to the sixties counterculture of the Palo Alto area (and by extension the Bay Area counterculture). The technological pieces for PCs and the internet were all in pl ...more
Pierre Lauzon
Apr 07, 2015 Pierre Lauzon rated it really liked it
The most comprehensive book on the origins of the now common personal computer is discussed in depth but in a very understandable and readable format. It’s a must read for those wanting to know the history of the times.

The book follows the careers of many individuals who made computing what it is today. Foremost among them is Doug Engelbart, the epitome of the Idealist Engineer, who wanted to make the world a better place. He focused on increasing human potential, and was a significant player in
Apr 26, 2014 Luis rated it really liked it
Shelves: san-francisco
This is less a book and more a string of anecdotes - a little birdie once told me that even the author admits it was basically an excuse to string together a bunch of great stories he’d heard over the years. But they are great anecdotes and give a lot to chew over, especially in light of the continued tension between personalized v. centralized computing - a recurring theme of the book. Should be read paired with Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 to help ...more
Deane Barker
Jul 06, 2015 Deane Barker rated it liked it
The title promised a discussion about how the 60s "shaped" the personal computer industry, but I just didn't see it.

The book is a history of technology and how the seminal figures of that period interacted with culture, but it didn't show me how society "shaped" the industry, as much as the industry just came together during that time. The central premise was supposed to be how the 60s were integral to the direction of the PC industry, but I didn't get the feeling that the PC industry wouldn't h
Pamela Day
Jun 19, 2014 Pamela Day rated it it was amazing
Great read. History of Silicon Valley - history of computing.

Markoff is a great writer and will introduce you to the brilliant and interesting folks. You will learn of the philosophical division of computing improving our lives or replacing us. This and many other threads are still driving us (no pun intended!).

We stand on their shoulders - take the time to learn about them, and in turn about us.

If you have *anything* to do with technology, or want to read this book. Cannot recommend it enough.
Brian Vaughan
Jun 15, 2009 Brian Vaughan rated it liked it
The San Francisco Bay Area has a long history as a center for the political left and the counterculture. It is also an important center for the development of computers and the Internet. The heyday of the counterculture, the late sixties and early seventies, was a critical moment in the development of computer technology. How did the wave of popular social transformation influence the development of computing, itself a source of further significant social and political transformation?

Aug 21, 2013 Penny rated it really liked it
The degree of information organization in this book stunned me. John Markoff did a remarkable job of weaving a massive number of story lines (sequential and not, connected and not) -- all a part of the primordial soup that gave rise to the PC. The detail and complexity of people and roles, if mapped, would resemble all the tributaries that pour into the Missouri River. I'll admit that after 2/3 of the book, I lost track of who was who, but what was more important to me was how the many different ...more
Sep 15, 2010 Julie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of technology, and how society shapes and is shaped by technology. It's hard to imagine in this era when computers are everywhere -- laptops, phones, video games -- and where people have personal access to their computers that it used to be that computers were something to be afraid of, these cold-war-era behemoths that only large corporations or governments possessed and which took teams of people to maintain. This book gives a gl ...more
Nov 12, 2007 tamarack rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: geek-curious
i read this book in the kitchen nook over my midday meal on non-work days. it's a pretty rad documentary of the birth of computer technology in hippie-radical berkeley. i kind of felt just-along-for-the-ride on this book since i can't begin to keep all the names and profiles straight as markoff moves through decades. there's no particular protagonist, and it's not a biography unless it's a biography of The Computer. regardless, i do enjoy the ride.
it's somehow encouraging to read of the altruist
This was an interesting and thought provoking book that filled in a few details that I hadn't known before. A worthwhile, if slightly exasperating read.

On the other hand, the writing is chaotic, disorganized and repetitive. The author's thesis that LSD is linked to most of the interesting people is more like noting who wears neckties. (Not really relevant?) People are identified and its noted if they've done LSD... nothing about whether that had positive or negative effects on their lives/work/c
What the Dormouse Said is an attempt to try and tell how the personal computer developed out of the 1960's counterculture. Sadly the author becomes so fixated on one person that he misses his chance to tell the great story. No author has yet to be able to capture the development of the personal computer but this book does have most of the salient elements. From the development of the ARPA net to the IBM 650 we can see the computer industry cloacae. The need for the killer app or the internet is ...more
Donald Guy
Nov 01, 2012 Donald Guy rated it really liked it
A pretty decent book. Overall I would say it is an excellent foil to the first half of Stephen Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. This book kind of tells the early west coast story that parallels the early MIT chapters of Hackers and gives a nice run up to the more in-depth discussion of Homebrew forward in Hackers. There are figures given a lot of attention here brushed over in Hackers and vis-versa. This book is sadly not quite as well structured, opting to try to give more dep ...more
May 31, 2014 Andrew rated it really liked it
Fascinating look at the often unheard birth of the personal computer. The book does a great job of painting a realistic picture of what the Bay Area tech scene looked like during the social revolution of the 1960s. My only gripe was that it was a bit long winded and referenced too many people that may or may not have been important to the overall story. If you are interested in computers and social movements then this book is perfect for you!
Dec 10, 2014 Alex rated it liked it
What a title! It grabbed me immediately and I excitedly hoped to find accounts of Dr. X scientist taking LSD in the lab and discovering a novel approach that brought about innovation Y. The relationship turned out to be far less causal than I anticipated, especially coming from an author who was specifically arguing for the size of its impact.

Nonetheless, a healthy number of the early PC iconoclasts were involved in the drug use and free thought that pervaded that era. How this directly impacte
Daniel Lovins
Mar 15, 2012 Daniel Lovins rated it liked it
Tries to link invention to personal computer with LSD subculture. Result is sort of two books in one, with occasional overlap, rather than a single narrative thread. In the preface, Markoff reviews two popular accounts of the origin of the PC: the Homebrew Computer Club in San Francisco, beginning in 1975, with Steve Jobs, Stephen Wozniak, et al. And Xerox PARC in the early 1970s, which Jobs visited in 1979 and where he assimilated the idea of a graphic user interface (p. ix). "Both stories are ...more
Peter Corke
Apr 29, 2015 Peter Corke rated it it was amazing
A really good history of the birth of the PC, where Apple and Microsoft don't appear till near the end. A good telling of what came before at SAIL, SRI and then PARC. Technology mixed with counter culture, anti war protests, LSD, the Grateful Dead, encounter groups and the Whole a Earth Catalog (which I remember reading). An amazing cast of real characters who did change the world.
Michael Dickens
Oct 07, 2011 Michael Dickens rated it really liked it
This book gives a great history about the most important people and events leading up to the creation of the personal computing industry. I understand the culture behind computers much better thanks to this book. The narrative follows a variety of (often zany or unusual) characters and ties each character's impact into the central thread. I like the way the author ties together the different characters and shows where they interacted and how they affected each other.

The book was usually but not
Robert Traller
Nov 30, 2013 Robert Traller rated it liked it
An interesting book for anyone interested in the history of personal computing and counter culture in the Bay Area. The book contains a plethora of names and bounces back and forth between developments in the computer industry, the anti war movement in the Bay Area, counter culture and experimentation with LSD. Each one of these threads seems to progress almost randomly so plotting progress is difficult. To then try and correlate is difficult. Steve Jobs was certainly not the only personal compu ...more
Tommy /|\
Dec 10, 2010 Tommy /|\ rated it it was amazing
Having first read "Fire in the Valley", I was a bit more in line with the various individuals that comprise this particular history. That said, Markoff provides a lot more information on the "why" to the story of the personal computer than "Fire in the Valley" did. Its the perfect follow-on to the academic aspect from "Fire". The storyline and characters come and go throughout the book -- and while it can be a bit confusing, the final chapter actually rolls a lot of the material into place. Seve ...more
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Goodreads Librari...: Add space in title 2 14 Aug 27, 2013 03:07PM  
  • From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
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  • Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet
  • Computer: A History of the Information Machine
  • On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore
  • Fire in the Valley: Making of the Personal Computer
  • The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal
  • Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web
  • The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems
  • Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile
  • Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet
  • Inside Intel: Andy Grove and the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Chip Company
  • A History of Modern Computing
  • The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World
  • Orange
  • The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900
  • Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution
  • The Revenge of Ishtar (The Gilgamesh Trilogy, #2)

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