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The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal

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A study of the evolution of the modern computer profiles the work of MIT psychologist J. C. R. Licklider, whose visionary dream of a human-computer symbiosis transformed the course of modern science and led to the development of the personal computer. Reprint.

512 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2001

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M. Mitchell Waldrop

12 books52 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 153 reviews
Profile Image for Felix.
1 review9 followers
April 8, 2019
This is the most deeply insightful book I've read on the history & vision of computing.

It's special since it covers an amazingly broad scope – all the way from the mechanical machines employed in WW2 (cybernetics) to modern-day personal computing & the internet. It's even more special since it also covers the people & the culture that made all this happen.

It ties *so* many threads together:
– The origins of Claude Shannon's information theory & Von Neumann's architecture that laid the groundwork for much of later computing.
– The push to move computing from a privileged service to a public good (via timesharing)
– The original vision of personal computing and the inventions that enabled it: Interactivity, GUIs, Control devices like the mouse & light pens, Networking, and Object-oriented programming to name a few.
– The culture at ARPA & Xerox PARC that enabled all this, and the role that so many people played: Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, Von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, JC Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Ivan Sutherland, Alan Kay, Vin Cerf & so many more

I wish I'd read this book a decade earlier.
Profile Image for Kevin O'Brien.
196 reviews10 followers
August 18, 2013
Having just read Katie Hafner's Where Wizard's Stay Up Late I was ready to tackle this book, which is both deeper and more ambitious. Where Hafner's book was purely about the origin of the Internet, Waldrop is taking on the whole idea of personal computing. Licklider thus provides the focus for this book, for while he played a crucial role in promoting networking, his true aim was always what he termed a symbiotic partnership between humans and computers, and for him networking was just a necessary step to getting there. That is one of the reasons Licklider provided crucial support to Doug Engelbart, for instance. And even when Licklider was out of the picture (during the heyday of Xerox PARC, for instance) Waldrop keeps his focus on the development of the personal computer. If you like this kind of history and want to know just who did what in those early days, this book is indispensable.
Profile Image for Michal Takáč.
3 reviews4 followers
October 1, 2017
Incredible book! I'm so glad that it found the way to me somehow (don't remember how it happened, maybe from some tweet from Bret Victor?). It goes through the history of computing, from when the Information theory was invented, ARPA, IPTO, Xerox PARC, invention of object-oriented programming, Smalltalk, multitasking, graphical interface, until current notion of personal computer.

I HIGHLY encourage everybody who loves computers to read this book cover to cover. I'll definitely re-read it in coming years, also created lots of notes and highlights while reading it on Kindle.

But the thing is - to me, the idea of "Man-machine symbiosis" is still not explored enough. If we can come back some years and look at what these people were trying to invent, we maybe can stumble on different, interesting ideas, and pursue a exciting vision of tomorrows computing and how the humans can benefit from true "human-machine symbiosis". Only time will tell. Alan Kay famous quote for the end of this review: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Profile Image for Cedric Chin.
Author 3 books90 followers
April 7, 2021
This was a history of software, but also a history of the Internet, and a history of the computer.

It is very good and you should read it.

I think the most valuable thing I got from this book is a better, more nuanced understanding of what a technological revolution looks like from the inside.

Before the internet could be a thing, people needed to get used to the idea that computers could be personal — that you could 'own' more than just computer time. Before computers could be personal, they needed to get used to the idea that computing resources should be divvied up and shared (the timesharing paradigm). And before the timesharing paradigm, people needed to get that computers should be responsive — that they should react, immediately, to whatever the human did. This shift took decades.

Waldrop's book tells the story of the one man who pushed the world through all of these ideas. Not directly, mind — he put money in the right hands, and funded the right projects, but always with a coherent end-vision in mind. And eventually the movement took a momentum of its own.

The book does raise interesting if uncomfortable questions for me. Arguably, the equivalent technological revolution of our time is crypto. There are hundreds if not thousands of smart people building projects and experiments in the area, just as there were during the early days of the computer. A common criticism of crypto today is 'if there's something useful here, we would have seen it already!' But if the real history of the Internet is anything to go by, this isn't true — it took decades and decades, and independent innovation in dozens of little things, before the Internet could come together.

Ignoring crypto just because it's nascent and dodgy and full of unimaginable utopian dreams doesn't seem like the right thing to do. After reading this book I'm a little more mindful of how I react to the utopian proclamations of some of crypto's most wacky developers and researchers — I am mindful, because I can imagine myself being dismissive of Lick in the 60s, what with his spouting off about an 'Intergalactic Network', or 'man-computer symbiosis'. This was crazy at the time, because computers were treated as sacred, clean-room behemoths, meant to do serious things for serious people.

And that's not to mention that Lick's ideas took on a more idealistic turn in the decades after — people took his ideas and argued that computers should be the vehicle with which they could achieve actualisation and self-expression and freedom from tyranny. It was too easy to treat the large computers as serious tools, and the mini and then micro computers as toys.

Reading the history of our most recent technological frontier is probably the best way to anchor yourself. It's easy to imagine that everything you use today was inevitable, that it was the result of a smooth trajectory of innovation. But it was nothing of the sort.

We should not expect modern technological frontiers to be any different.
Profile Image for Jayesh .
178 reviews101 followers
June 1, 2017
I have read quite a few books covering different parts of the history of computing but none of them were as expansive as this one. Not sure if keeping Licklider's name in the title was necessary since the book covers so many people important to the "revolution" that he mostly ends up being a framing device for an expansive tale.
1 review3 followers
May 21, 2020
This book is as good as all the other reviews say it is. Alan Kay recommends it as the best history of that era.

While it might take some time to read, Waldrop's prose travels smoothly into your mind, allowing you to focus on the ideas, people, and relationships. Waldrop writes fairly: where there's controversy, he'll mention multiple perspectives, and his narrative voice makes a clear distinction between the consensus and his speculation, an important habit for a chronicler. And the people: there are a lot of them to keep track of! - if you forget who's who, I recommend using the well-structured index to catch up.

Speaking of structure, the book is divided into 9 chapters, each with their own theme acting as a sort of core "vignette" surrounding a particular group or era in computing history. Within each chapter there are sub-headings but unfortunately these don't show up in the table of contents. After the main content, there's a 42 page addendum reproducing three of Lick's papers, as well as notes for each chapter and a bibliography -both of which are extensive and well-organized.

What will you get out of it? It depends. Lick's notion of interactive networked computing is now pervasive, leading those of us born into it to reflexively believe it was a natural inevitability, one of those commodity objects made by a vague actor like the "invisible hand" or "blind watchmaker". And it certainly was an evolutionary notion, synthesizing decades of prior work. But the book makes the case that while it may have been "eventually inevitable" -it's just too good of an idea- there were considerable counter-forces in academia, industry and government, that could have delayed its arrival. Waldrop and many of the key figures believe Lick's vision, advocacy, and leadership were instrumental to getting us to where we are. One of his big contributions here is painting a clear picture of just how radical the notions of Lick and his merry band were, and consequentially how hard it was for others to wrap their minds around those notions(even eventual converts!). So for me, this subtle appreciation of the non-inevitability was the most powerful takeaway.

To me this is a crucial task for any good history of science or technology: making the reader witness the birth of a transformative idea in its original context, showing why and how it at first seemed foreign and frankly crazy, with decent fairness to the perspectives of non-believers. There's a lot of subtly and nuance to this. It isn't something you'll get out of a more shallow, abridged narrative, clouded by the post-facto rationalizations of hindsight. Waldrop helps those of us who weren't there appreciate how truly, viscerally, radical these ideas were, by taking us along the great human adventure of their birth.
Profile Image for Green Onion.
27 reviews7 followers
July 2, 2017
- Δεν μπορώ να πιστέψω οτι αυτό το βιβλίο είναι out of print. Παρακαλώ τυπώστε το, κάποιος.
- Περιγράφει την ιστορία των ιδεών και των ανθρώπων που οδήγησαν στο να έχουμε ο καθένας μας από έναν προσωπικό υπολογιστή (αυτόν στην τσέπη μας), και να είναι όλοι συνδεδεμένοι μεταξύ τους, ξεκινώντας από τον μεσοπόλεμο και τον Turing (με μια παράκαμψη στο 19ο αιώνα) και καταλήγοντας στη γέννηση του world wide web.
- Το κεντρικό του πρόσωπο είναι ο J.C.R. Licklider, ένας φανταστικός τύπος που από τα 60s είχε οραματιστεί την απελευθερωτική δύναμη του δικτυωμένου προσωπικού υπολογιστή. Έκανε πάρα πολλά για να γίνει το όραμά του πραγματικότητα και χωρίς αυτόν ίσως ο κόσμος μας ήταν πολύ διαφορετικός.
- Αξίζει να το διαβάσει οποιοσδήποτε ζει στον 21ο αιώνα. Ειδικά για τους προπτυχιακούς φοιτητές πληροφορικής θα έπρεπε να είναι υποχρεωτικό σύγγραμμα.
- Τυπώστε το κάποιος.
Profile Image for Thomas Dietert.
27 reviews6 followers
July 18, 2019
One of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Sure, I'm probably biased because my life revolves around computer programming, but nonetheless I'd avidly assert that anyone who takes pleasure in using a personal computer or the internet in any way would greatly enjoy this story about the inception, story, and humans behind the ideas at their foundation.
6 reviews2 followers
May 17, 2020
This is a brilliant biography of J.C.R. Licklider, as well as personal computing and networking which has shaped the lives of our generation in every aspect.

This book hit me in the process of writing my honours thesis, I am working with technologies that the characters so clairvoyantly dreamed of and then made real. Every time a new technology is introduced as an idea floating around somewhere in Cambridge MA or the nascent Bay Area it makes you gasp at the ingenuity, and the hard work, context and machinations that made them into realities gives you a new appreciation for these technologies.

This is also pertinent personally as I am trying explore and understand alternative views on economics and politics than the comfortable and safe university left. For some reason I've been noticing a lot of people, most smart tech people on twitter and other social media, are very vigorous about Austrian economics. When you look at the utter impossibility of the information revolution happening without a whole lot of government intervention, it really shines light on how that view lacks nuance and foresight for undetermined possibilities and paradigm shifts.

This segues really well into the other book I'm reading (to get some ideas for my Management assignment) called How Will You Measure Your Life by Christian Christensen, who came up with the idea of disruptive innovation in the 90s inspired by many events of this book. He describes his innovator's dilemma is that doing the right thing on the margins, as we are taught in microeconomics are responsible for many incumbents overlooking disruptive upstarts and their subsequent demise.

Profile Image for Rúnar.
Author 5 books130 followers
December 5, 2020
A detailed history of the personal computer, from the first analog ballistic computers to the Apple Macintosh. There's a lot of interesting history here, and the book explores important ideas through the eyes of the people who invented computing. But at times it all feels a little too detailed. Still, I'm glad I read this and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about the pioneers of computing.
Profile Image for Aaron Cliff.
132 reviews
April 21, 2021
This was a lot for me. I am not used to any sort of book that is written like this or follows this kind of subject matter, honestly I felt out of depth on the first page of the book. However, I do note the importance of what Waldrop was communicating and the impact it had on our world. I never did understand or bother to figure out why computers went from essentially massive calculators to the desktop, internet browsing free-to-code types we have today, but now I know that it's mainly because of one J.C.R. Licklider and his crew of hackers.

I learned a lot from this book, the historiography is incredible - this book will be a resource to anyone in the future who desires to research or write about the beginnings of modern computing and the human-machine symbiosis it's nearly created. Waldrop interviewed at least a hundred different people, and a large portion of the dialogue of this book is taken directly from these interviews.

I struggle rating this book, however. I know for what it is and the audience it would normally entail it is a 5 star book, no question. But I am not the target audience, and I often got lost in the haze of acronyms and proper nouns, not to mention my complete lack of technical expertise in regards to computers. I feel that if I had primed myself with some basic computer science and history before reading this I would have been much more engaged, but alas I did not.

Don't take my review to mean this is a bad book; it's an incredible book, I'm just an idiot.
Profile Image for Ye Lin Aung.
143 reviews46 followers
July 29, 2018
This is an incredible journey of computing of from WW2 towards the invention of WWW/The Internet. There are a lot of lessons along the way, the names we might have heard of and their relationships with the computers. This quote sticks with me most

hire the most brilliant experimenters in the country, give them the best equipment money could buy, inspire them to the highest possible standards of intellectual clarity and experimental precision—and work them fourteen hours per day.

And I guess this is one of the longest book I've ever managed to read until the end!
55 reviews28 followers
May 1, 2019
Inspirational. It was a pleasure to follow Lick's life as computers went from nonextant to bicycles for the mind. I think that I believe in more determinism than the author does, personal computers likely would have happened even without ARPA's valiant efforts. It was still a pleasure to read about this man who had A Vision For the Future and did his best to make it happen, inspiring generations of computer scientists along the way. I have too many thoughts about this book right now to write a cohesive review so I think I'll leave it at that, but if computers are at all interesting to you I bet you'll enjoy reading this book.
Profile Image for Palash Karia.
28 reviews22 followers
June 24, 2018
A very well-written, surprisingly comprehensive, & exciting to read history of 'personal' computing & the internet, this book is a fitting tribute to JCR Licklider, 'the father of it all'. It's a must read if you learn about computing history.
Profile Image for Jessy.
255 reviews55 followers
February 27, 2020
One of my new all-time favorite books. Learning about the history of computing through the people, the ideas that captured them, and the organizations that they built is ridiculously awe-inspiring as a computer scientist.
Profile Image for Richard Bakare.
188 reviews8 followers
March 13, 2023
I looked forward to this read for a long time. It marks my first time engaging with anything from Stripe Press and a recommendation from a fellow philosophical traveller. The experience itself was woefully disappointing. M. Mitchel Waldrop did a fantastic job to research and deliver an exhaustively detailed discovery guide through the birth of the Information Age. The key take away from this tome is that the Information Age as we know it today is the product of sheer will and happenstance. As sure an indicator that the universe is governed by the chaotic nature of entropy.

The problem is that the style, pacing, and length can feel more like listening to a rambling delivery that could be more succinct and to the point. In some rare moments it resembles a Ken Burns-ish documentary in all of its slow panning glory. Still, it could have been halved and would still have garnered the same awe from the reader. I can make this assertion because I tested it. About a third of the way through I started using different speed reading techniques and then going back to test if I got the points correctly by re-reading the same sections at regular pace. I did garner the points in my first pass and can assert that there is a lot of superfluous content in this book.

Additionally, I wish Waldrop had given some attention to the members of marginalized communities who missed out on contributing to this movement because of racial and gender divides. Along with what compound effects that absence of diversity from the beginning has had on the wealth gap. He briefly mentioned how early access influenced a young Bill Gates but failed to address how privilege played a part in that. That early access is huge, as I can attest. I have had a successful technology career mostly due to access to computers from a young age which demystified them for me.
32 reviews
July 27, 2020
Ugh, this was such a great book. I’m a sucker for computing history. It ties together Chomsky, Claude Shannon, Von Neumann, Douglas Engelbart, and a host of other prominent characters in an easy to read, engaging narrative. I loved how it humanized everyone and didn’t read like a dry textbook.

The topics covered span wide, giving a holistic view of how modern computing came to be. It’s like getting a quick romanticized snapshot of my Computer Engineering degree (I bet CS / Cogs grads would love it too).

I mostly started reading this to get an overview of Englebart and the mother of all demos. Still, I came away with a ton of highlights:

* Licklider and his vision for a human-computer symbiosis. How he used ARPA to funnel government money into research universities and get them all tied to achieve this overarching goal
* Several core theories and foundational primitives that serve as the foundation for computing
* Just the general sense of everyone in the book having an idealized vision of something and setting out to achieve it. I found that really inspiring.
124 reviews3 followers
May 25, 2020
Incredible book.

Basically tells the whole history of computing starting from pre-WWII years, through John von Neumann and Alan Turning years, invention of LISP, Arpanet, Xerox PARC, TCP/IP, Unix and interactive computing and finally internet.

It just connects all the great people together: Norbert Wiener, von Neumann, Noam Chomsky, JFK, Alan Kay, Vint Cerf, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Steve Jobs, Al Gore. And all connected via work of J. C. R. Licklider.

Profile Image for Joshua R. Taylor.
152 reviews3 followers
October 28, 2022
This has been the most rewarding book that I have ever read about computers and computer science.

M. Mitchell Waldrop put together, at the turn of 2001, a book which belongs to one of my favourite genres. It's like a biography but more the biography of an idea than a person. This is useful in movements or trends in history where there were vast amounts of people involved in some water-shed events. However a person is chosen to be the embodiment of that idea and the main character of the story. The other example of the genre that comes to mind is At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails where Jean-Paul Sartre was the main character, but was by no means the only focus. The main character in this case of The Dream Machine was J.C.R. Licklider.

Now Lick (as he was commonly known) didn't technically invent much. He didn't have a flash of insight where a ton of computing ideas consolidated within him and he invented the future. He spent most of his career as a research funder instead of working in the trenches. However what he did unquestionably created in the years leading up to the 1960s, and wrote down in '61 as Man-Computer Symbiosis, was a vision for computing not so unlike we have today. Interactive computers, which could respond instantly to our intuitive thoughts and wishes, would empower the human intellect. Knowledge would be intricately connected in networks of these computers. This knowledge would never be fixed but would be a dynamic model that would evolve as the various users of computers interacted with it.

Talk about foresight! This was a time where computers were terrifying devices. They were always in the basement, untouchable, uncontrollable by most, certainly not interactive and were essentially used as glorified calculators. Here was a prominent researcher, with a ton of government cold-war funding, who said this could all change. The function of the computer could radically change.

And so it did. Launching off of foundations left by the second world-war computing projects and with Lick armed with power over ARPA, essentially an unrestricted money bazooka of 'military' funding. For around 15 years the interactive computing revolution boomed. It started in the early '60s where IBM mainframes were the main show in town, diligently crunching numbers while a few unique computers were kicking around doing something novel. It ended with the Xerox Alto in '75 where each person in a Xerox office could have their own separate computer, individually controllable with a keyboard and mouse, with a graphical user interface and networked together with this thing called 'Ethernet'. Meanwhile the state of computer connectivity went from a few remote teletypes and circuit-switched phone lines in the 60s, to a packet-switched continent-wide network in the late 60s (the Arpanet), a state-backed network of networks in the 80s (NSFNET) and finally a totally privatised and public inter-network by the 90s (the INTERNET).

As time moves away from Lick's Man-Computer Symbiosis, the links from the work at the time become more and more tenuous. However there are always still links. Even today in the everyday experience of us using computers, including the one I am writing this on now and the one you are reading it on.


There are some broader themes I took away from this book besides the story.

The first is: how did this seriously ground-breaking research happen? How could this environment be replicated today? The short answer could be: the cold war. ARPA would not have existed if it were not for the paranoia of the US government that they were being overtaken by the USSR in any matter of technology. President Eisenhower founded it as a direct response to the crisis following Sputnik's launch. You could even say that the second world-war was also inter-related in the decision, since this definitely primed governments around the world to do these kinds of big-government science spending programmes. It must have seemed necessary to keep internationally competitive.

Without ARPA or any kind of government injection of research funds, the computer would have never developed at the pace it did. Or could it? Could the private sector have delivered the same outcome? Thinking of the various high-earning technology companies that have sprung up in the past 80 years, it seems like a lucrative business. Why could they have not done this on their own?

With the steady financialization of businesses after the second world war, Waldrop argues 'no' and I agree with him. From working in the tech industry, left to its own devices a business will nearly always seek incremental short-term changes to give small but guaranteed successes. This is due to the attitudes and incentives inside of such organisations which could be summarised as 'extreme pragmatism, bordering on the anti-intellectual'. Nobody wants to take moon-shots because they are risky, and the company (plus its shareholders) have to bear any losses. This is an excellent economic structure for guaranteed yet slow growth over time.

However it is detrimental for any organisation which intends to make big leaps in technological advancement. Incremental growth will often not make these big leaps, since big leaps often mean years or even decades without feedback. Few businesses will take those risks. Even when they do, as in the case of Xerox and the Xerox PARC, their culture may stop them from effectively commercialising its outputs. Tragically, even through these commercial failures, they will also keep the research secret and closed.

Even more tragically, I would say my earlier use of the word 'organisation' could be extended to entire countries or even all of humanity. If we are steadily handing our future over to incremental-obsessed businesses in the face of many existential risks, it seems like we will never make the big technological leaps required to mitigate or even eliminate these risks. We'll forever be pressured from above to deliver safe return on investment, tomorrow!

So surprisingly my main takeaway of this book is something political. We need a far-expanded drive for public research. Something that can unleash the intellectual potential of the brightest people today. I'm not dreaming of a restart to the cold war, far from it. But something has to politically change to shake people out of this financialised mindset if we are to, you know, survive global warming. The last times these happened in recent history were wars and crippling global recessions. Let's hope a more peaceful reformist path can be found before it's too late.
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book703 followers
December 8, 2013
Not so much a biography of Licklider as an accessible history of computing -- especially the one-off (ENIAC, EDVAC, Illiac, ad nauseam) era -- tied together by Licklider's story (Waldrop leaves him for dozens of pages at a time, especially to cover the von Neumann/Eckley/Mauch early days, and later again regarding Xerox PARC). Less dense than From Whirlwind to MITRE and less slapdash than Where Wizards Stay Up Late, it's probably the best single pop history of computing I've come across. With that said, while it's technically and historically excellent, it alludes to rather than possesses verve; look to The Soul of a New Machine to really truly grok what drives we lucky folk, the music-makers and dreamers of dreams, the hackers.
Profile Image for Eduardo.
63 reviews7 followers
March 12, 2019
This is the story of the Computer Revolution, starting in the late 30s-40s and reaching the early 90s. The author uses the figure of J. C. R. Licklider, one of the central figures in unlocking the potential of the personal computer, as the main thread and dives into the characters that brought the vision of a dream machine into reality.
This book does an amazing job at bringing life to these famous characters in the history of Computing, people like Von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, McCulloch and Pits, Doug Engelbart (yes, the one from the mother of all demos!), Ivan Sutherland, the Arpa guys, and then all those ones who worked at Xerox PARC.

If you're interested at all in the history of how we made the jump from hypothetical machines to batch-oriented computers and finally to interactive micro-computers, this is the only book that you will ever have to read.

I have to confess that by the end of the book I was in tears, I wish I had met Licklider. :-)
Profile Image for Thijs Niks.
91 reviews
March 19, 2018
Fascinating to read how computer technology took decades to develop, needed billions in defense funding, and was driven by a small group of visionaries. Nothing about the supercomputer in your hands was inevitable. The book itself could do with half the words though.
Profile Image for Joe Zeng.
16 reviews
April 4, 2021
Pretty incredible book on the history of computing and a look at the life of a pioneer not commonly taught in schools. Gives great insight on the first principle thinking that early computer scientists exercised.
Profile Image for Stuart.
172 reviews7 followers
March 13, 2022
Incredible book. A detailed history of how the Internet age was anticipated and how we eventually got there. All computer scientists should read this as it explains the history of ideas that led to many of the decisions and mistakes that were made to get there.
Profile Image for Shuo Yang.
8 reviews
April 6, 2015
This is probably the best book about early days of computer and internet. Learned a lot and got a lot of inspirations. I was so amazed that find myself end up underlining the whole page.
Profile Image for Ron Mitchell.
16 reviews2 followers
February 6, 2017
Just brilliant

Best history of the computer revolution I've ever seen. Seems to be only available on Kindle. Why isn't this masterpiece back in print?
Profile Image for Josh Friedlander.
716 reviews102 followers
April 1, 2020

This book began as a somewhat vague project, in response to a grant for a book about software. As Waldrop explains in the acknowledgements, he wanted to write about the history of the personal computer, and Licklider's name kept coming up, so he decided to write his biography. But the book is mostly a history of the idea of computing from the 1950s to the new millenium, with Licklider's bio inserted periodically as the connecting tissue. A creative, brilliant polymath, "Lick" was frustrated by the computing paradigm of large, slow machines batch-processing complex mathematics, operated by men in white coats. He had a vision of computers helping people think, co-operating with them, an extension of each other like a wasp is to a fig tree. With astonishing vision, given the technological limits of the time, Licklider imagined the great benefits of human-computer symbiosis we have today: machines which free us to explore ideas by handling the drudge work, not just calculating but plotting graphs, pulling up relevant research, allowing us to iteratively test and refine ideas. He nurtured, encouraged and funded young researchers who shared his vision all over the US, moving from MIT to the Pentagon's ARPA to BBN (mentioned in Where Wizards Stay Up Late) to Xerox PARC (GUI, Ethernet, TCP/IP), a veritable Zelig of computing history. Thus Waldrop is able to included potted bios of Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Vannevar Bush, John von Neumann, Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy, Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, and many others.

Licklider, who died shortly before Waldrop began work on the book, appears to have been an all-round nice guy, liked and admired by all who knew him. But Waldrop does somewhat gloss over his faults (e.g. he began an affair with his future wife while she was married to someone else), except for one: that he was a bad administrator but kept taking on the task, thus alienating a number of people. But there is some juice about others: he tells of a hilariously petty feud between Wiener and von Neumann (the latter of whom once sat in the front row of a talk by his rival, audibly rustling the New York Times he was reading.

There are many, many interesting tangents here, as the book moves rapidly through early computing (the term "computer" as what Waldrop calls a "pink-collar" occupation, then analogue differential analysers, Shannon's Information Theory, von Neumann's Automaton Theory) to networking, the ARPAnet, the Mother of All Demos, Smalltalk, the Lisa and MS-DOS. (The book was written in 2001, so doesn't cover smartphones or Python, which Lick would no doubt have loved.) One that fascinated me was von Neumann's theory of a "general automaton", not just mechanical computers but also biological beings. It would need to be able to reproduce itself, along with the code to create itself anew, and the ability to edit it, to allow for improvement. This closely foreshadowed the later discovery of DNA, which reproduces both genotype and phenotype.

Another was the story of John McCarthy's invention of LISP for AI research. Fortran was the first compiled language - it could take in natural language terms as variables, and this was huge. It opened up the field to a much larger range of programmers. But LISP was what we'd call today interpreted, creating the REPL - you could program and see the results as you went (something crucial in Licklider's vision of a collaborative tool for thought, not a heavy machine which would take days to respond). Also new was the data structure called the linked list - flexible, scattered throughout memory, each item linking to the next. So it could expand, contract, change, making it easier to reflect real-life malleability in a program. Thus timesharing, LISP, interpreted languages, the linked list, all came from McCarthy and all were connected to his and Licklider's idea of computing - a tool for experimenting and thinking, not a data churner for heavy maths which is already in the books and just needs to be accurately encoded into the machine.

It's impossible not to connect such a conceptual shift to a parallel cultural one. Computing was originally part of the military and corporate establishment, but the academic and "hacker" community, socially and often politically liberal, sought to co-opt the technology for their own ends, improving it, redefining it, ultimately making it ubiquitous and essential. In these chaotic times one may hope that a silver lining would be the accelerated adoption of various new technologies; people are forced to live far more in the virtual world than they thought possible. Such a world is the uncanny fulfilment of Licklider's vision.
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