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

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"This makes entertaining reading. Many accounts of the birth of personal computing have been written, but this is the first close look at the drug habits of the earliest pioneers." --New York Times

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 computers into a means for freeing minds and information. In these pages one encounters Ken Kesey and the phone hacker Cap'n Crunch, est and LSD, The Whole Earth Catalog and the Homebrew Computer Lab. What the Dormouse Said is a poignant, funny, and inspiring book by one of the smartest technology writers around.

352 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2005

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John Markoff

24 books38 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 104 reviews
Profile Image for Natali.
414 reviews302 followers
September 21, 2021
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 the personal background of every major contributor to the personal computing movement but I had a hard time keeping them all straight. Perhaps a little different organization might have been helpful. Also, the book omits the contributions of women and minorities. Even the wives of the major contributors hardly had their due. One woman in particular was only ever referred to as so-and-so's wife. It is no wonder that the computer is such a masculine tool. It was designed by white men who could afford the time to play with their toys. Anyone who calls the computer androgynous is seriously mistaken.

This book does provide a fascinating juxtaposition for the state of personal computing versus the intention of personal computing. Our digital founding fathers intended information and software to be freely exchanged. They figured they would make their money on hardware, not software. It is amazing how, after the 90s era of big money Microsoft, we come full circle to a computer culture that values free-flowing information. But this is still tricky. Here is a great quote from the book illustrating this: "Stewart Brand expressed the fundamental tension most clearly: 'Information wants to be free,' he said, 'and information also wants to be very expensive.'"
Profile Image for Jonathan Barry.
25 reviews
August 14, 2012

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, neither overly influenced the other.

At points, I thought I was reading two different stories: one of the rise of computers, one of '60s counterculture, which were both incredibly interesting. The vision of researchers in the '50s and '60s is mindblowing, especially after having watched and read some of the primary media mentioned by Markoff. The anti-war student movement, too, is a fascinating subject, one that I would like to see in more depth.

In summary, it's a solid book, especially for those with little knowledge of pre-Apple II computer history, but the author's overly ambitious approach of intertwining two separate events confused the narrative and took away from what could have been two excellent, separate histories of the goings-on in '60s California.

Profile Image for Kevin O'Brien.
195 reviews10 followers
March 23, 2012
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 time.
Profile Image for Sten Tamkivi.
68 reviews127 followers
March 6, 2018
There are countless books on the history of Silicon Valley that follow on the story of particular founders, investors or a startup company.

This one goes a layer deeper towards the roots: investigating the impact on nascent Silicon Valley by hippies, counterculture movement, bands like Grateful Dead, the anti-war protests at Berkeley, local book stores, LSD & mushrooms and so forth. How the nascent institutions like Stanford Research Institute, Stanford AI Lab and first attempts at personal computing commercialization such as Xerox PARC were built around the quirky individuals, all influenced by their curiosity across disciplines outside of engineering and tech.

Fantastic research and a gripping read. Should be used more often in the arguments if we should have more hard sciences alone in education, or find more ways to induce interdisciplinary creativity.

(Thanks for the recommendation, THI)
Profile Image for Angela.
71 reviews20 followers
February 1, 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 was 60 pages prior), but it's full of richly interesting stories and quotable moments. Recommended if you're into the topic, but I can't imagine it would appeal to a casual reader very much.
Profile Image for Scott Holstad.
Author 22 books58 followers
February 21, 2015
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 Markoff. In fact, I would say that he fails at it. Still, he tries, yes, he does. He tries a chronological approach to things and soon we have computer science engineers dropping acid in what will become Silicon Valley, leading to who knows what kinds of creativity. But Markoff really concentrates this book on two or three people: Doug Engelbart and his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy's SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.

Engelbart had a vision and he pulled in people to create his vision. He envisioned a computer -- this was the 1960s -- that would augment how people thought and what they did. McCarthy also envisioned a computerized world, albeit a slightly different one. Brand envisioned a computer for every person, while Kay envisioned small computers -- laptops of today -- that were so easy to use, that small children could be taught to use them. And these men all pulled it off!

Engelbart plays such a large role in the book, that it's nearly all about him, and I think that does the book a bit of a disservice. Nonetheless, it's he who creates the mouse to use with a display and keyboard in the late '60s. He was funded largely by ARPA and was critical in the development of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

At some point, the book shifts to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Reserch Center), the infamous Xerox research facility that had the most brilliant geniuses of the twentieth century under one roof and who literally did invent the personal computer as we know it to be. This was before Steve Wozniak and his famous claim that he invented the personal computer. Under Bob Taylor At PARC, Kay and the others who had shifted over there invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, a text editor (word processor), programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. Xerox was so stupid, they never realized what they had in hand and they could have owned the world, but they didn't. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Markoff weaves various stories of people like Fred Moore throughout the book, attempting to capture the counterculture spirit, but it seemed a little lost on me. Most of the techies weren't overly political. Most avoided Vietnam by working in a research facility that did weapons research (SRI). Most dropped acid at some point, but very few seemed to make that a lifestyle choice. I thought it was an interesting book, as the topic is personally interesting to me, but it wasn't the most cohesively written book and I would have expected a little more from a writer of Markoff's stature. Still, four solid stars and recommended.
June 15, 2009
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?

Unfortunately, Markoff doesn't answer this question. He doesn't even ask it clearly.

In the first few pages of "What the Dormouse Said," he makes it clear that, as early as the late 1940s, some few researchers imagined the "personal computer," in contrast to the tightly controlled bureaucratic tools known at the time, and those few researchers went on to spend decades developing that concept. This is interesting.

However, the next 250 pages of the book consist of hundreds of irrelevant and tedious biographical snapshots, explaining how yet another computer scientist was a gifted child, happened to choose to go to grad school at Stanford, and met the last computer scientist described a few pages earlier. Somewhere in this, the person described has some involvement with the counterculture or the New Left, usually a very superficial involvement. How that influenced the person's views of computing is never discussed. Causation is not correlation. Simply telling us that many computing pioneers took LSD and protested the Vietnam War doesn't tell us much, if anything, about how their views of the possibilities of computing were transformed.

He does make it clear that there were two critical loci: the Augment lab at Stanford, where Doug Engelbart's vision of personal computing laid the groundwork that was developed later, and more famously, at Xerox's PARC, where the Alto computer established the conventions familiar today in graphical user interfaces; and the People's Computer Company, in which enthusiasts made a conscious effort to unite the ideals of the counterculture and the New Left with the developments in computer technology. Sadly, Markoff spends only a few pages on the PCC, which deserved much more in-depth consideration.

In general, Markoff's treatment of the ideas of the counterculture, the New Left, and of computing, are superficial.

I gave this book three stars, as despite all these shortcomings, I believe the book is worth reading, as the information is there, despite Markoff's failure to connect the dots and construct a coherent historical narrative.
July 20, 2012
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 concepts and technological breakthroughs that we enjoy today in the world of personal computers and electronic social networking.
Profile Image for David.
85 reviews13 followers
September 30, 2017
The people who created the personal computer didn't do it because they loved technology (though they did) or because they were brilliant entrepreneurs (though some were). They did it because they saw the promise of expanding human cognition. They wanted to free people's minds, to give them power to build a better world, and to connect with others. That all sounds very cliche nowadays when every trite startup is on a mission to "change the world and connect people and ideas", but in the 60s they really tried to do just that.

Reading this book helped me understand where the computer came from and how we have still fallen so far short of what it could be. And I loved to hear all the personal stories of the pioneers.

As an industry, computing always cannibalizes those that came before and never looks back. This book takes the opposite approach by purposely looking backwards to tell the forgotten stories and uncover the motives behind those that actually did change the world.

Highly recommended for anyone working in tech. If we don't know where we came from, how will we know where we're going?
Profile Image for thirtytwobirds.
109 reviews53 followers
August 30, 2014
A great guide to the events that lead up to Apple and co. Most stories about early personal computing start at Apple and go forward -- this one looks back a bit further. It's an inspiring story about the folks that kickstarted the PC industry with a lot of knowledge and a lot of drugs.

The only tough part is that this book covers so many people and jumps around so much that it can feel a bit disjointed at times. You'll be reading and then say "wait, who is this new person?" and realize that they were just introduced out of the blue on the previous page. It would be easier to read if it had a more consistent frame of reference, but that would probably restrict what it could practically cover.
225 reviews10 followers
November 16, 2015
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 told as webs, communities, and fortunate intersections. Great technological history.
Profile Image for Barrett.
135 reviews
March 27, 2019
I first thought this book would offer insights into the primeval computer world, by that I would expect the answer for "So, technically what is happening inside this particular computer/system/etc?". I was a bit disappointed as the book drafted out the social aspect of the computer geek community. As the chapters go, be careful not to let yourself lay off reading this book, for it is pretty boring throughout. I really had to try my best to cram the information in my head and keep myself from dozing off.
Profile Image for Nick Sweeting.
3 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Julie.
89 reviews10 followers
September 15, 2010
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 glimpse into how society went from fearing computers to seeing them as tools for personal productivity.

A lot of people start the story of the personal computer at Xerox PARC. But this book is about the people and context which came before, that influenced the developments at Xerox. There's also the claim (echoed in a number of places, including Stewart Brand's essay "We owe it all to the hippies") that the personal computer was brought to the masses, not by commercial companies, not by the government, but by hippies and activists (and hobbyists). People who saw the computer as a tool, to give power to the individual, decentralized. [I can't help but see this in one of the pervasive apps for early personal computers, Print Shop -- printing posters! How hippie and populist!]

Having finished this book, I feel like I need to read it again. The book is so chock full of anecdotes, that there's too much to process. At first, there were too many people and places to keep straight. After a while, the story starts to settle down on a few main people. But if there is one down side to this book, it's that there's just too much info, and it doesn't seem coherently organized. The book also lacks any summarizing or conclusions from the author. If there are any big ideas to be taken away, they're not explicitly expressed by the author. I would have liked some more of that -- I don't have to agree with what the author thinks, but I'm sure that there are parallels and contrasts and ideas that the author could have pointed out, and I would have thought, "Oh, I hadn't noticed that! Thanks for bringing that up." The book is really just a collection of stories. But despite that, it's still amazing.

One of the main story lines is about Douglas Engelbart, whose work led to the infamous "mother of all demos" (where, among other things, the computer mouse was first publicly demonstrated). Engelbart is introduced as someone who learned about "scale" while working on modeling aerodynamics of airplanes -- where different properties scale differently as you shrink the plane (surface area vs volume, etc). Engelbart's insight was to apply "scale" to thinking about other things: how would uses of computers change as they become smaller? To try to communicate this idea to people, he would carry around a pencil attached to a brick and ask, what if pencils weighed a pound, how would we use then? And if we could make pencils lighter (and he removes the brick), what new uses does that open up? And how does that affect what we can do, and how we can communicate and interact with other people? Engelbart wasn't interested in computers, he was interested in humans, their intellect and their interaction. The computer was just a tool for improving them. And you could see this in the way that Engelbart ran his research group: he experimented with new ways to hold meetings, seeing meetings as just another tool for the human brain, another thing to be tweaked and experimented with until we discovered new ways for people to work together. (A lot of things he tried were flops, but apparently he also invented a number of things that we take for granted in meetings today, like brainstorming.) Anyway, this concept of thinking about "scale" in other areas is a brilliant idea, that I can keep in mind when I'm thinking about technology and society. It's just one of several in the book, which made it a throught-provoking read.

I originally looked into this book because I heard that it was mentioned in This Is Your Country on Drugs, so I thought that this might be a "druggie book", but actually there's very little about drugs in here -- though LSD is mentioned a fair amount early on, including in terms of scientific experiments at human augmentation (which is what Engelbart was on about). And counterculture is certainly important to the story, in terms of decentralization and populism and the fact that the people in the story are using computers in their activist groups, etc, but really, I don't see this as a counter-culture book either. I think the people who would most enjoy this book are techies, specifically those interested in the history of technology, and maybe also media types, who are interested in the interaction between society and technology and technology as a medium.
Profile Image for Eddie Chua.
113 reviews
May 11, 2021
We know the end product, but how many of us know the history, vision and progress of an idea to final product of anything? Not often. This book mentions about the pioneer of different products and ideas coming together to what is a common place item in todays' world; the personal computer. That said, it does not focus on the science of it, instead the behavior and life of these pioneers.

There was a line which I captured (as Engelbart's understanding from Mao's red book), "you couldn't just drop new technology on people and expect it to work. Mind and behavior had to change as well". Engelbart was looking for ways to force change and if Augment was going to accelerate the human intellect, he asked "what were the equivalent social and individual changes that needed to be made within the organizations"?

Much to digest for a non-tech person like myself, nevertheless an eye-opening book.
6 reviews
March 21, 2019
I found this book to have a slightly confusing structure. I agree with other reviews that a different structure with a greater focus on a handful of the key pioneers of the PC industry would have perhaps provided a better read. I had trouble keeping up with the dozens of different people mentioned in the book and their different connexions to each other. I could not bring myself to finish the book.

Nevetheless, you can tell the author did an immense amount of research and recounts all the facts and events with great detail. As such I would definity come back to this book if ever in need of very detailed information about certain individuals/events from that time. However, I was looking for a not-too-complicated introduction to the period and key pioneers of the PC industry, unfortunately I did not find what I was looking for..
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,458 reviews217 followers
November 14, 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 and again. Douglas Engelbert, Stewart Brand, and Fred Moore are the protagonists, with lesser engineers and activists coming in to solve a problem and then disappearing to a commune or Xerox PARC. The scattered oral histories make the overall narrative somewhat hard to follow, but the stories are simply incredible. This is the time the entire lab tried LSD. This is the time the lab joined a yoga cult. This is the time when anti-war activists laid siege to the building.

Two bits that I especially enjoyed were “The Mother of All Demos” Englebert’s 90 minute presentation of a networked interactive personal computer system. It’s worth being reminded that there was a point when all this was experimental and very hard, and cost real money. The journey of Fred Moore, committed pacifist, member of the People’s Computer Company, and founding member of the legendary Palo Alto Homebrew Computer Club, is a fascinating look at the social origins of computers as we use them, rather than as specialized military-scientific tools.

The argument of the book, that human-computer augmentation, psychedelic exploration, and radical politics, all flourished together, is more associational than causal. Certainly, a lot of people thinking in new ways were in the same place at the same time, but is LSD the reason the PC was born on the West Coast instead of around Route 128? Hard to say, but I do know that I had almost as much fun reading these stories as the participants had in 60s.
Profile Image for Lars K Jensen.
169 reviews46 followers
July 14, 2018
This is a great book, especially if you're into the early computer/PC history.

As other reviewers have pointed out before me, I'm not sure how much interconnectedness there really was between the counter-culture and the beginning of the PC era. Naturally, there was some - but it seems to me that the counter-culture was almost everywhere.

The reason I bought this book in the first place is because how this time in technology and computer history is described in Thomas Rid's 'Rise of the Machines' (on the history of the word "cyber") which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. The link seemed clearer to me in Rid's book that it does in Markoff's.

None the less, the counter-culture and some of the people associated with it (and of course the ideals it represented) affected the early PC history quite a lot. That makes it even more ironic when you look at the billion dollar business it has since become.

Also, there are a lot of persons buzzing around in his history and unless you take notes, you are going to lose track of who is who. I certainly did, and Markoff could easily have done a better job at helping us out. Maybe a list of persons at the beginning or end of the book.

And probably the most noteworthy counter-culture(-inspired) person to have ever walked the IT/technology business, Steve Jobs, is barely mentioned in the book. No doubt that this is because the book is from 2005 and Jobs only really (like, really-really) rose to fame at the launch of the iPhone in 2007 which changed the business.

But then again, in his first iPhone presentation, Jobs quoted Alan Kay who is mentioned in described in Markoff's book.

All in all: I suggest you read the book but maybe structure your reading so you have a break now and then, because you are going to meet at lot of (interesting) people throughout your reading sessions :)
Profile Image for Penny.
354 reviews1 follower
August 21, 2013
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 computing cultures were steeped in the culture and counterculture in the Stanford area, particularly from the late '50s through the '60s and '70s. I was there, part of the political counterculture. I had no idea!

One of the things I found particularly interesting was that the groundwork had been laid for the PC over a couple of decades, and those doing the work were connected through their employment, Universities, and/or interests. Yet few of these brilliant innovators saw the potential or took seriously the appeal of small, personal computers. Sadly, their work and their decades-old projects fizzled out. In one of the more startling statements in his book, Markoff writes: "Even with a strong intellectual grasp of the consequences of Moore's Law, it has proved almost impossible for the members of any given generation of computing technology to accept the fact that it will be cannibalized by an upcoming generation."

So kudos to John Markoff for salvaging these stories and "curating" this very interesting socio-political tapestry before the personal histories are lost.

Profile Image for Lucas.
275 reviews24 followers
August 8, 2017
Decent general early computing history, but the 'sixties counterculture' is only occasionally connected- sometimes in important ways but frequently not.

There is some entertainment value in the occasional story of the movement conflicting with reality:

The commune idea hadn't worked out. He ran out of money within six months, it being more expensive to live on a commune in southern Oregon than he had thought it would be. Worst of all, it turned out there were no programming jobs anywhere close to his commune.

The environmentally destructive effects of large numbers of people getting close to nature are more apparent now, and perhaps others have realized it as a left-wing rationalization for urban flight.

The impact of the Vietnam War seems greater than the occasional acid trip (or hot tub use, also documented here). Men would go to work for defense contractors in order to avoid being drafted, but the weapons work was repulsive to those opposed to the war. Defense funded university computing labs sometimes became targets for protests.

But Duvall was extremely opposed to the war in Vietnam, which he came to see as a generational aberration. An entire American generation had been shaped by World War II; they got to be heroes, they got to be in command, and they won. It had been the high point of their lives. Vietnam, he thought, was the legacy of a group of Americans that was reaching its midlife crisis, and to grapple with it they were waging another war. There was no other reasonable explanation.
Profile Image for Craig Werner.
Author 12 books154 followers
April 28, 2015
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 place out east (upstate NY and MIT), but those cultures were committed to a vision of the future of computing that centered on big computers serving the needs of big institutions. As Markoff argues, the California cultural mix was perfectly comfortable with the notion of computers as machines that could augment human potential. It's not just meta, either. A large number of the pioneers of the work that led to PCs were part of the LSD experiments that radiated out from Menlo Park; Stewart Brand, who'd handled most of the electronics for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, was instrumental in the 1968 unveiling of PC technology by Doug Engelbart that pretty much defined the future. Like most all of the other good sixties ideas, the freewheeling computer counterculture got sucked into the mainstream fairly quickly, but it's an important and largely forgotten piece of the puzzle.
Profile Image for tamarack.
244 reviews49 followers
November 13, 2007
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 altruistic intentions of early computer programmers, and their sometimes rivalry with artificial intelligence development. In The Beginning the computer was a dream of augmenting human intelligence: a tool that would act like an external hard drive of sorts for people. i think it really helps to explain why geeks out there are so against certain aspects of popular personal computing (ie: microsoft). perhaps the more we understand the technology we use the less it will be able to "use" us.
i picked this up on indirect recommendation from chuck0 at infoshop.org. good read for geeks, freaks, and people who eat at midday.
328 reviews10 followers
December 19, 2020
Another history of the early days of computing. The goal is to link the rise of personal computing to the rise of the counterculture and (especially) to the psychedelics of the acid tests of the Merry Pranksters. There's some overlap in individuals, notably Stewart Brand (who makes a brief appearance in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But overall it seems something of a stretch: the most influential players at the time (Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay) weren't especially counter-cultural. But the contrast between the corporate computing world and those of Engelbart and Kay – and for all their differences they share a lot of similarities – is profound, and it's sad that in many ways the corporate side won: modern software draws on the surface aspects of Kay's work on Smalltalk, for example, but at a deeper level is more heavily influenced by corporate needs, and that's become even more pronounced in the years since this book was written.
Profile Image for Richard Curry.
59 reviews2 followers
May 27, 2015
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 (or begging, borrowing, ETC., this book: (read the section on how the early form of BASIC was distributed free (on perforated paper tape! kind of like a player piano) at a Homebrew Computer Club meeting, leading to Bill Gates writing a letter observing how hardware got paid for, but some people thought they should be able to share software for free. Gates asserted copyright over the software and expected to be paid.) Author John Markoff explains that that kind of discussion is still ongoing, and has spread to other areas, such as video and music and games, etc.
Profile Image for Brian .
863 reviews3 followers
November 7, 2011
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 apparent but the attempts to link this all to one visionary who was not even involved in decision making or work on these projects is pitiful. Doug Engelbert was not even around for the roll out of Xerox's computer or the Altair craze that ended with the distribution of Gates software. This book gets two starts for the fact that it has all of the pieces there but loses the rest for being unable to connect them. Hopefully someone will finally tell this story someday.
Profile Image for Donald Guy.
25 reviews9 followers
November 1, 2012
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 depth about more people. This makes it kind of hard to follow at times.

While the politics of the counter cultural movements definitely are well depicted as influencing developments, I was less convinced about what influence psychedelic drugs actually had. That casr seemed somewhat forced / just there to be controversial.

Overall, not sure it delivered on the promise of its title, but if you are into Computer history, it is probably worth a read.
12 reviews3 followers
April 13, 2019
Tries to link invention of 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 true, yet they are both incomplete. This book is about what came before ..." including Doug Engelbart's Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy's SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog (1968) and early observer of links between psychedelic drugs and computer science (p. xiii).
Profile Image for Alex.
101 reviews6 followers
December 10, 2014
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 impacted their seminal work is difficult to pinpoint as the dramatic rise of computing power has consistently led to similar paradigm shifts. i.e. The first MP3 player and the current rise of wearable devices.

The text is laden with dates, names, companies, and abbreviations you'll have to research frequently but I learned quite a bit and mostly charged through the text at a healthy pace. Definitely an interesting read.
2 reviews2 followers
April 11, 2018
A fascinating history of the development of computing in America, with special focus on the Silicon Valley. This is not a book on the PC revolution, but of an era which paved way to the PC era. The book connects the sixties counterculture and the beginnings of technology.

The book is a chronological approach to the development of computing with specific focus on Doug Engelbart and his team at SRI, John McCarthy’s SAIL and Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.

The book takes the reader to the time when people were experimenting with LSD and the development of the anti-establishment movement, which had a huge impact on the creation of the Homebrew computer club. Steven Jobs, who was a member of the club, would later visit PARC and got and would be inspired to start Apple and become the first major PC vendor.

If you are interested in the history of the PC and how it relates to the 60s culture, this is a good book.
Profile Image for Tommy /|\.
161 reviews5 followers
December 10, 2010
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. Several of the smaller story-lines are brought to light in the overall arch of the personal computer that nearly everyone seems to be familiar with. As both a Systems Administrator and a an amateur Historian, I was fascinated and enthralled by everything as Markoff presented it. Highly recommended from this corner.
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