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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

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  1,031 ratings  ·  105 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 co ...more
Paperback, 310 pages
Published February 28th 2006 by Penguin Group (first published 2005)
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Jan 24, 2010 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 event

Kevin O'Brien
Mar 23, 2012 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
Sten Tamkivi
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 compu
Feb 01, 2011 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
Brett Provance
Jul 19, 2012 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
Brian Vaughan
Jun 14, 2009 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?

Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Eric B. Kennedy
Nov 16, 2015 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
Nick Sweeting
Jun 13, 2014 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.
Aug 22, 2009 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
Mar 27, 2019 rated it it was ok
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 doz ...more
Mar 20, 2019 rated it it was ok
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 a
Scott Holstad
Feb 12, 2015 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
Michael Burnam-Fink
Nov 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, sts, history, 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
Lars K Jensen
Jul 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
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' (
Aug 21, 2013 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
Aug 05, 2017 rated it liked it
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
Pierre Lauzon
Mar 26, 2015 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
Craig Werner
Apr 16, 2015 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
Nov 12, 2007 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
Richard Curry
May 27, 2015 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
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
Dec 20, 2011 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
Daniel Lovins
Mar 15, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Oct 08, 2014 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
Sathya Narayanan
Apr 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 progra
Tommy /|\
Dec 10, 2010 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
David Schwan
Oct 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book has lots of hype behind it and is often referred to as a source--I think it lives up to the hype. The premise is that the personal computer as we know it was highly influenced by a host of counter-cultural ideas--LSD and psychedelics, EST and Zen Buddhism, the Free Speech movement and the anti-war movement (against the Vietnam war). At first the influences seem fleeting yet they were there and built up over almost two decades. Artificial Intelligence (AI) research in some ways was set ...more
Robert Traller
Nov 16, 2013 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
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