Saturday, April 01, 2006

Book Review - What the Dormouse Said

What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry
Author: John Markoff
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2005
Length: 287 pages, plus Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography, and Index

The personal computer. Whether operated in standalone or networked fashion, nothing in the last two decades has changed our lives more. Whether you’re at home surfing the Internet, editing a spreadsheet at work, or just wishing you had nice laptop like the guy next to you at Panera, you’re affected by the personal computer. Computers have so strongly impacted our lives so quickly that we haven’t had the chance to step back and understand the history behind them. “What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry” provides that history. And it attempts to go further. It tries to show how the technology, culture, and politics of the 1960s converged to create the personal computer revolution.

Author John Markoff provides an interesting glimpse of some of the more interesting characters that transformed computing technology from a number crunching function dominated by corporate stuffed shirts and military contractors to an anarchic society dedicated to sharing ideas and programs. It is fascinating to see how so much of the technology used in today’s individual and networked computing was developed 30 to 40 years ago based on Doug Engelbart’s vision of the computer as a tool for augmenting human intelligence.

It also shows how the personalities and political leanings of the players in the early computer industry set the stage for today’s issues: Should software be the property of the developer to be bought and sold, or freely distributed? How should computer technology affect how music and movies are distributed? The seeds for these current issues were sown 30 or more years ago, and Markoff does an excellent job of providing the background information necessary to make sense of them.

I did have a couple of issues with this book. The first is that the author was unsuccessful in supporting his thesis that the use of psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD, was a significant factor in the development of computer technology and the philosophy of putting computers into the hands of individuals. The fact that LSD and other drugs were used by many computer engineers of the time is established, but no evidence is presented that this was a causative factor in any subsequent developments in the computer industry. Also, the book really only got to its point – the impact on the personal computer industry – in the last 20 pages. I felt like I was only given a small taste of what the book was really supposed to be about. This doesn’t take anything away, however, from the rest of the book, which provided some very interesting history.

I think this book is well worth reading. It will be of interest to today’s technophiles who have an interest in history, as well as to non-technical readers interested in understanding the role of computers in today’s rapidly changing society.


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