Readings – What the Dormouse Said

The intersection of technology and the counterculture has always been a quiet but persistent theme in the sound track of the history of computing. John Markoff attempts a chronicle of the two worlds in his latest book, titled after the line in the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit that exhorts the listener to "feed your head."

The foreward is brilliant, where Markoff — who has been on the scene in Silicon Valley for over three decades — relates a conversation he had with Steve Jobs when the subject of LSD came up, and Jobs discussed the impact the psychedelic had on him and others in scaling the role technology could enhance and extending the capabilities of the mind. Markoff makes a succinct, but eseential delineation of the world into two camps — Information Libertarians and Information Proprietarians. Proprietarians are exemplified by the movie industry, the RIAA, Bill Gates (who early on cast himself against the practice of sharing code with his now famous open letter in  Dr. Dobb’s to those homebrew users who swapped his version of BASIC for the Altair), and those who would predict the demise of intellectual property through file sharing and piracy. The libertarians, Markoff says, are at the essence of the OpenSource movement, whose forefathers extended government funded projects such as ARPANET and opened up the standards of TCP/IP to the world and not a commercial entity.

 It’s a neat dichotomy, one that forces a binary alignment of the world into the Stewart Brand camp where "information wants to be free" and the Gates camp where "information is expensive."

 The book chronicles the efforts of Doug Englebart, John McCarthy, Alan Kay, and the coterie of coders and visionaries that transformed the world of information technology from a centralized time-sharing model of data centers to infinitely scalable, truly personal computers, technology envisioned as tools to extend and share the power of the mind. While many components of the tale are familiar — Englebart’s and McCarthy’s projects at SRI and SAIL are stories often told — and the influence of Xerox PARC is almost mythical at this point in time, Markoff plows some new ground in his discussion of how LSD was regarded in the mid-60s, before it escaped the labs, and the impact it had on otherwise buttoned-up engineers.

There is a little over focus on SRI and SAIL and not enough details about the overall role the counterculture played within the industry that followed the early innovations. The tensions created in the PC industry as freak-met-suit, the countercultural influences on seminal communities such as the WELL versus the traditional glass house mentality as corporate communities such as CompuServe. Markoff needed to take another two years and another 500 pages to truly chart the social threads that have been woven together over the past forty years to create the most astonishing industry the world has ever known.

 I highly recommend the book.


Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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