Sunday, May 22, 2005

Cultural roots of personal computing

John Markoff has written a wonderful book about the cultural roots of the personal computing revolution, What the Dormouse Said.

I don't agree with everything in the book, but "I was there" for some of the formative period, and I know a lot of the people who show up in the book, and John largely gets it right. I learned more I that didn't know about people that I did know than from any book I can recall. And I definitely agree with John's main thesis, that a revolution is shaped by, and needs to be understood in terms of, the culture(s) in which it is rooted.

However, there are two points on which the book failed to convince me:

First, and I admit that I am biased by my participation, I think John over-rates the influence of the Homebrew Computing Club and the Personal Computer Company relative to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Most of those he mentions who shaped the emerging PC industry (with the notable exception of Jobs and Woz) came from PARC (or SRI), with little or no involvement in Homebrew and PCC. And the hundreds of Altos were enormously influential, not just in Xerox, but also in the White House and in several leading universities. Of all the cultures John describes, he does least well at describing that of PARC. Perhaps he thinks that's already been done adequately elsewhere, or perhaps it's a symptom of not accepting its importance.

Second, I think that the technologies developed at SRI and PARC had a much stronger influence on the PC revolution than psychedelics and other aspects of the counter-culture. Networking was critical to all that followed, as were graphical user interfaces, ubiquity, laser printing, etc.

I can think of four killer apps that have brought us to the present state:
1) Spread sheets. Credit to neither side. Neither culture was much interested in budgets. PARC's machines were certainly powerful enough, had anybody thought it was interesting, but Homebrew's computers were not.
2) Desktop publishing. Despite the PCC incidents described, I think desktop publishing was mostly driven by PARC, with bitmap displays, WYSIWYG editors, device-independent document descriptions (later PostScript), laser printing, etc.
3) Email. PARC developed the first email system (Grapevine) where addresses referenced domains, rather than machines, and you could read your email from any machine.
4) The Web. Credit to Engelbart (see also), Nelson, and van Dam, not Homebrew and PCC.

In hindsight, the critical aspects of the PARC environment were that it was network-centric (everything was connected to everything else), ubiquitous (you could use any Alto in any office as your personal machine and they were everywhere), and had high-bandwidth user interaction. (One of Bob Taylor's key insights was that the eye is the fastest way to get information into the brain.) But most critical was that it was the machines that served the people, not vice versa. When I started there, I used to feel guilty when I let my Alto sit idle! And as Don Knuth said, "The best thing about the Alto is that it doesn't run faster at night."

But read the book and decide for yourself.

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Comment by Blogger Gardner:

Great review--many thanks. I just finished the book myself and I think your points are very well taken. The PARC story was told much better in Tools For Thought, and in general Rheingold does a much better job of conveying the romance of the concepts and the sheer intellection of it all. Markoff, on the other hand, does a fine job of locating the events in a cultural and personal/biographical context, so that, for example, I can understand what happened to Engelbart and ARC much more deeply now than I could from Rheingold's book, which left me puzzled by the decline and fall of ARC. I also have a much better sense of Engelbart as a complete human being from Markoff. In the end, I'd say both books are essential. I did, however, think the last part of the Markoff was very rushed. Some of it was also badly edited. But a must nonetheless.

7:34 PM  
Comment by Blogger Jim Horning:

For the PARC part of the story, I like Dealers of Lightning, by Michael A. Hiltzik.

11:28 AM  

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