Before leaving on vacation, on the recommendation of a friend I picked up a copy of John Markoff's 'What the Dormouse Said', a history of some of the early days of Silicon Valley and what became personal computing and hypertext technology, told in terms of the interaction and overlap between technologists and the developing Bay Area counterculture of the 60s and 70s. I did not count this against my 'no work' pledge, since many of the dramatis personae of the story fall in the range between nodding acquaintance and longtime colleague. Part of the fun of this book was learning the backstory of those in the former category, in a few cases explaining attitudes and behaviors that I'd just taken as given before. Markoff has done a great job at extracting the tales of those days while they still last, and presenting the characters and stories in a sympathetic treatment. (He's not a photojournalist, though. The pics are the same I've seen for years. There have to be more good
blackmail historical images in attics somewhere around here. I've seen this great one of Larry Tesler in a 'fro...)
The greatest value of this book is in not only showing the countercultural roots of the Valley, but in dissecting out and exposing the fundamental differences of philosophy between those who saw computers as a tool for augmenting humans - the Engelbart/Nelson/Kay school, and those who saw them as a potential replacement - the strong AI school of McCarthy and others. This is a nuance that has been lost on most other historians and journalists, particularly those without a technical background, so kudos are due.
Since I'm now going to lay some critique on the book, and on those in the stories, I should first acknowledge my own debts. It was Stewart Brand's 'II Cybernetic Frontiers' - still on my shelves - that in my undergraduate days influenced me to drop a biochem dual major and focus on computing, by showing there was more to it than punch cards and assembly language. A copy of the first Xerox PARC Smalltalk report, bummed from a friend, deeply influenced my coding style while I was still a practitioner. Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg's seminal 1976 article, Personal Dynamic Media (PDF), set a vision of computers as media that has been a guiding light for my entire technology and business career (though I diverge on specifics). Much later, Stewart Brand was an instigator of one of my favorite projects at Apple, the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog, one of the earliest experiments in CD-based multimedia publishing. And Doug Engelbart was a gracious colleague to us upstarts during the Dexter Hypertext Workshops.
While it's an inherent problem that any retrospective of events has to adopt a point of view for the sake of narrative, the weakest point of 'Dormouse' is its treatment of how these ideas transitioned into common commercial practice and thence to popular culture. Playing off the countercultural theme, Markoff seems to jump straight from the earliest days of the Homebrew Computer Club to the open source movement of today. That's leaving out over 25 years of entrepreneurial history to try to drag the anti-capitalism of the 60s and 70s into this decade.
Regardless of the seminal role of the ideas outlined, it must be acknowledged that not a single one of the projects described in 'Dormouse' achieved a commercial success. They were works by cognoscenti, for cognoscenti. Like it or not, scale adoption is the means by which personal computing technology impacts culture and economy. Markoff at times seems to adopt the view heard from these pioneers that their work was misunderstood, or ignored, often in the rush to commercialization. For instance, I have heard Alan Kay be even more acid in person regarding the bowdlerized, fragmentary implementations of the PARC ideas that finally saw market.
These problems were of the pioneers' own making. The most poignant portions of 'Dormouse' describe the organizational problems lurking behind the creativity. In fact, none of these organizations and systems managed to scale beyond the size of a modest startup, or survive a single generational turnover of computing technology. Meanwhile, Gordon Moore became one of the creators of an organization that lived in exponential time over many generations, and coevolved with a Valley technical and business ecology that could also do so.
Grand visions have the risk of becoming idées fixe, if not salted with market and social feedback. Organizations and cultures do not become augmented without fundamental transformation. Literary machines must be open in an open society, and cope with the inevitable bad actors. The intellectual challenge of programming recedes into the platforms that carry new media to all the niches of the Long Tail. It's no disrespect to the those who listened to the dormouse, to say that they needed the entrepreneurs of the Valley to make this happen.
In spite of these caveats, I recommend this book, particularly if read alongside two earlier works cited by Markoff: Steven Levy's 'Hackers' and Freiberger and Swaine's 'Fire in the Valley', alternate narratives of overlapping events. These are most often mentioned by those who lived the stories. The 1988 collection A History of Personal Workstations, edited by Adele Goldberg, pulls together some of the academic output of the times of 'Dormouse', for those inclined to dig into primary sources.
For the later Valley and personal computing history, you'll have to search the used book sources for Frank Rose's 'West of Eden' and Paul Carroll's 'Big Blues', respectively treatments of Apple and IBM during the 1980s, and both reasonably accurate from my first or second-hand knowledge. The definitive history of Microsoft during this period is still to be written.
For the engineering and entrepreneurial cultures that became dominant, no one has ever done it better than Tracy Kidder with The Soul of a New Machine. Nominally fiction, Doug Coupland's 'Microserfs' is a humane treatment of the less machismo culture of the early 90s. The voice of the engineer who has to make a product out of a vision is still best expressed in Florman's classic 'Existential Pleasures of Engineering'. If anyone has written a classic memoir of Valley venture capital, I haven't seen it.