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What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s…
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What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal…

by John Markoff

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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 Markoff. In fact, I would say that he fails at it. Still, he tries, yes, he does. He tries a chronological approach to things and soon we have computer science engineers dropping acid in what will become Silicon Valley, leading to who knows what kinds of creativity. But Markoff really concentrates this book on two or three people: Doug Engelbart and his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy's SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.

Engelbart had a vision and he pulled in people to create his vision. He envisioned a computer -- this was the 1960s -- that would augment how people thought and what they did. McCarthy also envisioned a computerized world, albeit a slightly different one. Brand envisioned a computer for every person, while Kay envisioned small computers -- laptops of today -- that were so easy to use, that small children could be taught to use them. And these men all pulled it off!

Engelbart plays such a large role in the book, that it's nearly all about him, and I think that does the book a bit of a disservice. Nonetheless, it's he who creates the mouse to use with a display and keyboard in the late '60s. He was funded largely by ARPA and was critical in the development of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

At some point, the book shifts to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Reserch Center), the infamous Xerox research facility that had the most brilliant geniuses of the twentieth century under one roof and who literally did invent the personal computer as we know it to be. This was before Steve Wozniak and his famous claim that he invented the personal computer. Under Bob Taylor At PARC, Kay and the others who had shifted over there invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, a text editor (word processor), programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. Xerox was so stupid, they never realized what they had in hand and they could have owned the world, but they didn't. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Markoff weaves various stories of people like Fred Moore throughout the book, attempting to capture the counterculture spirit, but it seemed a little lost on me. Most of the techies weren't overly political. Most avoided Vietnam by working in a research facility that did weapons research (SRI). Most dropped acid at some point, but very few seemed to make that a lifestyle choice. I thought it was an interesting book, as the topic is personally interesting to me, but it wasn't the most cohesively written book and I would have expected a little more from a writer of Markoff's stature. Still, four solid stars and recommended. ( )
  scottcholstad | Feb 21, 2015 |
This is a very interesting book which addresses the social and technological ideas behind the movement from large computers set up in companies, universities or government facilities to personal computers meant for individuals and their communication needs and workloads. And of course, there are a few video games that appear here and there. This book lets the reader know from what computing power grew, and, for me, it sparked an interest in finding out what computing power could actually do in our modern world beyond the prescribed functions given to us by Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc. ( )
  Brian.Gunderson | Aug 6, 2012 |
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 concepts and technological breakthroughs that we enjoy today in the world of personal computers and electronic social networking.
  metis63 | Jul 20, 2012 |
Finished 9/6/2010 ( )
1 vote | RobertW | Sep 6, 2010 |
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. Several of the smaller story-lines are brought to light in the overall arch of the personal computer that nearly everyone seems to be familiar with. As both a Systems Administrator and a an amateur Historian, I was fascinated and enthralled by everything as Markoff presented it. Highly recommended from this corner. ( )
  TommyElf | Apr 15, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670033820, Hardcover)

While there have been several histories of the personal computer, well-known technology writer John Markoff has created the first ever to spotlight the unique political and cultural forces that gave rise to this revolutionary technology. Focusing on the period of 1962 through 1975 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a heady mix of tech industries, radicalism, and readily available drugs flourished, What the Dormouse Said tells the story of the birth of the personal computer through the people, politics, and protest that defined its unique era.

Based on interviews with all the major surviving players, Markoff vividly captures the lives and times of those who laid the groundwork for the PC revolution, introducing the reader to such colorful characters as Fred Moore, a teenage antiwar protester who went on to ignite the computer industry, and Cap’n Crunch, who wrote the first word processing software for the IBM PC (EZ Writer) in prison, became a millionaire, and ended up homeless. Both immensely informative and entertaining, What the Dormouse Said promises to appeal to all readers of technology, especially the bestselling The Soul of a New Machine.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:33 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

An analysis of the political and cultural forces that gave rise to the personal computer chronicles its development through the people, politics, and social upheavals that defined its time, from a teenage anti-war protester who laid the groundwork for the PC revolution to the imprisoned creator of the first word processing software for the IBM PC.… (more)

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