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How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

by John Markoff

Pub Date: April 21st, 2005
ISBN: 0-670-03382-0
Publisher: Viking

A lively prehistory of Silicon Valley and its brilliant denizens of yore.

What was it that the dormouse said? According to Grace Slick, something about feeding your head. Fittingly, New York Times technology writer Markoff observes, many key figures in the early computer industry were heads themselves. Apple’s Steve Jobs, for one, maintains “that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life,” and the first act of e-commerce was “the sale of an undetermined amount of marijuana” coordinated between students at Berkeley and MIT. Valley geeks understood from the outset that the computer was a potentially liberating piece of technology, expanding the mind as much as any psychedelic and embracing all known media to make a new one. Markoff draws on a lively cast of characters to recount this giddy history. There’s Douglas Engelbart, for instance, who first became entranced by the possibilities of computing during WWII while reading a magazine piece by Vannevar Bush, who imagined some future machine that would be a “sort of mechanized private file and library”; Engelbart did his bit for the revolution by coming up with, among other things, the first mouse in 1964. (In those days, a screen cursor was called a CAT, which, naturally enough, would chase a mouse.) There’s also Stewart Brand, the inventor of the Whole Earth Catalog and spiritual godfather of the West Coast counterculture, as well as John Draper, alias “Cap’n Crunch,” the legendary phone hacker who put Steve Jobs in business. And there are many others—among them Gordon Moore, though no counterculturalist himself—who helped put into the heads’ heads the conviction that there was nothing more exciting than the world of computing, where “in the early days there were no required skills, you just had to be smart.”

Technogeeks will know much of this history already, but Markoff does a fine job of distilling it here while pointing out how much bleaker the world might be if the pioneers had just said no.