2005-09-25: What the Dormouse Said

What the Dormouse Said

How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (2005)

by John Markoff (1949-)

The premise of this book appears to be that the personalities of the people who moved computing from the glass-enclosed priesthood into the living room were shaped from the major currents of the so-called “counterculture” of the 1960s. Among these, Markoff emphasizes drugs (especially LSD), anti-war feelings (including avoiding the draft by working in defense industries), and general anti-establishment feeling.

The book is weak in building the case. Certainly some of the key participants shared the attitudes that were widely held in place and time they lived, but Markoff doesn’t really make a case that these “shaped” the industry. It is just as plausible that the industry would have arisen from mainly technical considerations.

The part I found most interesting was chapter 5, Dealing Lightning. This describes the “Mother of all demos” by Douglas Engelbart in 1968, where he showed his Augment system. The nature and impact of the demo are well known, but Markoff has documented much of the behind-the-scenes activity that made the demo work. He names the key people and describes their roles. This chapter alone made the book worthwhile for me.


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