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Through The Looking Screen

John Markoff's new book examines the hippie-drugs-pixels connection behind the invention of the computer


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PRETTY MUCH everyone knows that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer in 1976 and that Jobs went to Xerox PARC in 1979 and then expanded on their ideas for a graphical user interface. Technology writer John Markoff now gives us What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, a chronicle of everything that happened before that.

Markoff connects all the dots and explains how the political climate of the '60s, the utopian counterculture mind-set, the experimentation with psychedelic drugs and battles over the future of artificial intelligence—all on the peninsula—played a significant and logical role in how the PC industry eventually came about.

Markoff has unearthed some incredible stories, especially from Douglas Englebart, who invented the mouse back in the '60s. Englebart's vision of computers "augmenting human intellect," was a decade ahead of its time, and he was one of the first folks to suggest that computers could be used for more than just number-crunching. His 1968 networked presentation about his work at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco was nothing less than a precursor to the entire personal computer industry a decade later. He demonstrated that one could edit text on a screen, make hypertext links and mix graphics with text.

Because of Englebart's work, the computer was now out of the hands of the gray-suit corporations and into the hands of the everyday person. At that time, computers were huge behemoths that researchers toiled away at trying to invent something to replace human intelligence. Englebart's work turned the computing world upside down and suggested that they should be a part of everyone's office and help the everyday person do his work. That presentation started a revolution, although Englebart himself eventually got left out of that revolution.

Markoff concentrates heavily on Englebart—rightly so—and parts of the book almost read as though Englebart himself is writing the passages through Markoff. If Englebart weren't still alive, I'd say Markoff was channeling him. How's that for '60s counterculture?

And then there's LSD. Markoff eloquently recounts the tale of Myron Stolaroff, who designed tape recorders at AMPEX in the early '50s. Stolaroff attended lectures by Harry Rathbun, who took him to mountain retreats. There he met a friend of one Al Hubbard, a pal of Aldous Huxley who was introducing Silicon Valley engineers to LSD. This was in the mid-'50s, long before the rise of Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary. Markoff's book is filled with obscure stories like this, and you'll feel enlightened after digesting it all. He makes clear connections on how the revolutionary culture of the times, along with drugs and the oddball NorCal mind-set, directly led to technological innovations that shaped today's Silicon Valley.

To sum it up, in the '60s, several visionary circles of people coalesced—sometimes at Stanford think tanks, sometimes at Kepler's Books and sometimes at hallucinatory retreats in the Santa Cruz Mountains—and realized that the computer would become a mind-enhancing tool that enriches human potential the same way a psychedelic drug does. Their stories are now told.

What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff; Viking; 336 pages; $25.95 cloth. Markoff appears at a book event May 4 at Kepler's, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. (650.324.4321)

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From the April 27-May 3, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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