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From Pranksters to PCs

An excerpt from John Markoff's 'What the Dormouse Said' explains how the '60s counterculture shaped the computer industry

FOR A PERFECT rip-roaring chronicle of how antiauthoritarianism was the necessity of invention in this particular case, technology writer John Markoff brings us What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. He connects all the dots and explains how the political climate of the '60s, the utopian counterculture mind-set, the experimentation with psychedelic drugs, military-funded research and battles over the future of artificial intelligence dovetailed in the Bay Area, playing a significant logical role in how the PC industry eventually came about.

Everyone knows the story of how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer in 1976. Or the tale of how Jobs visited Xerox PARC in 1979 and took with him the idea of the graphic user interface. But Markoff's book weaves together several significant threads during the two decades before that. Old-timers throughout Silicon Valley and the Bay Area still talk about Douglas Engelbart's networked presentation in 1968, which you'll read about in the following excerpt. It predated the entire rise of the PC revolution. The 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. Again, this is 1968 we're talking about.

Engelbart envisioned taking the computer out of the hands of the gray-suit corporations and into the hands of the everyday person. He was one of the first to suggest that computers should "augment" human intelligence and that connecting them to networks was part of that idea. At that time, computers were room-size behemoths that researchers toiled away at trying to invent something to replace human intelligence. Engelbart's work turned the computing world upside down by suggesting that computers should be a part of everyone's office and help the everyday person do his work. They should be more than just gigantic number-crunchers. His Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at Stanford Research Institute functioned as a visionary think tank devoted to enhancing the human mind via computers.

Engelbart's presentation on that day started a revolution, but one that Engelbart himself eventually got left out of. Now Markoff is telling the story of how Engelbart's Augment project, including his oNLine System (NLS) back in the '60s, helped start it all. In fact, parts of the book almost read as if Engelbert himself is writing through Markoff. If Engelbart weren't still alive, I'd say Markoff was channeling him via this book. How's that for '60s counterculture?

Stewart Brand, who launched the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, was on the Menlo Park end of Engelbart's networked presentation. Brand would later go on to start The Well, a legendary online bulletin board, and now heads the Long Now Foundation. In the following excerpt, Markoff also documents Brand's connection to Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, the later-day acid tests that launched the Grateful Dead, and his general ideology: "the power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested"—precisely the vision Engelbart had for liberating the computer from the gray-suit institutions. Markoff 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. In this excerpt, you get an inside glimpse of that original presentation in 1968.

And it only makes sense that Markoff will speak at the Palo Alto Research Center on Wednesday, June 8, one of the places where it all started. See www.sdforum.org for details.



From 'What the Dormouse Said' by John Markoff

DOUG Engelbart sat under a twenty-two-foot-high video screen, "dealing lighting with both hands." At least that's the way it seemed to Chuck Thacker, a young Xerox PARC computer designer who was later shown a video of the demonstration that changed the course of the computer world.

On December 9, 1968, the oNLine System was shown publicly to the world for the first time. Encouraged by [Bob] Taylor, Engelbart had chosen the annual Fall Joint Computer Conference, the computer industry's premier gathering, for Augment's debut. In the darkened Brooks Hall auditorium in San Francisco, all the seats were filled and people lined the walls. On the giant video screen at his back, Engelbart demonstrated a system that seemed like science fiction to a data-processing world reared on punched cards and typewriter terminals. In one stunning ninety-minute session, he showed how it was possible to edit text on a display screen to make hypertext links from one electronic document to another, and to mix text and graphics, and even video and graphics. He also sketched out a vision of an experimental computer network to be called ARPAnet and suggested that within a year he would be able to give the same demonstration remotely to locations across the country. In short, every significant aspect of today's computing world was revealed in a magnificent hour and a half.

There were two things that particularly dazzled the audience on that rainy Monday morning in December 1968: First, computing had made the leap from number crunching to become a communications and information-retrieval tool. Second, the machine was being used interactively with all its resources appearing to be devoted to a single individual! It was the first time that truly personal computing had been seen.

Engelbart spoke softly in a monotone, his voice given a slightly eerie quality by the reverberations of the cavernous hall. Wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and a tie and seated at a desk on a custom-designed Herman Miller chair, he introduced the world to cyberspace. He showed the nation's best computer scientists and hardware engineers how people would in the future work together and share complex digital information instantaneously, even though they might be a world apart.

For many who witnessed it, it was more than a bolt from the blue: It was a religious experience, inspiring the same kinds of passion that Vannevar Bush's Memex article had given rise to for Engelbart twenty-three years earlier. Computing was just beginning to have an impact on society. Local newspaper articles that preceded the conference noted that there would be discussions of the privacy implications of the use of computers, and a public forum, "Information, Computers and the Political Process," would feature broadcaster Edward P. Morgan and Santa Clara County's member of the House of Representatives, Paul McCloskey Jr.

But Engelbart stole the show. In the days afterward, the published accounts of the event described nothing else. Years later, his talk remained "the mother of all demos,' in the words of Andries van Dam, a Brown University computer scientist. In many ways, it is still the most remarkable computer-technology demonstration of all time.

"Fantastic World of Tomorrows Computer" was the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, which noted that Engelbart had said that his group was consciously steering clear of any artificial "brain" of thinking computer. The more subtle distinction between the opposing goals of augmentation and automation was lost on the writer, but it was at the very heart of the demonstrations. Engelbart's system kept the "man in the loop," which was antithetical to the goals of many computer scientists of the era. Englebart was a heretic, and it was from his heresy that personal computing grew.

With a microphone headset strapped on, he had begun by telling his audience, "I hope you'll go along with this rather unusual setting. ...The research program I'm going to describe to you is quickly characterizeable by saying, if in your office you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you have, how much value could you derive from that?" The new technology would make for an interesting demonstration, Engelbart said, and the added under his breath a barely audible, "I hope."

It was as simple as that. The relationship between man and computer had been turned upside down. From a distance of more than three decades, it is hard to appreciate the power of that simple assertion. However, it was the key to the consequences of personal computing: organizations would be democratized, industries transformed, and a new wave of individual creativity would sweep across the world.

The demonstration had a far greater impact than any of the participants could imagine. It was an instant success, but then the legend grew over time as the world came to realize what Engelbart and his research team had wrought.

One reason the presentation worked as well as it did was because at the other end of the hall, standing on a raised platform, was Bill English, Engelbart's lead engineer. It was easy for Engelbart to wave his hands and conceptualize his computing vision, but someone had to build the demonstration from scratch. And that someone was English. An absolute pragmatist, he had an uncanny knack for making things work. English was the one who had tracked down the remarkable Eidaphor video projector for the demonstration. On loan from NASA, and with the blessing of Bob Taylor at ARPA, the Eidaphor was the only technology that could create the kind of effect that Engelbart had in mind. It was a six-foot-high cabinet that used a blindingly intense arc light, bouncing it off a concave mirror to make a bright, 875-line video projection. The fact that the device drew each frame by forming an image with an electron beam in a sheet of oil that was repeatedly wiped away by a windshield wiper made the feat only more remarkable.

Engelbart had hesitantly gone to Taylor with the idea in the summer, and the ARPA official had given his blessing to the extravaganza. Later, when the researcher told one of SRI's accountants that he had ARPA's blessing for the huge expense, he had been told that it was okay to go ahead, but if the venture failed, SRI planned to deny any knowledge of its approval.

From his platform behind the audience, English served as the link between Engelbart onstage and the laboratory researchers who were connected from Menlo Park to the auditorium by two video microwave links and two modem lines. English served as the director, talking by telephone to Menlo Park and by a communication link to a speaker in Engelbart's ear, cuing each part of the demonstration and controlling the camera views. The researchers had placed a truck at a strategic point on Skyline Boulevard, high above the Peninsula, to relay the microwave links to the city, and they had built two homebrew high-speed modems—1200 baud was high speed in 1968, and each modem carried data in only a single direction—to connect Engelbart's keyboard, mouse and key set to the SDS-940 in Menlo Park.

It required a complicated choreography to mix the images from the display screen, a camera that was pointed at Engelbart's keyboards, and a second camera in Menlo Park to show demonstrations by members of the laboratory research team. At times it seemed to the audience that Engelbart wasn't quite there, that he was listening to some distant voice. And, in fact, he was. He could hear English talking to all of the participants up and down the Peninsula, which made for constantly distracting background chatter. Engelbart referred to the on-screen cursor as a "bug" or a "tracking spot," and there were occasionally odd buzzing sounds in the background as he executed commands at the keyboard. The group had been experimenting with using the computer to generate different tones depending upon what was being executed, as a way of creating auditory feedback.

After introducing the project and the system, Engelbart invited Jeff Rulifson on-screen from Menlo Park. Instantly, there he was on the giant display above Engelbart's head, a serious young man with dark hair, a jacket and tie, and horn-rimmed glasses, holding forth on the internal structure of the Augment NLS. Next came Bill Paxton, another young Augment programmer, whose video image was shrunken into a window in the corner of the display while he discussed using the NLS for information retrieval with Engelbart.

On the surface, it was a dry technical description of a computer-engineering feat. But it was also interactive multimedia entertaining on a scale the world hadn't seen. The computing world was beginning to blend with the counterculture.

 

Operating the camera in Menlo Park for Engelbart's landmark presentation was Stewart Brand, who by then was a twenty-nine-year-old multimedia producer and a friend of English. He had been invited as a consultant at the last minute to help polish the presentation and help make it an "event." The unstated connection, of course, was Brand's background in helping orchestrate Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. English and Brand had met through Dick Raymond, who along with a quirky independent computer educator named Bob Albrecht and several other had founded the Portola Institute, an alternative educational forum that served as the launching pad for the Whole Earth Catalog, the People's Computer Company, and a variety of other experiments.

Raymond had been a consultant in the field of recreational economics at SRI, and Brand had been a longtime friend of the Raymond family, dating back to his days as a Stanford Student. After Raymond had left SRI, he had set up his own small consulting firm with a contract with the Warm Springs Indian reservation in Oregon. The tribe was reconceiving its relation to tourists. Raymond thought they needed a photographer, and he prevailed on Brand to take pictures. Visiting the reservation had a profound effect on the would-be photojournalist, who stumble upon a part of America that was remarkably alien to his comfortable middle-class Midwestern roots. That visit had come shortly after his LSD experience at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in 1962, and as a result of his time spent on the reservation Brand had developed a deep interest in Native American cultures. Starting in 1964, he had begun performing his own multimedia presentation called "America Needs Indians."

Brand was also close to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and in 1966 he had helped organize the last of the Acid Tests, which served to launch the Grateful Dead. On the Friday evening of that weekend, Brand's Native American multimedia production had opened the Trips Festival.

Combining his Midwestern roots with a Merry Prankster sense of cosmic adventure, Brand would create in 1968 an irresistible format in the first Whole Earth Catalog. A compendium of stuff patterned after the Sears and L.L. Bean mail-order catalogs crossed with Consumer Reports, the catalog struck a deep nerve that transcended the counterculture. Brand had come upon the idea of a "Whole Earth" two years earlier, after hearing a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. One day in North Beach, he had been sitting huddled in a blanket on the roof of his three-story apartment building looking out over the city. Having taken "a few mikes of LSD," Brand was suddenly struck by the fact that the city's buildings were not laid out in perfect parallel lines. It seemed to him that, since the surface of the earth was curved, they actually must diverge just slightly. And then it occurred to him that despite the fact that satellites had been circling the earth for almost a decade, he had never seen a photograph showing the entire earth's surface. He realized that an image of the whole earth might inspire others to have a more complete sense of man's place within the planet's ecology and all of the implications that flowed from such a view of the world. That concept ultimately became a touchstone for the environmental movement that was to spring from Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970.

Brand ultimately began calling upon NASA to deliver a photograph of the entire surface of the planet. He created a button that read, "Why Haven't We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?" and immediately hitchhiked to the East Coast selling copies along the way.

In 1966, caught up with Native American culture, Fuller's ideas, and the beginnings of an American back-to-the-land movement, Brand also came up with the notion of a mobile "truck store," which he drove around northern California with the intent of distributing goods and information to a new wave of urban refugees who were ill equipped for their newly adopted life. The Whole Earth Truck Store came into existence in Menlo Park just a few doors away from Raymond and Albrecht's Portola Institute, where Brand was an informal fellow-in-residence.

In July of 1968, the Whole Earth Catalog began to take shape, initially as a six-page mimeographed list of books on topics such as tantric art, cybernetics, Indian teepees, and recreational equipment as well as product sample. Brand, who was tall and gangly and who came equipped with an omnipresent and ambitious Swiss Army knife clipped to his belt, drove around the commune circuit, selling goods and accepting orders.

Later that year in Menlo Park, with a small staff and the help of his wife, Lois Jennings, he put together the first expanded version of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was published in January 1969. It was a pioneering effort in desktop publishing. An IBM Selectric allowed different fonts with its easily replaceable "golfball" print head, while a Polaroid MP-3 camera made it possible to copy graphics directly from books and created halftones that could be pasted onto layout sheets. The first edition sold one thousand copies, and ultimately more than 1.5 million copies of various editions were sold. In 1972, Brand would win a National Book Award for his efforts.

The catalog, which became a project of the Portola Institute, had originally been intended as a resource for a way of life less dependent on the power and influence of modern industrial society. Although it resembled mainstream catalogs in many respects, it differed in a manner that struck right at a dualism that Brand himself would coin years later: that strange quality about information that was both easy and freely sharable and immensely valuable. "Information wants to be free," he said, and then he added in typical Brandian fashion, "and it wants to be very expensive."

The first Whole Earth Catalog was a full-on tour of the counterculture, a hodgepodge of product description, advice, commentary, and quirky features laid out on a seemingly haphazard fashion, beginning with Buckminster Fuller and ending with the I Ching; it became an instant bible and a serendipitous tool for finding interesting stuff. In doing so, it also helped a scattered community that was in the process of defining itself find an identity.

"We are as gods and we might as well get used to it." Brand's introduction began with a phrase borrowed from British anthropologist Edmund Leach that is often remembered and quoted. It was certainly striking, a bit for its arrogance and naiveté, but it also perfectly captured the sense of power and innocence of the movement that planned to atone for its parents' sins and remake the world in a new image. It was the second half of the short introduction that neatly captures the various threads that would soon come together to liberate the computer from large, impersonal institutions: "a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG."

In the first catalog, there wasn't much computing power to tap into. The HP 9100A calculator, referred to as a computer on the title page, was given a glowing review; Norbert Weiner's Cybernetics and the September 1966 Scientific American issue on information were also reviewed. The scarcity of material in the particular area didn't matter; the principle of valued tools controlled by the individual was established firmly.

On the verge of publishing the first Catalog the following month, Brand saw himself not so much as an entrepreneur but as an artist who was exploring new media, and he was immediately struck by the possibilities of computers that were moving beyond being calculators. He traveled easily between the communes in the backwoods and the computer laboratories. On the day he arrived at SRI, he walked into Dave Evans's office, found a large poster of rock singer Janis Joplin on the wall, and knew he was right at home.

Brand also knew that SRI was deeply involved in planning and weapons designing for the war in Vietnam, and he was aware of the antiwar demonstrations that were increasingly beginning to focus on the SRI-Stanford University connection. As a former infantryman, however, he found he had little patience for the antiwar activists. In 1965, he joined Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters at a Vietnam Day Community rally in Berkeley where Kesey had been invited to speak. Kesey climbed onstage dressed in a Day-Glo orange wig and played the harmonica—hardly the passionate opposition to the war the event's organizers had expected. That was fine with Brand, who considered himself to be on the "psychedelic side" in the political dispute over Vietnam.

On one level, Brand had a very conservative political attitude that could be traced back at least as far as his time at Stanford and perhaps even further, to his prep school days in the east. When he was a college student in the fifties, he wrote in his journal, "Just what has the United States got against Communism anyway? It's an important question." He decided that it threatened his way of life—directly, in a military sense—and his freedom, as well, even his capacity to think for himself. For those reasons, he decided, "I will fight communism in every way I can."

But Brand was no ordinary ideologue. He had a Zelig-like penchant for being intimately involved in a series of key social and technological movements beginning in the 1960s. He always seemed to be surfing on the edge of the most up-to-the-moment events that were transforming California's wide-open culture.

Brand had been brought into SRI because the Augment researchers knew that they were embarked on a project that transcended both engineering and science. They understood that Engelbart's demonstration should involve both media and even entertainment. Brand, for his part, was barely able to grasp what he was seeing. The notion that Doug Engelbart was bombing around—piloting with mouse and cord-key set—in this new kind of information space that didn't even have a name yet was a totally disarming concept.

If he didn't get the computing part, he did have some advice to give that was subtle and yet ultimately had an impact on the demonstration. Brand had an odd perspective: You ought to be able to hear a person think, he decided. He pushed the designers to improve the quality of the sound, as he wanted to be able to hear more than low-quality telephone audio. In the final demonstration, the audience heard from both Engelbart's headset and, from Menlo Park, simple noises like keyboards and the responsive sound of a computer, which added to the impact of what was shown that day.


Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff. Copyright © 2005 by John Markoff.


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From the June 1-7, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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