What the Dormouse Said

My new computer arrived last week. A sleek, silver new Apple PowerBook to replace an aging iBook that was beginning to creak. As I took the new machine out of its box I felt I understood a little better what went into it because I’ve just read an excellent book. What The Dormouse Said

is John Markoff’s history of the personal computer, charting the path taken by the lab pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s through to the homebrew computer club and then on to the names that we all know today like Apple and Microsoft.

It’s a fascinating tale, compellingly told, focusing on the context for the development of the technology, rather than the technology itself. Markoff takes us through the characters, the protest politics, the sex and drugs and the desire to do things in new ways. The book’s subtitle is ‘how the 60s counterculture shaped the personal computer industry’ and Markoff makes a very convincing case that it has.

There were two themes in the book that I thought were particularly interesting. The first is the tension best summed up in Stewart Brand’s famous phrase “information wants to be free and information also wants to be very expensive”. On the one hand you had Bill Gates who believed (and still believes) that the best way to produce software is to reward the people who create it. On the other you had a culture of sharing and collaborating. The original ‘open letter to hobbyists’ Gates sent to members of the Homebrew Club who had stolen the code for BASIC on paper tape is included in the book but could easily have been written by the Microsoft Press Office last week. It’s a perennial clash of civilisations.

Sure Gates became the world’s richest man but over time MS is losing its monopoly as the ‘other way’ develops new ways of collaborating. What the Markoff book does for me is show the deep heritage of openness and collaboration in the networked age and how it is built into both the technology and the ways we use the technology. It’s not just a question of licensing. So I’m optimistic.

But there is a second thing that is really striking about the philosophy of the pioneers. Within moments of getting my PowerBook out of the box, I had it connected to vast amounts of information, knowledge and experience. I realised very quickly that I am an ‘augmented’ human. I can do things that people couldn’t before the PC pioneers like Doug Engelbart who set about to improve human intelligence and creativity through technology. Cheesy as the adverts are I can rip, mix, burn. I can create.

I’m editing a book about human enhancement at the moment (due out next year) and one thing that interests me is the collective implications of individual enhancement. Kevin Kelly has called the human/technological collective The Machine in a recent Wired article. That has connotations of disempowerment (Kevin’s book Out Of Control partially inspired The Matrix) that I don’t like and that don’t fit my experience but the dynamics of what he’s talking about I think are very interesting.

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