Sunday, March 19, 2006

This is your computer on LSD

By ANDREW LEONARD The New York Times

Book Review of WHAT THE DORMOUSE SAID: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry By John Markoff

Engineers can be so cute. In the early 1960's, Myron
Stolaroff, an employee of the tape recorder
manufacturer Ampex, decided to prove the value of
consuming LSD. So he set up the International
Foundation for Advanced Study and went about his
project in classic methodical fashion.

Test subjects - almost all engineers - were given a
series of doses under constant observation and
expected to take careful notes on their own
experience. A survey of the first 153 volunteers
revealed that "83 percent of those who had taken LSD
found that they had lasting benefits from the
experience." (Other results: increase in ability to
love, 78 percent; increased self-esteem, 71 percent.)
Such precision might seem antithetical to the fuzzy
let-it-all-hang-outness of the psychedelic experience.
But John Markoff, a senior writer for The New York
who covers technology, makes a convincing case
that for the swarming ubergeeks assembling in the San
Francisco Bay Area in the 1960's, approaching drugs as
they might any other potentially helpful tool or
device - from a soldering iron to a computer chip -
was only natural. The goals were broad in the 60's:
the world would be remade, the natural order of things
reconfigured, human potential amplified to infinity.
Anything that could help was to be cherished, studied
and improved.

It is no accident, then, that the same patch of land
on the peninsula south of San Francisco that gave
birth to the Grateful Dead was also the site of
groundbreaking research leading the way to the
personal computer. That the two cultural impulses were
linked - positively - is a provocative thesis.

Revisionist histories of the 60's often make an
attempt to separate the "excess" of the era from the
politics. In this view, all those acid-gobbling,
pot-smoking, tie-dyed renegades were a distraction
from the real work of stopping the Vietnam War and
achieving social justice. But Mr. Markoff makes a
surprisingly sympathetic case that it was all of a
piece: the drugs, the antiauthoritarianism, the
messianic belief that computing power should be spread
throughout the land.

"It is not a coincidence," he writes, "that, during
the 60's and early 70's, at the height of the protest
against the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement
and widespread experimentation with psychedelic drugs,
personal computing emerged from a handful of
government- and corporate-funded laboratories, as well
as from the work of a small group of hobbyists who
were desperate to get their hands on computers they
could personally control and decide to what uses they
should be put."

Judging by the record presented in "What the Dormouse
Said," it is indisputable that many of the engineers
and programmers who contributed to the birth of
personal computing were fans of LSD, draft resisters,
commune sympathizers and, to put it bluntly,
long-haired hippie freaks.

This makes entertaining reading. Many accounts of the
birth of personal computing have been written, but
this is the first close look at the drug habits of the
earliest pioneers. "What the Dormouse Said" may not
reach the level of the classics of computing history,
Tracy Kidder's "Soul of a New Machine" and Steven
Levy's "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution."
But there is still plenty of fun between its covers.

A central character - and one of the early volunteers
at Stolaroff's foundation - is Douglas Engelbart, a
man worthy of his own book. His team at the Augmented
Human Intellect Research Center at the Stanford
Research Institute was the first to demonstrate the
potential of the computing future. The research
demonstration that he conducted for a packed
auditorium in San Francisco in 1968 is still talked
about in Silicon Valley with the reverence of those
who might have witnessed Jehovah handing Moses the Ten
Commandments. The mouse, man! Engelbart gave us the
mouse! But Mr. Engelbart's story is not a happy one.
He saw further ahead than most, but had a difficult
time articulating his vision. He became heavily
involved with Werner Erhard's human potential
movement, EST, and his laboratory ultimately ended up
losing both its way and its government financing. Many
of his researchers went on to the Xerox Palo Alto
Research Center, where the first personal computer,
the famous Alto, was invented, while he lapsed into
semi-obscurity. As a metaphor for the 60's, which
exploded with promise and ended in disarray, he's just
about perfect.

Looking back at the 60's from the jaundiced
perspective of the early 21st century, it's easy to
wonder what was really accomplished, outside of the
enduring split of the nation into two irreconcilable
ideological camps. Sure, there was the civil rights
campaign, women's liberation, environmentalism and a
movement that eventually brought a war to heel, but
the era is as likely to be ridiculed in modern memory
as to be revered. But what happens if we add the birth
of personal computing to the counterculture's list of
achievements? Does that change the equation?

The answer depends on how one rates the personal
computer as consciousness-enhancing device. Remember,
after all, what the dormouse did say, in the
stentorian full-throttle voice of Jefferson Airplane's
Grace Slick: "Feed your head!"

By choosing that as his title, Mr. Markoff makes clear
his belief that computers, like psychedelic drugs, are
tools for mind expansion, for revelation and personal
discovery. And to anyone who has experienced a
drug-induced epiphany, there may indeed be a cosmic
hyperlink there: fire up your laptop, connect
wirelessly to the Internet, search for your dreams
with Google: the power and the glory of the computing
universe that exists now was a sci-fi fantasy not very
long ago, and yes, it does pulsate with a
destabilizing, revelatory psychic power. Cool!

But wasn't the goal of those 60's experimenters to
make the world a better place? One has to wonder - and
this is a question Mr. Markoff doesn't really address
- whether the personal computer achieved that goal. Or
has it only allowed all of us, heroes and villains
alike, to be more productive as the world stays
exactly the same?


At 6:12 AM, Blogger Jeffrey Barlow said...

Hi Erick, I also reviewed this work in Interface. See my much more staid review at

Jeffrey Barlow


Post a Comment

<< Home