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What The Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry
by John Markoff
Publisher:
Viking Adult 
Year:
2005 
ISBN:
0670033820 
Reviewed by Lorenzo, 8/8/2005

To fully appreciate What the Dormouse Said, it helps to think back to what the world was like in 1959, when this story begins. At that time, with a few rare exceptions, the entire computing profession was focused exclusively on mainframes; even the concept of time-sharing was considered a heresy. There was no student protest movement, not a single campus had yet seen a demonstration, and LSD had not yet found its way out of the hands of a small and elite group of researchers. To travel from a world without computers, without the Internet, and without psychedelics to where we are today (in under 300 pages) is no small feat, but John Markoff does an admirable job of it by focusing on three main themes: personal computing and networking, social consciousness leveraged by technology, and a spiritual component that fused new tech with new consciousness.

As the prime mover behind the development of small, personal computers, Markoff (rightly I believe) selects Doug Englebart, who was obviously far ahead of the pack in his thinking about the future of computers. And who better than Fred Moore to represent the marriage of social consciousness and high tech? Moore staged the very first anti-military college demonstration on an American college campus. It was Moore’s one-man hunger strike at Berkeley that inspired the leaders of what now is called the Free Speech Movement. Fred Moore was also a key figure in the Homebrew Computer Club.

The third person in this trinity of the 60s is Myron Stolaroff, who left a top spot at the hottest electronics company of the day to found what is now affectionately called “The Menlo Park Institute”. Within a few miles of where Englebart’s team was inventing personal computing and Fred Moore was moving this new tech into activist circles, the Menlo Park Institute was working with LSD and other powerful psychoactive substances in a variety of healing and creative settings. Interestingly, some of the participants in the Menlo Park work were the very same people who created the personal computer and the Internet, and who provided the inspiration and energy that ultimately led to many of today’s progressive movements.

Could the personal computer, the Internet, and a highly wired social consciousness have come about without the catalyst for consciousness that psychedelic medicines provide? That is a question you will have to answer for yourself, but Markoff’s wonderful book will certainly provide you with enough details for you to make your own well-informed decision about this little piece of history.

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