Commentary--The '60s represent many things to many people, but did that same era of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll also inspire the revolution in personal computing?
That remains an unconventional reading of contemporary history. You could just as easily argue that heavy investment in military research was the moving force. Same goes for pro-market tax policies. But a generation of pot smokers and draft dodgers?
Needless to say, it has the makings of a feisty barroom debate. Still, don't dismiss the argument out of hand. In fact, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand made a convincing try a decade ago.
In an essay he wrote for Time magazine in 1995, Brand maintained that the communal and libertarian outlook espoused during the hippie era spawned the seeds that later bore fruit in the form of the modern cyberrevolution. "At the time, it all seemed dangerously anarchic (and still does to many), but the counterculture's scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal-computer revolution."
He wasn't talking about Vint Cerf doing bong loads. You can easily get lost in the caricatures of the counterculture's sometimes perverse opposition to authority and entirely miss the point. In fact, that very willingness to challenge convention led to leaps of imagination that got repackaged into a furious assault on mainframe centralization.
Power to the people = popular access to computers? Actually, it's not such a stretch. But how did the pieces fall into place? Explaining that is the hard task, and it's one ably taken up by John Markoff in "What the Dormouse Said: How the '60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry." Markoff, a Silicon Valley correspondent for The New York Times, has produced a fascinating read, uncovering the many threads that connected the counterculture with the pioneering computer research later carried out just south of San Francisco.
Why history works out the way it does always makes for a good story, especially when the outcome is unexpected. By rights, the East Coast should have bested the West Coast in the computer competition. The East Coast computing axis, which ran from just north of New York City, where IBM housed its headquarters, up to Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was rich in talent, money and pedigree. But as Markoff recounts, most of the groundbreaking research was getting done in California.
"The East Coast computing culture didn't get it. The old computing world was hierarchical and conservative."
He's got that right. In a certain sense, the East Coast establishment was a victim of its own success. Unfortunately, it was also blind to the future because it had such an entrenched interest in the preservation of the status quo. Ken Olson, the founder of Digital Equipment Corp. and a leading figure of the East Coast computer establishment, once famously quipped in public that there was no need for a home PC. But the outside world was changing, and DEC would later pay the price for its management's myopia.
Meanwhile, Northern California had attracted the talents of brilliant thinkers such as Doug Engelbart, Fred Moore, Alan Kay and Ted Nelson--not to mention the sundry hobbyists who belonged to the now legendary Homebrew Computer Club.
The contrast between the West Coast and the Old Guard back East was stark--in some cases a parody of the difference between the two coasts. IBM was famous for sending its employees out into the business world with pressed suits and white shirts as mandatory battle fatigues. What would they have thought had they known their future nemeses were dropping serious amounts of acid?
LSD was hardly verboten. Just the opposite. Long before Ken Kesey's electric Kool-Aid acid tests, Engelbart belonged to a small band of computer researchers who tried LSD to test whether they could enhance their creative powers with psychedelic drugs. It's unclear whether this paved the way for later technology breakthroughs. (Engelbart was sufficiently inspired by one of his LSD trips to think up a training toy to teach little boys to urinate properly.)
Like the founding generation that led the United States to independence, this was a special cadre of thinkers and doers. Was their zeal fired by the '60s counterculture? Or was it due to sheer dumb luck that a collection of special talents came together at exactly the same time in exactly the same place? It's an argument that will go on for quite a long time.
Charles Cooper is the executive editor of commentary at CNET News.com.