PC Culture – W. Isaacson

On December 20, 2013 I received an email from Bob Frankston, Dan Bricklin and David Reed discussing Walter Isaacson’s forthcoming book on PC culture and its origins. Isaacson is blogging early chapters of his book and asked my correspondents’ opinions of the first blog. The blog page in question is here.

Dan Bricklin’s response is here.

Below are my thoughts:

David, Bob, Dan,

I wonder when Isaacson will get around to talking with me about his book – maybe this is the way he planned to do the interviews. Markoff talked with me in person, shooting the first interview on video when he thought he was going to do a documentary but a year or more later doing just a print interview – he told me that he was in search of the cultural roots of the personal computer. When the book was published Markoff told me that he never found the direct connection, but in the book it became clear that Stewart Brand came closest to being the “missing link”. I agreed with this after reading the book and now say that Brand did the marketing work for the conceptual personal computer through the Whole Earth Catalogue.

Isaacson is emphasizing the psychedelic aspect, playing fast an loose with causality by failing to situate Leary’s change of slogan in the 1980’s – making it sound as if he did so in 1968 or so. I hope he gets it a bit straightened out in subsequent chapters. Still, I’m afraid he’s trying to find some “direct link” and doesn’t realize that Brand was more like someone who pulled together various corners of different subcultures into an intersection where things became possible which weren’t going to happen otherwise. Starting out exploring the technological needs of the “reversionary” counterculturists in rural intentional communities (through the Whole Earth Truck Store), Brand expanded his franchise to the technological aspects of the ongoing “revolt against institutions”. People could come to this from the political new left, the psychedelic culture, the urban and rural counterculture, as well as the bow-tied technological avant-garde (Fuller, Taylor, Lickllider et. al.) and their followers.

In the Homebrew Club meetings I occasionally attempted to draw people out into discussing their motivations, but generally found them unwilling to make any definitive statement. They all wanted there to be personal computers and an industry to support them, and they all wanted to throw of the constraints of institutions, be they government, IBM or their employers. The largest identifiable group outside of the electronics industry was, I found, physicians. No one was in pursuit of a specific application or even of business success (with the exception, obviously, of Steve Jobs, but he never opened his mouth in the meetings and I never talked with him). There seemed to be a strong undercurrent from libertarian science fiction in these discussions, reminding me of a short story from that genre in which the hero used a desk-sized computer to run rational rings around the constipated business power structure (he is murdered by Soviet agents at the end). People just wanted to get digital grit under their fingernails and play in the process.

Fred Moore, founder of Homebrew, was a radical pacifist activist who kept advocating that the club “get together and do something” (picket a military installation, perhaps?) and he failed to grasp how much action was taking place continuously in the space created by the club – he, of course, left the club some time after the first year, apparently in disappointment. My visions were pretty practical in nature, centered around development of sets of tools and a population of practitioners capable of supporting social media systems from below. I had been impressed by Buckminster Fuller’s comment in response to a question (in the ’70’s) about what the year 2000 would look like – Fuller replied that “we don’t need to wait that long – all the important decisions will be made by 1985”.  My takeaway was that digital information technology was urgently required in the control of individuals in order to forestall a calamitous collapse of industrial civilization (I’ve been called paranoid for this vision, but sticks and stones…). Other people had other takeaways.

The Homebrew Club had its psychedelic rangers (not many), its ham radio rule-followers, its white-shoe would-be industry potentates, its misfit second- and third-string techs and engineers, and its other offbeats – there was a prim and proper lady who sat up front who had been, I was later told, President Eisenhower’s personal pilot when she was a male. Even John Doerr had attended as an Intel engineer in the ’80’s, or so he told me in 1993 sat the book party for “Release 2.0”. It wasn’t a psychedelic party any more than it belonged to any one particular sector. Everyone came from somewhere but no one let their point of origin determine where they were going.

Maybe Isaacson could do a number of interviews with a cross-section of industry participants in which he asks for their analyses in retrospect of what brought them there and what their motivations were. It would be a dense, difficult process to make sense of the results if he wants to cut below the superficial. I’m not holding my breath.

Lee Felsenstein


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