by John Markoff (Viking, 310 pages, $25.95)
Silicon Valley wasn't always the heart of America's computer industry, as New England universities such as MIT had the jump in talent, and companies like IBM had the resources. So what happened? In his book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, journalist John Markoff maps a technological upheaval akin to Copernicus' shift to a heliocentric universe. The writer argues that Left Coast values-namely civil disobedience, mind expansion and casual drug use-promoted computer innovation.
It's a compelling premise, and Markoff draws upon his vast understanding of computer history, as well as extensive contacts, to craft a portrait of the luminaries of the personal computer revolution. There's activist Fred Moore, for whom computers were a metaphor for the interconnectedness of human society; Doug Engelbart, a research scientist fired by a drug-fueled notion that computers could augment our intelligence, not the other way around; and Cap'n Crunch, a world-famous hacker who wrote the first word-processing program for IBM in prison, made millions, but eventually wound up homeless.
The combination of earnest discipline and bold risk-taking created a ripe environment for industry growth. From 1962 to 1975, the time span covered in the book, computers leapfrogged from washroom-sized machines that could perform a few calculations a minute to in-home appliances, an extension of the human mind. Markoff occasionally takes for granted that our knowledge can grow this quickly, but when he slows down, What the Dormouse Said is a delightfully hip glimpse into these wild times. The writer shows how a dedicated generation of computer geeks tuned in, turned on and dropped out, all so that-30 years later-we could simply dial up.