John Markoff

Computers and the 60s Counterculture

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John Markoff

Author of “What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computing Revolution.”

Well, the history of the personal computing revolution is by now well known, with such key players as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and the engineers at Xerox PARC now the stuff of legend.  But, some of the untold stories start two decades earlier and have their roots in the counterculture of the 60s.

Joining us today to discuss this history of the personal computing revolution in Mr. John Markoff, who is a senior writer for the New York Times, and whose writings encompass many computing and technology issues.  His work has been nominated several times for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.  He is currently an adjunct faculty member at Stanford University’s Journalism Department.  And, he is the author of several books on the computing industry, including The High Price of Tech, Cyberpunk, and Takedown.  His new book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computing Industry, chronicles the rise of the personal computer in silicon valley.

Charles Lee (CL) and John Markoff (JM) discuss computers and the 60s counterculture

CL: You’ve written a fascinating book on the personal computing revolution.  Can you give us a broad view of why the 60s and why the silicon valley were so important?

JM: There are basically two myths about where the PC came from, and I think you got both of them.  One is the two Steve’s, Wozniak and Jobs, in their garage.  And the other is a group of people who worked with Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto in the 70s.  And, my book is a pre-history.  And, I try to make the case that all of the technologies that showed up in the 70s were actually first invented at two laboratories funded by the Pentagon on adjacent sides of the Stanford campus during the 60s.

It’s sort of a revisionist history.  My argument is that the technology came out of those labs that were deeply entwined both with the counterculture and the anti-war movement.  And then things were synthesized at Xerox Palo Alto research center during the early 70s in the form of a personal computer called the Alto, which was really the first PC.  And then the technology kind of leaked out to the hobbyists.  In 1975, the Homebrew computer club started and out of that came about 25 companied.

So, the industry came from there.  The technology was synthesized at Xerox.  But, the real roots of the personal computing idea were in the 60s and they were in these two labs.  One was the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), and the other was Doug Engelbart’s Augmented Research Center on the other side of the campus at SRI.

CL: These two labs actually had somewhat different approaches to computer design.

JM: Yeah, you’re right.  SAIL was run by a man named John McCarthy who in the early 60s was a well-known computer scientist.  He set out to build an artificial intelligence in the classic sense of the term.  Back then in 1964, they thought they could do it in about a decade.  So, they wanted to replace the human mind on one side of the Stanford campus, and on the other side of the campus was Doug Engelbart.  He was though of as the more fringe guy.  He had the idea of a machine that would augment the human mind and make it more powerful.  Or, make a small group of knowledge workers more powerful.

Those were the two threads.  And the young researchers at both of those labs during the 60s were affected by a lot of the ideas that came out of the counterculture and the anti-war movement.  So, it’s an indirect argument.  I’m not saying if you take LSD you’ll be more creative.  But, people like Stewart Brand, who started the Whole Earth catalogue, had really different ideas about the use of tools.

In the 50s, computers were thought of as these oppressive Big Brother devices.  And, in the 60s, our ideas about who could use a computer really changed.  Computers became seen as a tool that people in a community could use.  And that was a big shift, and ideas like those came from people like Stewart Brand.

CL: How did this differ from the east coast establishment, where there were big figures like J.C.R. Licklidder?

JM: Some people make the case that there were individual computers on the east coast.  For example, some people argue that the TX0 at MIT was the first true personal computer, or a machine called the Link.  Or, something like Sketchpad by Ivan Sutherland, which was a drawing program, was a step towards the kind of tools.  So, what I think was different between the east and west coasts is since mainframe and mini-computing had been invented on the east coast, those guys were locked in their paradigm.  They didn’t understand that little computers would scale up to be powerful.  Or, they didn’t think about that.  So, they were kind of trapped.

On the other hand, there was a paradigm shift on the west coast.  And, they saw computing becoming a media.  In the sense that we use computers now to do everything from watching movies, to listening to music, to doing art.  That was the significant insight that happened first on the west coast.  They saw computing as this new universal medium.  And that was the root of the modern computing industry, as opposed to the east coast.

CL: You also mentioned all of the grass roots efforts, like those of the Homebrew Club.

JM: Yes.  Homebrew touched off the personal computing industry quite dramatically.  There were nearly two dozen companies that ultimately came out of Homebrew, including Apple and others.  But, the irony is that the person who started Hombrew was this draft resister and political activist named Fred Moore.  And he came to Berkeley in 1969, and in the fall had his own personal sit-in on the steps of Sproul Plaza.  He was protesting what was then mandatory ROTC.  He was the son of a military colonel in what is today known as DARPA.  And, his dad came out after a few days and took him out of school for a while.

That sit-in had a huge impact, because the people who later started the free-speech movement would look back on Fred Moore and say that he was the one who gave us the insight that an individual could make a difference.  Ultimately, they were successful, and ROTC was not mandatory after a couple of years.  So, Fred Moore went on to resist the draft and went to jail.  But, he had this seminal impact on the anti-war movement on the Berkeley campus.

In the early 70s, Moore was back in the Bay Area hanging out at Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth truck store in Menlo Park, which was the office for the Whole Earth catalogue.  He was working on this organizing project that he would put together different community groups all over the country.  And, he was doing it on 3×5 cards in a file box.  But, he was enough of a computer hobbyist to realize that he would be more efficient if he had his own computer.

So, by a round about way, he thought that the only way to get his own computer would be to build it.  He thought if he had a club of hobbyists then they could exchange things.  So, in 1975, he started the first Homebrew meeting.  It wasn’t a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, entrepreneur, or anything flashy like that.  It was just a guy who wanted to build his own computer and share things with people.  And, I really think that Fred Moore deserves to be the patron saint of the Open Source movement, which really traces its roots back to what he did.

CL: Besides Apple what other companies came out of Homebrew?

JM: Some Stanford students, Roger Mellon and others, started the S100 company.  Bob March started a memory add-in card for the S100 bus company, which was a hobbyist computer at that point.  Reece Olsenstein was an active Homebrew member who designed the Osborne portable computer.  At the time, they were called luggables, because they were about 40 pounds, nothing like today’s portables.  There was just an explosion of interest in commercialization.

But, Fred died in a car accident in 1997.  He had such a big impact on Berkeley in the 60s and the personal computing industry.  But, what was so striking was that there wasn’t even an obituary in any of the San Francisco or San Jose papers when he died.  He’s sort of a lost figure.  A man by the name of Mark Lee Morris has just completed a documentary on Fred’s life.

But, people have sort of forgotten that, since we have all of these myths about how Silicon Valley works, and it’s all about guys who want to get rich.  And, it wasn’t always guys who wanted to get rich.  It was guys who were passionate about sharing the technology.  And, I think that’s part of the equation still today in the open source movement.

CL: Another of the interesting stories you talk about is Captain Crunch.

JM: Ah yes, there’s a Berkeley connection there too.  So, John Draper first played a role in the American sub-culture world when he was profiled in a 1972 Esquire magazine article called, “The Mysteries of the Blue Box,” written by Ron Rosenbaum.  He was referred to as Captain Crunch.  They didn’t name him.  But, Steve Wozniak’s mom got a copy of the article and sent him a copy while he was an undergraduate at Berkeley.  So, he and his high school friend, Steve Jobs, got fascinated and said we have to find this guy.  They spent about a week looking for him.  Then out of nowhere, Crunch showed up in their dormitory at Berkeley, walked in the room, and said, “I am he.”  And, he taught them how to make blue boxes, which were devices for getting free telephone calls.  This is a legend that’s already been told.  But, the way that the two Steves originally capitalized Apple computer was by selling blue boxes in the Berkeley dormitories before they got their venture capital.

Captain Crunch is one of the more interesting characters.  He went on to write the first word processor for the IBM PC called EZ Writer and briefly became very wealthy.  He was employed at Autodesk for a while.  At other points he has been homeless and had a rough time of it.  He’s an unusual person by any stretch of the imagination.  The last I heard he was working on Linux security.

CL: Well, I guess that’s in keeping with the whole ethos of the 60s.

JM: Yeah, he was one of the edgier characters.

CL: So, do you think the personal computing revolution would have happened without the 60s counterculture?

JM: I think it would have happened in a different way.  If you look at the way computers like the Apple computer were marketed originally, they were really seen as gorilla devices that would allow people to free themselves from the corporate bounds.  It would allow people to do independent things.  That kind of worldview was very tightly tied to what had happened in the 60s.  So yes, I think there would have been small computers.  But would they have had the kind of liberating appeal to creativity?  I’m not sure it would have.

CL: Do you think that kind of ethic still exists in the computing industry today?

JM: I do.  I think there is a direct line with the stuff that happened with the PC hobbyist movement, which was based on sharing, and the early MIT hackers who believed that information should be shared.  And, today’s modern open source movement is becoming more powerful and moving out into all digital media.  The urge for users to create and share content is everywhere on the internet.  It’s not about napster stealing files.  It’s about sharing content that you create, and that’s directly linked to the happenings in the early 60s and 70s.

CL: Well, it’s certainly something for which we all have to be grateful.

JM: Yes, definitely.

CL: Mr. Markoff, thank you for a fascinating discussion.

JM: Thanks very much.

Grokotron 5000:  Mainframe or PC?

CL: Thank you, Mr. Markoff, for sticking around to play our game the Grokotron5000.  The Grokotron 5000 is our supercomputer formerly known as Deep Blue, and today the Grokotron 5000 would like to know for the following five people are they more like a mainframe or PC?  So, are you ready to play our game the Grokotron 5000?

JM: Let’s go.

CL: Okay, number 1, the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Mainframe or PC?

JM: Oh, definitely a mainframe.  Arnold played a whole range of predator and terminator style roles that are all about the oppressive use of technology as far as I can see.  This is not a liberating individualist guy.  This is a guy who now runs the system,  definitely a mainframe.

CL: Okay.  Number 2, American Idol judge, Paula Abdul.

JM: Oh, man.  I put her more in the PC category.  But, so why?  Why is Paula Abdul PC?  I guess it’s culture and creativity.  Wasn’t she a big rock star in the 80s?  Doesn’t this date me?

CL: Okay.  Here’s one.  Microsoft head honco, Bill Gates.

JM: Gates then and Gates now.  Can I have two answers?

CL: Sure.

JM: Gates was synonymous with the creation of the PC.  He was one of the first people to get it.  He was the guy who wrote Microsoft BASIC that was used by the first PCs.  But now, if you read Slashdot, Microsoft has become the Borg.  The irony is Microsoft has become IBM.  People used to say that you can’t get fired for buying IBM, now they say you can’t get fired for buying Microsoft.  So, he is PC to mainframe.

CL: Okay, Deep Throat himself, F. Mark Felt.

JM: Oh, PC.  This is about the people taking charge of the system from the bottom up.  And, Felt was very instrumental in that happening in the 70s.  So, he’s PC.

CL: A hero in your book.

JM: Actually, he’s gone the opposite direction of Gates.  Felt went mainframe, because of the FBI, to PC.

CL: And finally, the President of the United States, George Bush.

JM: Oh man.  Well, mainframe, mostly because of that incident that happened during the last debate where he was caught with the wire.  Anybody, who’s going to let himself be controlled by some anonymous behind the scenes guy has got to be mainframe.  I hope that I haven’t given away my politics.

CL: Mr. Markoff, I do want to thank you for sticking around to play our game the Grokotron 5000, and talking about your book, What the Dormouse Said.

JM: Thanks for having me on.


  1. […] An excerpt from John Markoff’s ‘What the Dormouse Said’ ACM: What the Dormouse Said: An Interview with John Markoff The WELL: John Markoff Wikipedia: What the Dormouse Said Podcast and transcript: Computers and the 60s Counterculture […]

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