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An Interview with John Markoff

by Richard Koman
07/20/2005

How did computing as we know it come into existence? Some point to the Homebrew Computing Club, which directly gave birth to more than 20 of the great Silicon Valley companies, most famously Apple Computer. Others point to Xerox PARC, where such innovations as PostScript, screen fonts, laser printers and Ethernet were made real.

But in his new book, What the Dormouse Said, John Markoff, The New York Times' Silicon Valley reporter, has looked beyond these two accounts to the dim earliest inklings of not only the PC but the internet as well. The prophet who envisioned virtually the entire computing landscape as we know it was Doug Engelbart, a researcher at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). He envisioned a personal computer not in the 1970s, not even in the moonlaunch '60s, but as early as 1945.

Throughout the 1950s his was a voice in the wilderness but by the '60s he was able to get funding and pull together a group of engineers to make his vision of a system that would augment human intelligence into reality.

It didn't happen in the straight engineering culture of the mainframe computer, though. Markoff argues that it was the presence of the counterculture that allowed such creativity to prosper.

In the midst of this engineer's world of crewcuts and white shirts and ties [SRI] arrived a tiny band distinguished by their long hair and beards, rooms carpeted with oriental rugs, women without bras, jugs of wine, and on occasion the wafting of marijuana smoke. Just walking through the halls ... gave a visitor a visceral sense of the cultural gulf that existed between the prevailing model of mainframe computing and the gestating vision of personal computing.

I interviewed John Markoff by phone to get a deeper insight to the fascinating stories he tells about Engelbart's team at SRI; John McCarthy's people at SAIL (the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) who, although opposed to Engelbart's philosophy of "augmentation," shared a counterculture sense of experimentation; activist Fred Moore, who cofounded the Homebrew Computing Club; and the role of hippies like Stewart Brand and Ken Kesey who, having received a demo of Engelbart's NLS (the oNLine System) said, awed, "It's the next thing after acid."

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Richard Koman: How did this topic--that the counterculture shaped the evolution of the computer industry--come to you as an idea for a book?

John Markoff: The book emerged out of a dinner I had in Sausalito in 1999 and it was put together by Bill and Anne Duvall, who, when they were much younger, worked with Doug Engelbart. They were there and Bill and Roberta English--Bill was coinventor of the mouse with Doug Engelbart--and Ted Nelson, who was doing many of the same things Doug was doing in the 1960s.

They were all there, they were telling stories, and the stories were not about technology so much as about what they were doing personally during that period. I came away with this real sense that somebody had to capture these stories.

Around the same time I was working on an article for the 25th anniversary of the Homebrew Computing Club, basically arguing that there had been this event, this sort of moment where the modern software industry was defined and it had come out of the collision between the creation of proprietary software and shared software. So it was those dual things that led to the book. The notion to go ahead and do the interviews while people were around, and my belief that personal computing took the form that it did in part because of personal and political things that were happening around Stanford during the 1960s.

In that sense it's a revisionist history. A lot of people in Silicon Valley have come to believe that you just turn the crank and you get innovation. That's the implication of Moore's Law. And I don't think it works that way.

Koman: That's interesting. Tell me a little bit more about disabusing the myth of innovation.

Markoff: I feel very strongly that innovation happens through the prism of culture. And things take the shape they do not for pure technological reasons but because cultures express technology. The other thing that happened because of Moore's Law ... particularly in Silicon Valley, these industries tend to eat their parents. That's the nature of Moore's Law. This happens routinely. Out of the semiconductor or out of the microprocessor, at 18-month intervals, you've got whole new industries. From the digital watch to the calculator to the personal computer to the ...

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