One of the more persistent myths in Silicon Valley is that of the socially inept computer geek, the guy—theyre assumed to be almost all men—so involved in machinery that his view excludes everything else, particularly politics. This mythical engineer is either too geeky or too inept to really take part in the world around him.
During the tech bubble, this tale took on different shading. The valleys CEOs, chief technology officers, engineers and investors were too busy making insanely great software and hardware (not to mention insanely large sums of money) to be involved in anything as corrupt and inefficient as the political process.
The corollary to this was is that the valley had no need for government; that it stood as a shining example of the free, unregulated market in which ability triumphed.
But in what is probably his best book, John Markoff, the New York Times reporter and almost lifelong Silicon Valley resident, pretty much blows these myths to smithereens.
Markoffs What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Computer Industry—the titles from Jefferson Airplanes “White Rabbit,” a paean to pills and other substances—details the valleys early history, which involves computers, LSD, some marijuana and a lot of time in hot tubs and saunas, not to mention the occasional acts of civil disobedience and arrests for protesting against the Vietnam War.
“They were very political,” Markoff says of the men and the time—the late 1960s and early 1970s—hes described. “The people who pretend the valley is apolitical mean political in a very conventional sense.”
Since he knows so many of those he profiles so well, Markoff—who was in high school in Palo Alto during much of the time he chronicles in the book—jokes that it could be read as a plaintive “why didnt you tell me all this cool stuff was going on?” to an “older brother.”
“I wasnt really clueful,” he says with some chagrin. When its pointed out that he was just a kid at the time, Markoff turns rueful. “So was Steve Jobs: Look what happened to him.”
Like Jobs, many of those Markoff writes about are pillars of Silicon Valleys engineering community. They are older, settled and wealthy. Its a long list and includes Whole Earth Catalog author and social activist Stewart Brand, Doug Englebart, inventor of the computer mouse, Xerox PARC co-founder Robert Taylor, cryptographer Whit Diffie, Larry Tesler, founder of Apple Computers Advanced Technology Group, and others too geeky—even for eWEEK.com—to mention.
In this book they attend raucous parties, do a fair amount of LSD, smoke a goodly amount of marijuana and generally rabble-rouse, not just with machines but with household names from the era like Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead. “If you were inside someplace like SAIL (the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab) its a very social world, says Markoff of one of the institutions that fostered these men and their work. “Its a different kind of sociability.”
Indeed. To a large extent it was—and remains—a kind of idealistic socializing; elitist even, where very smart people spend their time almost exclusively with other very smart—or smarter—people. All them share a few common understandings, primary among them that technology can—and should—make a difference in peoples lives. Accompanying that belief is the conviction that technology will almost always change peoples lives for the better.
Whered it come from? There were as many sources as there are engineers and scientists in What the Dormouse Said. But Markoff shows pretty clearly that the engagement these engineers had with one another and the era in which they worked—the 1960s—played a role.
Although many of their projects were generously funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, most of the engineers and computer scientists Markoff writes about werent just opposed to the Vietnam War but worked, on and off the campuses where they researched and studied, against the war effort and for a variety of social and other Lefty causes. And while many today like to insist that their “business” lives are isolated form their other activities, Markoff in writing part of the history of Silicon Valley shows how silly this assertion can be.
The antiwar sentiment that Markoff traces is hardly part of the Silicon Valley we know today. But the idea that a brilliant programmer can—or should—bite the hand that feeds or funds him or her isnt just a statement, its an entrenched way of life. It is, in fact, one of the roots of todays more Libertarian culture that thrives in engineering-heavy enclaves like Slashdot, the Mozilla Org. and others.
The early work done in the valley by people with visions of improving the world wasnt isolated from their politics or what was going on around them. It was part of a broader movement, of a profound cultural shift. “Technology is shaped by the prism of culture, politics and economics, says Markoff. “Technology takes many different forms.”
eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.