What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. John Markoff. xxvi + 310 pp. Viking, 2005. $25.95.
John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said (the title is taken from the lyrics of the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit") tells the story of the important period when the personal computer and the Internet as we know them came into being. He also describes how a new culture of drugs, sex and rock and roll was created at the same time as the computers, sometimes in the same rooms, by some of the same people. Some readers may be shocked by the degree to which the design of modern computing was a central component of the 1960s counterculture in Northern California.
The book captures what can only be called the funkiness of the time and place. I well remember the boomerang-shaped Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, hidden in the hills, at once a futuristic science-fiction vision and a dangerous, dilapidated mess that would be considered unfit for human use in the current climate of liability litigation. Masses of wires blossomed out of the rear ends of hot, giant early computers, looking rather like the hair on the heads of the engineers building them. The ragged, broken walls and ceilings were softened by the hippie décor and the fragrance of marijuana and candles, which created a warm ambience. And yes, there were drugs and naked people in the rooms where some of the code that now drives your e-mail around the globe was first set down. The people who conceived of critical aspects of modern computing moved in the same social circles as the musicians who became the Grateful Dead and the people who invented drug "tripping" and New Age spirituality.