Computers — Threat or menace?

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

“Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” Stewart Brand wrote in 1972, in Rolling Stone — which explains the context for what comes next:

That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It’s way off the track of the “Computers — Threat or menace?” school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush.

The trend owes its health to an odd array of influences: The youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science; an astonishingly enlightened research program from the very top of the Defense Department; an unexpected market-Banking movement by the manufacturers of small calculating machines, and an irrepressible midnight phenomenon known as Spacewar.

Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.

Rudimentary Spacewar consists of two humans, two sets of control buttons or joysticks, one TV-like display and one computer. Two spaceships are displayed in motion on the screen, controllable for thrust, yaw, pitch and the firing of torpedoes. Whenever a spaceship and torpedo meet, they disappear in an attractive explosion. That’s the original version invented in 1962 at MIT by Steve Russell. (More on him in a moment.)


The setting and decor at AI is Modern Mad Scientist – long hallways and cubicles and large windowless rooms, brutal fluoresccnt light, enormous machines humming and clattering, robots on wheels, scurrying arcane technicians. And, also, posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer print-out photos of girlfriends, a hallway-long banner SOLVING TODAY’S PROBLEMS TOMORROW and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script – the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.


I’m guessing that Alan Kay at Xerox Research Center (more on them shortly) has a line on it, defining the standard Computer Bum: “About as straight as you’d expect hotrodders to look. It’s that kind of fanaticism. A true hacker is not a group person. He’s a person who loves to stay up all night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship… They’re kids who tended to be brilliant but not very interested in conventional goals. And computing is just a fabulous place for that, because it’s a place where you don’t have to be a Ph.D. or anything else. It’s a place where you can still be an artisan. People are willing to pay you if you’re any good at all, and you have plenty of time for screwing around.”

The hackers are the technicians of this science — “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.

A young science travels where the young take it. The wiser computer research directors have learned that not trusting their young programmers with major responsibility can lead immediately to no research. AI is one of perhaps several dozen computer research centers that are flourishing with their young, some of them with no more formal education than they got at the local Free School. I’m talking to Les Earnest, the gent who went for beer. He’s tall, swarthy, has a black and white striped beard, looks like a Sufi athlete. He’s telling me about what else people build here besides refinements of Spacewar. There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference. Work with autistic children, ‘trying to get them to relate to computers first, and then later to people. This seems to be successful in part because many of these children think of themselves as machines. You can encourage them to interact in a game with the machine.”

I’ve written about that piece before, but it came up again because Rolling Stone itself is revisiting it:

Brand had something of a knack for staging epochal cultural happenings. In 1966, he co-produced the infamous Trips Festival with Ken Kesey. Thousands of hippies attended this three day event in San Francisco to listen to psychedelic rock and drink punch dosed with LSD.


Brand was equally tuned in to the technological revolution that was rocking the Bay Area at the time. “I discovered that drugs were less interesting than computers as a way to expand your consciousness,” he says.

In 1968, Brand helped the inventor Doug Engelbart orchestrate a presentation at a computer conference that has come to be known as The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrated video conferencing, the computer mouse, email, hypertext, word processing and a windows-based organizational structure. Basically, he predicted most of the elements of the modern personal computer and the modern workplace.

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