Steve Jobs said computers are bicycles for the mind. When I first encountered Tools for Thought (in 2004), I expected it to explain how that works. Instead, the book taught me about the history of computers as a technology for mind augmentation.

I own a 2000 edition from MIT Press, but the book originally came out in 1985. So, really, it’s a history of computers as mind-expansion tech up to the mid-1980s. (The later edition adds a postscript that brings the story up to the late 90s.) It’s an important story — one that more people working in tech today should know.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters. The first sets the stage, explaining that when it comes to computers — which were starting to become a part of popular culture in the 1980s — we ain’t seen nothing yet. At least we hadn’t, then — but Rheingold could see that the best (and in some cases, the worst) was still to come. He is prescient at times, and asks the right questions:

The computer of the twenty-first century will be everywhere, for better or worse, and a more appropriate prophet than Orwell for this eventuality might well be Marshall McLuhan. If McLuhan was right about the medium being the message, what will it mean when the entire environment becomes the medium?

The remaining thirteen chapters are each focused on particular individuals who contributed to advancing the notion of computers as more than glorified calculators, and key innovations they were associated with. Profiles appear chronologically, roughly organized into three groups:

“Patriarchs”:

  • Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, George Boole, and Herman Hollerith — Mechanical computing devices
  • Alan Turing — Turing machines
  • Jon von Neumann — Early electronic computers
  • Norbert Wiener — Cybernetics
  • Claude Shannon — Information theory

“Pioneers”:

  • J.C.R. Licklider — Interactive computing
  • Doug Engelbart — The conceptual framework that resulted in “The Mother of All Demos”
  • Robert Taylor — The innovations of Xerox PARC (GUI, ethernet, etc.)
  • Alan Kay — The Dynabook (more as a vision than an actual product)

“Infonauts”:

  • Avron Barr — Expert systems
  • Brenda Laurel — Fantasy simulation/early VR
  • Ted Nelson — Xanadu (again, more as a vision than an actual product)

Some of these are better-known than others, and all but two are women. (I expect this balance would be different if such a book was written today — at least for the newer profiles.) Of course, these aren’t the only people who appear in the book; many others made important contributions. They show up as secondary characters throughout.

There are a few pervasive themes. Most of these people were/are intensely curious. They weren’t driven to fit into their existing milieus. Many had compelling visions of how computing could be different, which put them at odds with their social context. Rheingold emphasizes their individual quirks: many of these people were wonderfully weird.

The story traces the development of computers in a sequence:

  1. As mechanical devices to aid in calculation,
  2. As mechanical devices that serve more general purposes,
  3. As dedicated electronic calculating machines,
  4. As general-purpose electronic machines,
  5. As interactive general-purpose machines, and
  6. As machines that aim to enable entirely new ways of thinking, working, learning, playing.

The book pivots around chapter nine, where it switches from relaying the historical record to reporting on people and initiatives that were more contemporaneous to the book’s writing. (In 1985, Engelbart, Kay, Taylor, and all the other folks profiled in the rest of the book were still active.)

The selection of profiles for the “patriarch” and “pioneer” groups are spot-on: these are the people to study if you want to learn about the key developments in this space. The selection of “infonauts” is more questionable. Rheingold can’t be faulted, though; as he notes in the afterword, prediction is hard, and the work some of these folks were doing in the early 1980s probably seemed like a good harbinger of the future.

Rheingold wrote the afterword for the 2000 edition, and it brings the story up to date. He spoke again with several of the people profiled, including Engelbart. It was enlightening to see how their efforts had advanced (or not) in the 14 years following the book’s original publication and predictions for what might be coming next.

My key takeaways:

  • Many of the people responsible for the advances that have led to today’s computers were brilliant and quirky visionaries who weren’t tied down by the norms of their time.
  • The visionaries who had the greatest traction were those who had significant backing, especially from government. While the story of computing is often cast as a sequence of entrepreneurial triumphs, many of the key innovations probably wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been commissioned by governments under pressure. (E.g., during war.)
  • Big commercial enterprises have also tried to create the conditions necessary to drive breakthrough innovations. However, the ones profiled in the book had mixed results. Xerox PARC was incredibly influential, but the company bungled its ten-year lead and lost out to other competitors in the market.
  • In general, efforts to impose order and coherence from the top were less successful than supporting small teams of visionaries to play around with stuff to see what emerges.

Everyone who works in tech should understand the history of the field. Tools for Thought is an engaging and enlightening way to learn about it. That said, I didn’t come out of the book with a more profound understanding of how computers augment our thinking abilities. This may be because so much time has passed since 1985, and we now take so much of the basic stuff for granted. But it might also be because the book focuses more on the stories of how these innovations came about than on how they can change us — i.e., it’s less of a how-to/why-to book than a what-happened book. And it’s an excellent one at that — well worth your attention, especially if you work in tech.

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