The Dream Machine
M. Mitchell Waldrop
Stripe Press, 2018
The Dream Machines operates on two levels: as a history of the development of critical technologies (i.e., personal computers and the internet) and as a biography of J.C.R. Licklider. The two are closely intertwined. Licklider (“Lick” to his friends) played a crucial role in ARPA (later DARPA), the Advanced Research Project Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, which funded many of the key developments.
Licklider’s trajectory was unusual for an early computing pioneer. Rather than having a background in mathematics, physics, or electronics, he was a psychologist who became interested in how computers might augment human capabilities.
In Licklider’s conception, computers would be intimate devices responsive to human needs. They’d serve as a medium of expression and not just a means for faster calculation and democratize access to information through a global commons for commerce, communication, and collaboration. As Waldrop puts it,
Lick’s entire later career in computers can be seen as a thirty-year exercise in the human use of human beings, an effort to eliminate mind-numbing drudgery so that we could be free to use our full creative powers.
This may sound trivial because it describes the world we live in. But in the 1950s and 60s, computers were primarily fast (and expensive) calculators. Interacting with these room-sized machines entailed encoding programs in punched cards entered into the system in batches by specialized technicians and then waiting a long time for the result. (Which — frustratingly — could be a failure due to programmer error.)
Licklider’s vision of “human-computer symbiosis” suggested a radically different paradigm in which users interacted directly with the computer in tight feedback loops. Modes of interaction wouldn’t be limited to blinking lights or teletypes but could include graphics, text, sounds, and exotic input mechanisms such as light pens and (eventually) mice and touchscreens.
The book traces how that vision was gradually realized — at first through ARPA’s funding (spurred by competition with the Soviets) and subsequently through private efforts such as those undertaken at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC.)
This isn’t one man’s story, of course: the book covers the work of other theorists, innovators, and administrators such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Weiner, John von Neumann, Douglas Engelbart, Fernando Corbató, Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Alan Perlis, Robert Taylor, Robert Metcalfe, and many others. But Licklider was at the center of it all — an enduring influencer, provocateur, and funder.
One thing he wasn’t was an effective administrator; he seemed to hate paperwork and other managerial duties, preferring to tinker away at new ideas and technologies. Instead, he contributed more as a leader and visionary with a checkbook.
And that checkbook is key. We likely wouldn’t have the internet or personal computers in their present form if U.S. taxpayers hadn’t invested heavily in unproven technologies without obvious immediate payoff. While that made some sense during the Cold War, the attitude changed during the Vietnam War, leading to more focused investments with tangible (military) benefits.
Intriguingly, the other major patron of innovation (Xerox) experienced a similar trajectory: an initial willingness to invest in visionary technologies for office information digitization led to spectacular innovations but were squandered by the company’s failures to deliver compelling products in the near term.
I knew that part of the story but had always assumed that it was a case of innovator’s dilemma, with Xerox’s managers being unwilling or unable to look past their cash cow photocopying business. But the book suggests that PARC researchers share some of the blame through their inability (or unwillingness) to relate with the organization’s commercial needs.
The book’s broader lesson is that these advanced technologies didn’t emerge through short-term private or public initiatives. Instead, they required betting on hunches and visions that couldn’t be evaluated in spreadsheets. The early second half of the Twentieth Century offered an unusual context: superpower competition paired with technological breakthroughs. These conditions enabled unique private and public investments. They’ve paid off spectacularly — and it’s primarily due to visionaries like Licklider, who could imagine possibilities beyond what was technically feasible at the time and fostered the teams that brought them to life.
This book is a great way to learn about how they did it. But when considering these lessons’ relevance for our time, I wonder if any organization (public or private) would be willing to make such investments given our current context. The 1950s-70s were a unique period in tech history — one brilliantly captured here.
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