During the 1960?s, when computers filled rooms or entire buildings, they were tools of academic computation and war. Yet there was an alternative vision, exemplified in the Whole Earth Catalog, that information could be collected and disseminated by and for the people.
In the 1970’s, as computers became more reliable, smaller, and (marginally) less expensive, a new potential consumer joined the computer market: the American corporation. The computer was not only useful to universities for carrying out complex computations, or to governments wishing to shoot Soviet bombers out of the skies, but also to companies wishing to increase workplace efficiency. In his book,Net Effect, sociologist Thomas Streeter describes these four competing visions of the computer’s value:
While the corporate community was struggling with the floundering effort to implement Taylorized “offices of the future” [and] the military was imagining global command-and-control systems with the ARPANET, and descendants of [researcher and inventor Douglas] Engelbart were exploring the encyclopedic vision of computing … a community [was] promulgating a distinctive countercultural vision of computers as creative writing machines that enabled self-exploration and self expression.
In the 1960s, the Bay Area was the center of American hippie-dom (thanks to the vibrant counterculture scene in San Francisco) and a center of technological innovation (thanks to the tech businesses nurtured by Stanford University). This strange juxtaposition of high-tech and high-karma led to an unexpected technological elite: flower children as computer engineers. The idea of a computer as an elite machine for efficiency or military advantage did not appeal to their values, which were anti-war, anti-establishment, and pro-personal expression. Even the programmers working on ARPANET, the Internet precursor funded by the Department of Defense, wore sneakers and peace pins to briefings at the Pentagon.
In his influential 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, successful technology philosopher and failed entrepreneur Ted Nelson described the desire to redefine the computer:
Somehow the idea is abroad that computer activities are uncreative…. This is categorically false. Computers involve imagination and creation at the highest level. Computers are an involvement you can really get into, regardless of your trip or your karma…. COMPUTERS BELONG TO ALL HUMAN KIND.
This idea of computers being creative, being for everyone, ran against the logic of companies like IBM and Xerox. Engineers were free to hang out in the “bean-bag room” of Xerox’s Palo Alto research center (above), but they were focused on creating machines for the business market. A 1975 article in Business Week explains the corporate vision of “minicomputers” (desktop units):
Word processing is the focal point today for competition in the upcoming office-of-the-future market…. Two years ago, [Xerox] Chairman C. Peter McColough… said: “In the next decade, if we are to generate real efficiencies in the office, we’re going to have to alter traditional structures. The idea of one secretary for one executive is no longer efficient or economical. And we have to reduce and reposition the role of paper.”
While technology manufacturers were thinking in the practical terms of the office – document creation, secretaries, paper usage – an entirely different culture was forming among hobbyists. In a 1972 article for Rolling Stone, entitled “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,”Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand described a primitive computer game called Spacewar, created by a new type of computer engineer, the “hacker” (“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…”). In the article, Brand explains the need for broader access to computers to reveal their creative potential:
Until computers come to the people we will have no real idea of their most natural functions. Up to the present their cost and size has kept them in the province of rich and powerful institutions, who, understandably, have developed them primarily as bookkeeping, sorting and control devices…. The hackers made Spacewar, not the planners. When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over…. That might enhance things … like the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction….
In the vision of Business Week, smaller computers were an opportunity to increase profits and provide office efficiencies. In the vision of Rolling Stone, smaller computers were an opportunity to hack – to express one’s self, to be creative, to have passionately unproductive fun.
Both sides won. While the social media world of today is far more a place of “the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction” than of office efficiency (just ask the cubicle drone on Facebook), the social media world is owned by corporations. Ted Nelson’s imagined world of “imagination and creation at the highest level” is big business for Apple, Flickr (Yahoo), and YouTube (Google). Both sides won… and so the contest continues.