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Unbottled Lightning

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox and the Dawn of the Computer Age & Art and Innovation: The Xerox PARC Artist-in-Residence Program
July 1, 1999

Xerox, the document Company, has a natural fondness for paper. In a time when the “paperless office” is agreed to have been a comically wrongheaded vision and when paper-and-ink metaphors persist even in cyber-space (e.g., Web “pages”), that’s probably good business. Xerox’s loyalty to paper as a medium, however, has contributed to some notorious strategic blunders.

The biggest may have been the hostility the company showed toward the ideas coming out of its own unruly Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. Between 1971 and 1979, PARC scientists invented the first truly personal computer, the first windows-based graphical user interface, the first user-friendly word processing program, the first adjustable screen and printer fonts, the computer mouse, the laser printer, and the Ethernet networking protocol to tie local computers together. These technologies make up the backbone of the modern office, yet only the laser printer was commercialized by Xerox. Company executives, blinded by their own mindsets as copier salesmen, forfeited many of the best people and prototypes at PARC to the next-generation firms that shepherded in the era of personal computing, such as Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and 3Com.

Or at least that’s the popular version of the story. In his illuminating new book Dealers of Lightning, based on interviews with the players themselves, technology journalist Michael Hiltzik concludes that there was more to the dramatic disconnect between Xerox and Xerox PARC than simple shortsightedness. While the missed opportunities can be chalked up in part to Xerox’s preoccupation with expensive copying machines, economics and a philosophical gulf between the company’s East Coast executives and its West Coast longhairs had almost as much to do with it, Hiltzik shows.

One sign of this gulf was the researchers’ unawareness that by allowing themselves to be featured in an anti-corporate article in Rolling Stone in 1972, they were in effect thumbing their noses at corporate headquarters. At the time, the visionary young scientists at PARC were hard at work on the Alto, a small personal computer that would later inspire Apple founder Steve Jobs to build the Macintosh. The article, by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, romanticized the PARC researchers as “computer bums” whose philosophy was “soft, away from hugeness and centrality, toward the small and personal, toward putting maximum computer power in the hands of every individual who wants it.” In one of the book’s many entertaining anecdotes, he recounts how a horrified personnel manager, upon learning of the article, asked,”What the hell is Rolling Stone?” “It’s some druggie magazine,” a secretary answered.

Xerox executives had good reason to feel beleaguered. During what Hiltzik calls the company’s “lost decade,” its patent on the selenium-alloy photoreceptor at the heart of its copiers expired; it faced unexpectedly strong competition in the copier market from IBM and Japanese firms; and its purchase of a moribund computer company, Scientific Data Systems, turned out to be an expensive flop. These distractions, while hardly exculpatory, have been overlooked by most previous chroniclers of how the company “fumbled the future.”

Ultimately, Hiltzik’s book suggests, innovation is inherently anti-establishment, and can’t always be channeled for commercial gain-at least not by the organization that sponsors it.

Xerox’s commitment to hard copy has recently resulted in another, albeit minor, misapprehension. This is the idea that documentation is always good and that paper can be an effective medium for any message. Art and Innovation, a disappointing collection of essays, jottings and transcripts by participants in the Xerox PARC Artist-In-Residence (PAIR) Program, demonstrates the futility of using the printed page alone to distill the creative process or the meaning in experimental art.

PAIR pairs select San Francisco Bayarea artists working in new media with Xerox researchers for free-form collaborations lasting a year or more. Today’s PARC, it should be understood, is on a much shorter leash than its first incarnation. The emphasis is on understanding how knowledge workers use documents and on bringing new office technologies to market; the current director of Xerox PARC, John Seely Brown, defines innovation as “invention implemented” (see “Field Work in the Tribal Office,” TR May/June 1998). It’s no surprise to read in Art and Innovation, then, that at PAIR’s outset in 1993, “the researchers felt that their projects did not lend themselves to artistic interaction and that pairing would therefore be a time sink.”

Much of the the book-the intent of which, according to editor Craig Harris, is “to reflect the process of the collaborations and to provide insights into the cultural setting”-records the artists’ challenges and anxieties as they connected with researchers and learned to use PARC’s technologies. The “PAIRings” did apparently result in some intriguing work, but in print the artists’ notes on their videos, multimedia installations and performance art pieces inevitably come off as breathless, self-indulgent and overintellectual-in a word, “artsy.” I imagine, for example, that on a computer screen “Forward Anywhere,” an “interactive hypernarrative” documenting an extended email correspondence between novelist Judy Malloy and PARC scientist Cathy Marshall, is fun to explore. On paper, the interactivity is lost, and the authors’ attempts to explain how interactivity molded the project and the process quickly grow wearisome.

When you put smart, creative people together in a hothouse atmosphere, interesting ideas happen almost automatically, as these two new books on Xerox PARC demonstrate. Exporting these ideas, they also show, is a far trickier proposition.

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