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Notes on the Counterculture

How the anti-war and countercultural movements in the late ’60s and early ’70s affected geekdom.

In Technology Review’s Summer of Fun issue (August 2005), Bill Joy reviews John Markoff’s latest book, What the Dormouse Said…, which examines the effect of the counterculture of the 1960s on the early development of the personal computer.

The premise is fascinating, but somewhat controversial (at least if you believe the folks in this story). In and of itself, that was enough to send us off in search of a few more personal testaments. 

Here we offer some candid reminiscences from four pioneers in programming languages, AI, and computers in the ’60s – Bob Frankston, Dave Robson, Fernando J. Corbato, and John McCarthy. We asked them one simple question: ‘How did the counterculture affect your technology work?

Bob Frankston

Born in 1949 in Brooklyn, Bob Frankston is best known for launching Software Arts in 1979 along with Dan Bricklin, and introducing the first personal computer spreadsheet program, VisiCalc. He later held positions at Lotus and Microsoft. Frankston was an MIT undergraduate in the late ‘60s and a graduate student at MIT from 1970 to 1976. There he worked with Bricklin and others at Project MAC/LCS on the Multics project, which was the model for Unix, and, eventually, Linux.

Some of us were too geeky to know there was a counterculture. But the freedom to explore that came out of the counterculture encouraged us in experimenting. We had all these new ideas and tools – so why not try them out?

The degree to which we were against the Vietnam War varied. There were probably some of us who favored it. We explained to [protesters] how they could use computers to get out fliers and do things. One way we got involved was with Xerox machines.

The irony is that because Multics had military funding we were often the subjects of protest as well as in some cases the participants. We worried about people hooking up bombs. You have to remember we were in Cambridge; sometimes you had to get past the police throwing tear gas and things like that.

We weren’t making bullets, but these systems were used for command and communications, so you could argue they were weapons. With the Mansfield Amendment, you basically had to prove you could get a body count to get funding. Even if it was fiction, you had to make up some story that your technology would kill people.

A lot of us viewed Multics as being much more useful for society in general. The focus was on letting people get access to computers. It was always about this larger societal function. Yet you couldn’t explain to people that [the military funding] was just what you had to do to sell your research.

When I co-founded the Student Information Processing Board there was just a feeling that computing resources should be available to everybody. Why should [availability] be dependent on being in the right class to get access? My own motivations came out of the post-McCarthy era: the desire to get rid of all these stupid rules. The thing with the ‘50s was proper behavior and organizations. We were just, “Organizations? What are they?” We didn’t want to put up with all these arbitrary rules.

There was Bob Metcalfe – he was the kid doing the Ethernet – and there was [J.C.R.] Licklider, who was a psychologist who was helping out. We weren’t making these sharp distinctions [between disciplines]. It was just a sense of all these people playing with all this technology. It wasn’t that we had to tear this thing down; it was more like ‘Look, there’s no wall there, we can just walk right through.’

It was the same spirit that said let’s make personal computing available to everyone, but we weren’t so much fighting against the mainframe companies, we were just sharing the wealth. We were the mainframe people also. We were in control. That’s why we were sharing. We had nothing to rebel against.

Dave Robson

Dave Robson joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1974 after graduating from the University of California at Irvine with degrees in Physics and Information and Computer Science. He worked with Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, and others at PARC’s Learning Research Group on the development of the Smalltalk programming language and the pioneering notebook computer, the Dynabook. Robson is now VP of Human Resources for the Xerox Innovation Group.

In late 1973, I was working late into the night on a project for the ICS Senior Seminar at UCI. We had a DEC PDP-10 and a XDS Sigma 7 in two air-conditioned enclosures. The other key piece of equipment was a Coke(tm) machine, where on that night my friend Frank Zdybel and I were taking a break.

Frank told me about this guy named Alan Kay who had observed that the trends in computer hardware would lead to something he called a Dynabook–a computer with the power of the PDP-10 or Sigma 7 (or both) that was the size of a notebook and would cost a few thousand dollars.

That would obviously lead to computers being owned by many more people than those trained in computer science. When he said that Kay worked at a research center set up by Xerox I wondered what a notebook-sized computer had to do with copiers. Little did I know that I would wind up working on the Dynabook project for a decade or so and for the “copier” company for another two decades after that. The impact of the Dynabook and other PARC personal computer work were key to the transition that a copier company needed to make to become a multi-function company.

After I had been working at PARC for several years, I went to a talk given by G. Spencer Brown. He had written a great book called Laws of Form, which derived the foundations of mathematics from one or two simple concepts. I had first learned about the book in Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog [the counterculture “bible” of the time]. I ended up giving Brown a tour of PARC. After walking around for awhile, Brown asked me what the boxes were under the desks. I told him about the Altos and the idea of giving everyone their own computer. His eyes lit up and he asked “What do they do at night?”

In addition to being a philosopher of mathematics and a poet, Brown was a number theorist and had spent much of his life looking for available computing cycles to test his theories on huge prime numbers. The thought of all those compute cycles clearly interested him. I told him that they ran memory tests over night, but that the memory was getting so reliable that it was the equivalent of contemplating their digital navels.

He talked me into helping him harness this untapped resource for the good of number theory. I implemented the infinite precision arithmetic package described in Don Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming; and John Shoch, one of the Ethernet pioneers, implemented an early version of a network worm to distribute the computational subtasks and gather their results. And so the Altos spent many nights performing long and complex calculations for Professor Spencer Brown.

John McCarthy

After coining the term “artificial intelligence” in 1955, John McCarthy has remained a giant in the field ever since. His central contribution has been in the formalization of common-sense knowledge in AI systems. McCarthy also invented the LISP programming language in 1958 and was a key contributor to time-sharing computing projects in the early ‘60s. He wrote a seminal paper that outlined a vision of a personal computer in 1970. McCarthy is now Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford University.

The counterculture certainly had an effect on my personal life, but I’m not sure how much effect it had on my work. I didn’t get involved in the counterculture until 1967, and then I started going in the opposite direction from most other people.

Most people at the time started out conservative and became more left-wing whereas I started out left and became conservative. The critical event for me was 1968 when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. I was just about to go to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union when they invaded, and I ended up visiting Czechoslovakia after the Soviets had already established military control, but before they had established political control. There were all these anti-Soviet signs still left in the streets. That experience led me to the belief that nothing good could come of socialism in my lifetime.

My political ideas have generally been kept separate from my research. My early ideas that related to the personal computer, such as my Home Information Terminal, for example, preceded the counterculture. The paper was published in 1970, but it was really outlined in part in my 1961 paper.

A few comments that John Markoff made in his book [What the Dormouse Said…]  I don’t quite agree with. First, it seems to me that the development of the personal computer happened as quickly as the technology would allow. As soon as the IC reached a size where you could put a single processor on a chip, it was only a few years later that you got the Apple and then the IBM PC. Seems to me that was about as fast as the technology would permit, as opposed to somebody having to advocate [for] it to make it happen.

Markoff also made a big point about LSD and the [technology researchers] who were influenced by their experience with it. However, he didn’t really tell us what eventually became of that influence in the end. If LSD was an influence on the development of computer technology it was very temporary. It’s too bad that human potential cannot be improved by any drug that has been discovered so far. I don’t propose that it never could be, but they tried it with LSD, and it didn’t work.

Fernando J. Corbato

One of the leading computer scientists at MIT’s Project MAC in the ‘60s, Corbato was the chief developer of computer time-sharing systems. He later went on to lead the Multics team, which was a forerunner to Unix. Corbato is Professor Emeritus in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The claim that the counterculture had a major influence on computing research seems a little orthogonal to what we were doing. My take is the counterculture arose as a reaction to the Vietnam War. There was tremendous concern about being drafted and killed. Most of our staff had deferments, so they weren’t vulnerable to the draft. We were funded by ARPA, and even though many of us were not particularly pro-war, we knew where our bread was being buttered. By and large, the way the counterculture affected us was that we were apprehensive about potential problems from sit-ins and vandalism. We were worried that the demonstrations would get out of control.

A lot of our people were sympathetic to the concerns of the protesters, but they didn’t feel that MIT itself was co-opted – maybe just that a part of it had gotten a little too much in bed [with the military]. MIT has a very strict line that no classified work is done on campus. The people who were the most vulnerable to criticism about collaboration with the military were the people at Lincoln and Draper. Out of that great agitation, Draper was spun off.

One of the driving forces of time-sharing research at that time was the feeling of frustration with the bureaucracy of computing centers. [With time sharing] you certainly felt a tremendous amount of freedom. But I don’t think our work was associated with the social movements of the ’60s.

When the war didn’t go well, it had an effect on us in that it put funding pressure from ARPA to make things happen and get things done. We were having a tough time because we had bitten off a little more than we could chew. It was a strain. ARPA had a five-year-project mentality. They kept wanting to move us on to new projects, so they were a little frustrated that we weren’t producing instant results.

I remember one day I was reading the newspaper and happened to notice a chart that showed the curve of troop build-ups in Vietnam. I said ‘Oh my God, that’s almost an exact match with the build-up of our time-sharing and Multics staff.’ So we happened to coincide in terms of our manpower and effort level.

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