Computing Is a Trip

Finding and funding the dreamers

This month, Bill Joy, the architect of Berkeley Unix and a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, reviews John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said…: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (see “The Dream of a Lifetime). Joy was there for many of computing’s formative years, but in the course of his review, he talks as much about the future of computing as he does about its past. Not only does he enlighten readers about what it was like to help make computers more personal, but he reminds us that the computer isn’t done. Joy argues that what is needed to bring about the next advances in computing is for those investing in computer research to “find and fund the dreamers.”

Joy makes a persuasive argument. Doug Engelbart, whose groundbreaking work in the 1960s at the Stanford Research Institute helped pave the way for the PC, depended on large grants from the federal government. And just as important as the money Engelbart received was the freedom he enjoyed: the government knew it was funding speculative work. Today, funding both in industry and from the federal government tends to be focused on specific, short-term problems.

We can’t turn the clock back, of course. Engelbart and his colleagues had the good fortune to work at a time when America felt fresh wonder at the possibilities of technology – and had a strong faith in the productivity of brilliant scientists. But as Joy contends, we may be able to rekindle the spirit of the ’60s by imagining computers that are infinitely smarter, more responsive, and more immersive than anything we have today. By all means, let’s find and fund the dreamers.

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