California, here they came, and your PC knows it

Alice in computerland? Meet its inventors after an epigraph from the Dormouse in the Jefferson Airplane version

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The late 1950s and the entire decade of the '60s saw incredible social changes in America. It was a time of antiwar protests and demonstrations. Rock music emerged as a cultural force. Many people experimented with a variety of drugs, such as LSD. And attitudes about the role of women in society and toward sexuality were shifting into a new paradigm.

It was the time of the counterculture - a time of freedom and the willingness to try new things and follow notions that appeared, on the surface, not to make much sense at all.

The theory behind John Markoff's fascinating new book, "What the Dormouse Said...: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry," is that all these elements mentioned above influenced, in one way or another, the group of men and women computer scientists in the mid-peninsula area of San Francisco who were working on the ideas that eventually led to the personal computer.

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And because all these elements were so widely available or observable in a relatively small area near Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and around the research facilities of the now famous Menlo Park, it was the band of scientists on the West Coast (and not their cohorts working in the more rigidly structured environment of Cambridge and MIT on the East Coast) who were able to make the leaps of imagination and technology that literally led to a new world. A world more and more dominated by the personal computer.

Markoff is a wonderful writer and storyteller, and he effortlessly weaves together the stories of the main cast of characters. The individuals had the most unusual knack for crossing paths, and Markoff's ability to show these sometimes tangential - but always important - relationships, without losing the thread of the story, is impressive.

There are many names here that will be familiar to many in the computer industry, not to the general public:

Doug Engelbart, who drove himself and others to the breaking point with his vision of "Augmentation" (the idea that computers would augment human intelligence, not replace it).

Robert Taylor, the man who often found the money to fund the projects of Engelbart and others.

Fred Moore, who may have single-handedly sowed the first seeds of the antiwar movement in California that later spread across America, and who, along with another computer scientist named Ted Nelson, promoted the ideas that today have come to be represented in the open source software movement.

And the Homebrew Computer Club, a gathering of computer hobbyists "fated to change the world."

But perhaps the most important character in Markoff's book is the '60s itself.

We live in a time when the whole idea of the '60s, and what that decade represented in American history, has become a political punching bag for our cable-news, talk-radio universe.

Markoff's book, in its own quiet way, through telling the story of the development of the personal computer, reminds the reader that many of the ideas and convictions that Americans now take for granted in our culture were developed and nurtured during this tumultuous decade. That reason alone makes "What the Dormouse Said..." an important book to read.

Tom Regan is the associate editor of the Monitor's website, csmonitor.com.

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