At first this book seems to be merely a conscientious retelling of how computers began, with the usual projections of an even more spectacular future. But the narrative has a cumulative effect, so that the reader is nudged from a neutral position as spectator of modern marvels to a new awareness of some of the dilemmas and dangers they pose.
In the final chapter the author shifts gears, leaving behind his mostly objective storytelling in favor of a fervent call for some kind of government ''regulation and supervision'' of the electronics industry.
The ''new alchemists'' of the title refers at first to the computer designers and manufacturers whose products are having such a tremendous impact on all kinds of human activity. The book's punch line, however, is to remind readers that they, too, are alchemists and should be helping to shape the future, not passively waiting to see what the telecommunications companies work out for mankind.
Many centuries ago the alchemists hoped to transmute base metals into gold. Today's electronics designers and makers are turning silicon and other quite common materials into tiny machines (microprocessors), whose speed of computation and logical manipulation of data are impacting business, industry, education, and whatnot. As a result, some computer makers have become wealthy overnight, almost literally turning silicon into gold. And computer users are sharing, though not perhaps so dramatically, in the wealth generated through increased productivity made possible by computers.
So at least part of this book discusses the corporate life style of Silicon Valley, nickname for the San Francisco peninsula where so many computer-oriented companies are heavily concentrated. He takes an outsider's critical note of ''the all but unfathomable lexicon spoken in the valley'' as ''a language which describes science and technology in the service of profit.'' And he reports on a 1980 survey which showed California as a whole having 750 semiconductor companies, 200 computer firms, and 400 electronic equipment manufacturers - ''roughly a quarter of all such enterprises in the country.''
Journalist, Dirk Hanson's book is like a collection of magazine articles on various aspects of computers. Although the first part of the book is more or less chronological, starting with electrical and radio pioneers, the last part consists of chapters on topics that have frequently been covered in apprehensive ''think pieces'' in the press. For example, there's a chapter on automation and the way the computer can disrupt employment and promotion. And a chapter on the dangers of accidental war as a result of failure of computer chips. Another chapter covers artificial intelligence.
Mr. Hanson's popular history book is presented without sensationalism. The text doesn't give evidence of much original investigation but rather of thorough research in newspapers, magazines, and books about his topics. It abounds with footnotes and includes a hefty reading list at the end.