Canadian Journal of Law and Technology


Sixties counter-culture, tech history, Silicon Valley, personal computing


What the Dormouse Said is the revisionary back- story of Silicon Valley; in particular, the roots of the current model of human interface with personal com- puters (video screen, keyboard, mouse) and the early stabs at creating the Internet. Markoff is a long-standing hi-tech reporter for the New York Times who, over the past 20 years, has co-written three computer-related books. In Dormouse, his fourth book (but first solo effort), he takes us back to the pre-ironic age — ‘‘the Flintstones era of computers’’ — when batch processing and beatniks still roamed the earth. His claim is that the various accounts of the birth of personal computing have failed to attend sufficiently to the significance of the unique social milieu of San Francisco-area culture of the 1960s. There is much debate, not to mention much confused popular memory, over what the essence of the 1960s was, but in Markoff’s view, it was characterized by a bohemian sensibility that was open to experiments in alternative living arrangements, a disposition to anti- establishment politics (especially opposition to the military-industrial complex and its war in Vietnam), and a willingness to experiment with altered psychic states, especially through ingesting and inhaling certain substances. More fundamentally, in Markoff’s slightly elegiac account of the period, what was shared by the hippies and the personal computing pioneers based in and around Stanford was a commitment to transforming the world and the nature of humanity in a fundamental way — bringing about a change that hadn’t come before.