The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal

Ever since the Phil Knight memoir, I’ve grown more open to reading biographies. This book talks about J.C.R. Licklider’s life, which itself is inextricably tied to the early days of computers. It makes for a great story .. and a great intro to the Xerox PARC days described in Dealers of Lightning.

This (long!) book starts describing Lick’s early days, where the first sign of his engineering prowess became self-evident after he bought a car and proceeded to take it apart and reassemble it piece-by-piece.

An interesting theme throughout the book is that Lick was one of the first people to see that the real challenge with computers would always lie in adapting computers to the humans who used them, and not the other way around (which is how the world operated in the early punch-card days).

One part of the book that really stood out to me was the early days of computer architecture design. I took a detour and ended up reading through an early paper that von Neumann had published in 1945 “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”. I’d studied computer architecture in college, but it was nothing compared to reading through the paper — and understanding not just how but why particular design decisions were made .. and the thought process followed by the designers themselves.

After a decade in which the computer pioneers had struggled to master the vagaries of hardware, barely able to see the forest for the trees, von Neumann had laid out the fundamental principles of computer design with breathtaking clarity.

Notable notes

A computer does only what its programmers tell it to do—but the programmers can’t really know the consequences of their commands until they see their program running

feedback was required for any voluntary action… Through feedback, said Wiener, Bigelow, and Rosenblueth, a mechanism could embody purpose

a deep understanding of control requires a deep understanding of communication; the two are inseparable.

The brilliant idea behind the stored-program concept was to make a clean split, to separate the problem-solving sequence from the hardware entirely. The act of computation thus became an abstract process that we now know as software, a series of commands encoded in a string of binary 1s and 0s and stored in the computer’s memory. In theoretical terms, of course, this idea was equivalent to Turing’s inspired notion of encoding the instruction table on the tape of his imaginary machine instead of hard-wiring it into the read/write head. And it had precisely the same implications for universality: a stored-program computer, like a Turing machine, could treat its program instructions as just another kind of data.

the genetic material of any self-reproducing system, whether natural or artificial, must function very much like a stored program in a computer

when war becomes a form of mutual suicide, you don’t want to win the game. You want to get out of the game

Interesting, looks like women were more adept at programming than men early on:

As a general rule of thumb, for example, music teachers proved to be particularly adept. And much to the project leaders’ astonishment (this being the 1950s) women often turned out to be more proficient than men at worrying about the details while simultaneously keeping the big picture in mind. One of the project’s best programming groups was 80 percent female.

It’s always an important balance to strike:

Ben Gurley, perhaps better than any other engineer of his time, had the right combination of technical brilliance and engineering conservatism to bring these ideas into reality.

It’s one thing to say that something is easy, and another entirely when you’re able to actually walk the talk:

John was an evangelist, and he was a little cocky about how easy it was to do,” remembers Corbató with a laugh. What saved McCarthy, and gave him real credibility among the engineering types around MIT, was his willingness to get down and dirty with the technical details.

It’s safe to say that to this date, we still haven’t achieved the vision that Lick had set so early on. We still spend countless hours adapting to the numerous idiosyncrasies of computers, instead of modifying them to meet our own needs:

[interactive computers] can give us our first look at unfettered thought. It can allow a decision maker to do almost nothing but decision making, instead of processing data to get into position to make the decision.

Give people something useful, and they’ll use it. What he found truly fascinating, though, was the second great lesson of time-sharing: in an information utility, the power flows both ways. Unlike a power utility, which basically just provides a resource that people consume, an information utility lets the users give back to the system. It even lets them create whole new resources in the system. “More than anything else,” says Fano, “the system became the repository of the knowledge of the community. And that was a totally new thing.”

One of many bets that ARPA had made on excellence (this one was $1.3M/year):

Explore some big ideas. Break the mold. “The evaluation was always, ‘If you guys are doing some excellent science, it [doesn’t] matter what [it is],’ “ remembers Newell.

If Lick was content to let people find their own way, however, he did expect them to perform; he was as impatient as ever with dithering, sloppiness, or mediocre quality.

Perhaps most important of all, however, Lick had the patience to take the long view. He couldn’t get it all done in one year, or two years, or a lifetime. But by creating a community of fellow believers, he guaranteed that his vision would live on after him.

This is reminiscent of many powerful network-effects strategies employed today .. people come for the killer app (in this case, email) and stay for the network:

What had once been a nuisance, accepted only grudgingly, was now wildly popular. “E-mail was the biggest surprise about the ARPA network,

How to build a killer research group (applies as much to ARPA as it does to Xerox PARC):

In his own experience, the prescription was simple enough: hire the smartest people you can find and give them their head—but let them know who’s paying the bills.

Yes, went the argument, people needed the freedom to create. But their creations had to add up to something—and not just another bunch of unconnected new gadgets, either. At ARPA that “something” had been human-computer symbiosis, broadly defined. Now, at PARC, it was the “electronic office,” whatever that might turn out to be.

By all means, Taylor told his recruits, let’s get way out in front of the curve—five years for sure, ten years if we can. And forget about the cost: Xerox is signing the checks for now, and Moore’s law will solve the problem soon enough. But whatever you build, use it. In fact, get everybody in PARC to use it. Get them pounding on the technology every day, writing reports, writing programs, sending E-mail—anything and everything, so they can see for themselves what the problems and the possibilities are. And then use what they learn to build better technology.

“In the early days,” notes Vint Cerf, “ARPA could build a community because ARPA could afford to support everybody. But when there is scarcity, you don’t have community; all you have is survival.”

TIP: This is a great strategy for ending a disagreement on a positive note!:

And when the arguments got heated, which they often did, the minister’s son would do his best to convert a “class-one” disagreement—one in which the combatants were simply yelling at each other—into a “class two” disagreement, in which each side could explain the other side’s position to the other side’s satisfaction. You don’t have to believe the other guy, he would tell them. You just have to give a fair account of what he’s saying. And it worked. As one CSL member later explained it, Taylor’s class one/class two exercise was amazingly effective at clarifying unspoken assumptions and ferreting out facts that one person knew and another didn’t. “So by the time you get done,” he said, “you all know the same set of things, and you end up concluding the same thing.”

And lastly, you don’t have to have the best technology to win:

“I did buy an Apple II and look at it early on. It turned out to be based on a 6502 microprocessor, which was the same chip we used as a controller in the Alto keyboard!”

“I tell people I didn’t get rich inventing Ethernet,” he says with a laugh. “I got rich selling it!” – Bob Metcalfe

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