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We, the People, in the Information Age

Jim was DDJ's founding editor, and is the future columnist for MicroTimes. He can be reached at 345 Swett Road, Woodside, CA 94062.

This rambling retrospective illustrates a pattern of creative connections, and offers some cloudy insights into our future. It derives from a quarter-century of often unplanned, risk-laden, immensely productive, often euphoric techno-social collaborations.

Most of all, though, this is a story of modern explorers, cooperatively building bridges into the electronic frontier — "space" that all of us can explore.

Dr. Dobb's Journal is a thread in this grand and chaotic web, as good a starting point as any for this spastic short story with no beginning, no end, and a great future....

Egalitarian Origins

Around the mid-'60s, an energetic character named Bob Albrecht learned about computers, learned Basic, and enthusiastically began teaching kids how to program. He didn't do it for money; he did it because it was worth doing and exciting — and he communicated that excitement to the kids. (He often said he'd rather teach kids to use computers than teach computers to use kids; slamming the rote, drill-oriented, computer-aided instruction of the era.)

In the late '60s — with help from Portola Institute and some programmable desktop calculators from Hewlett-Packard — Bob opened what was perhaps the first center in the world where people could walk in and use computers for free, for fun, for personal projects, to learn. Appropriately, he called it People's Computer Center.

PCC was in a storefront facing the rail commuter's parking lot in Menlo Park, California. The nonprofit Portola Institute was around the corner, in a funky second-floor walk-up. Well, it really wasn't much of an "Institute." Directed and primarily funded by Dick Raymond, I always thought of it as, mostly, a legal mechanism for channeling "straight" loot into "hip" causes.

Aside: Later, HP invented the first hand-held calculator, the HP-35. Bill Hewlett's wife chose the colors for the keys. It cost $395 back when that was real money. Before its introduction, HP's best marketing experts projected that the hand-held calculator market would saturate at around 10,000 units. Within a year, they were producing 10,000 per month.

Another "Hippie" Start-up

Portola provided space and encouragement for another egalitarian venture founded by a couple who lived in a tiny house trailer, and had a teepee on a creek-bank near Stanford — yep, a real Indian-style teepee. They were Stewart and Lois Brand; the venture was the Whole Earth Catalog & Truck Store. It used another storefront near PCC and Portola, a block from the Midpeninsula Free University's Free U Store (more about that, later).

This socio-political experiment focused on access to tools, alternative economics, communes, and "back to the land" visions — and it led to the Whole Earth Catalog. It began as an exciting exploration of alternative lifestyles, and had long-term success in ways few people expected. WEC has earned millions, seeding still more innovation, including CoEvolution Quarterly and Point Foundation (replacing the old Portola Institute). Among other things, they created the Hackers Conference, an invitational workshop where many of the best-known innovators and computer gurus in the industry share ideas, problems, and solutions.

Father of Modern Interfaces

While in the midst of creating WEC&TS, Stewart took time, without pay, to help with a computer project at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International, also in Menlo Park) which was directed by Doug Englebart.

Years earlier, Doug had vaguely realized that our global society and its decision processes were becoming too complex to manage by paper and by hand. If citizens are to remain free and involved in decisions and if decision-makers are to make informed decisions, he reasoned, tools are needed to help utilize the growing masses of information on which to base sound policies.

Pursuing this cloudy vision, Doug founded SRI's [Human] Augmentation Research Center (ARC). Among other things, Doug's late-'60s research produced the mouse, two-dimensional text editors (previous editors were line-oriented, typewriter-based), and on-screen menus.

Recognizing that networking — human or electronic — is essential for collaboration, Doug also founded NIC, the Network Information Center, which was the repository of computer networking information for the early ARPANET, predecessor of the Internet. In volunteering to run NIC, Doug became the second computer on the ARPANET.

Corporate-style "Vision"

Preoccupied with "office automation," SRI corporate decision-makers killed ARC, selling its carcass to Tymshare. It took about a decade for Doug's innovations to become publicly available tools, first, and still predominantly, on microcomputers.

Some of the ARC staff moved to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, X-PARC. In those days, X-PARC offered instant tenure, no responsibilities, and major computer resources. "You're bright; do something interesting."

There, Doug's former staff helped create the in-house, desk-sized Alto mini. Stewart Brand called it a "personal computer" in a 1974 Rolling Stone article (reportedly, the first use of the phrase). Many of the same folks later moved to Apple and helped create the Macintosh, a decade later.

Doug is still exploring computer-aided cooperation, currently heading Stanford's nonprofit Bootstrap Project. With seed-funding from such groups as Apple, Sun, and Mitch Kapor's foundation, he's investigating the use of computer collaboration for exploring computer collaboration. And only now, almost three decades after Doug's first visions of computer-assisted collaborative-work (CSCW), we are seeing the first bumpy inklings of viable groupware tools.

"For a Good Time, Call..."

In the '80s, Stewart Brand's Point Foundation, gave office space to the WELL — Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. (Both are located in Sausalito, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco.)

The WELL has under 5000 users, hardly the largest teleconferencing system in the world. But its 100+ public conferences may be the most highly reputed in computerdom, praised for their high quality of content, informal and egalitarian candor, ready sharing of broad-ranging expertise, and stellar collection of nationally-known participants from a great range of disciplines.

People's Computer Company

Around 1970, Albrecht's PCC developed a board of directors, had some political/personality hassles (the bane of volunteer efforts), and probably became somewhat boring for him. So Bob created People's Computer Company, which — despite it's name — was a quarterly tabloid newspaper with a wildly eccentric format, pictures of dragons, many-font text in varied alignments, reader's letters, virulent opinions, Basic programs, and fantasies of computer futures. It's focus was computer games, Basic for fun, and computers for people.

Adding confusion, Bob later created a nonprofit corporation, also named People's Computer Company (also called PCC), to publish PCC newspaper, which often reported on activities at PCC (People's Computer Center).

Altair Begat Tiny Basic

In January 1975, Bob read about the first computer kit, the Altair, from a small electronics company named MITS in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Being a Basic junkie, Albrecht wanted Basic on the Altair. But, the Altair came with 256 bytes — not kilobytes! — of memory, and additional 256-byte modules were expensive. Bob discussed it with Dennis Allison, a long-time computer consultant and PCC gadfly.

Aside: Dennis had worked at SRI and had close association with Doug Englebart — circles within circles within circles.

More asides: Ed Roberts owned MITS, sort of a poor-man's Heathkit. MITS had introduced a hand-held calculator kit, just in time to have its market demolished by a price-war between TI and Commodore. Ed decided to offer a computer kit, named by his young daughter after a planet in a "Star Trek" episode.

MITS' tech writer was Dave Bunnell, a liberal arts type who, when Ed first proposed the Altair, knew nothing about computers and envisioned a roomsized machine. In college, Dave had been an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organizer. He went on to be founding publisher of PC Magazine, followed by PC World, and often published strong editorials regarding socio-political issues in technology.

Designs by Dennis

For the fun of it, Dennis Allison designed Tiny Basic, a stripped-down language, coded in a simple pseudocode that was easily implemented on micros. He omitted such things as floating-point arithmetic, transcendental functions, and matrix operators; Bob's kids and games didn't need them.

Dennis and Bob published the design in PCC, in three parts, between March and September 1975. They then invited readers to share implementations. On December 12, 1975, Dick Whipple and John Arnold from Tyler, Texas, detailed their version, which required under 3K of RAM. They forwarded a full octal listing, shortly thereafter — cooperative effort, freely shared.

Dennis and Bob gathered the design articles, feedback letters, and Whipple and Arnold's Tiny Basic for a three-part document to be photocopied for anyone wanting it, costing a buck a part.

They handed the pieces to part-time pasteup artist Rick Bakalinsky, asking him to put it all together in a newsletter format. He asked what to title it. As Dennis and Bob departed for "the boardroom" (a local pizza and booze parlor), they told Rick to dream up a title.

Who Is Dr. Dobb?

Knowing nothing of computing or Basic, Rick wandered around PCC asking what it was about. It's about "Tiny Basic." It's an exercise in programming — "Calisthenics." What's tiny about it? Doesn't use many bytes—"Orthodontia," avoiding "Overbyte." Thinking that Dennis's name was Don, Rick named it "Dr. Dobb's," after "DOn" and "BoB."

More name notes: After WEC, Lois Brand, renamed Lois Britten, worked for PCC. Rick Bakalinsky listed himself in the DDJ staff box as Rosehip Maloy, later changing his name to Teal Lake. Not to be outdone, M&T abbreviated our haloed rag's name to, simply, "Dr. Dobb's Journal."

Personally, I sorta liked Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia, Running Light Without OverByte, burdensome though it was, Stanford's Ed Feigenbaum once said it was the only computer publication his wife would allow on their living room table.

Cooperative Anarchy

Dennis, Bob, Stewart, Lois, and over a thousand others were varyingly involved in the Midpeninsula Free University, reportedly the largest such "alternative university" in the nation. Membership was $10. Courses were entirely free; instruction and labor, entirely voluntary. It held that "one is neither too old to learn, nor too young to teach."

I was greatly interested in cooperative/alternative communities, and joined the Free U's Intentional Communities seminar, larger than all the other courses combined. The radical Maoist founders of the Free U objected to such "irrelevant hippie courses" with classic radical stupidity, insisted they be canceled — and were voted out of leadership by the large "hippie" majority.

Because of previous experience producing a regional math teacher's newsletter (pro bono), I was elected General Secretary of the Free U, responsible for producing its Free You newsletter — another volunteer venture.

Free U Prompted Macintosh Design

While I was General Secretary, Larry Tesler was MFU treasurer. He often helped produce the newsletter and the quarterly course catalog, a major chore, tediously typed on an infuriating proportional-spacing IBM Executive Selectric typewriter. Larry later worked at X-PARC, then moved to Apple, as part of the group that created the Mac.

He later told me that our frustrating MFU publishing efforts directly led him to explore computerized typesetting and page layout, which led him to want variable fonts, all of which caused him to successfully insist that the Macintosh have a bit-mapped monitor and printer — when all other popular computers of the early '80s had only character-oriented ASCII displays.

True story. A volunteer, alternative-lifestyle project directly prompted a major design innovation that now permeates microcomputing.

More Computer Connections

Back to Dennis and Bob: We first met around Free U circles. At the time, I was programming minicomputers (assembler-level, 4K memory, real-time applications) at Stanford Medical Center, working for a fellow Free U activist who wanted to make sure I could afford to continue volunteer MFU work.

Later, Dennis taught while I was a grad student, both in EE/CS at Stanford and in UCSF Med Center's Medical Information Science program. Additionally, Dennis chaired the local Association for Computing Machinery, SIGMICRO and SIGPLAN chapters, and I often followed him as their next chair — also editing the regional ACM/SIG newsletter. As usual, our work was as unpaid volunteers.

When PCC announced the Tiny Basic three-part quickie, response was immediate. People wanted it to continue, complaining that the few micro magazines of the time were preoccupied with hardware and didn't cover significant software. Dennis didn't have the time to edit such a rag. Bob knew little more than BASIC. Their tiny bank account couldn't compete with what competent computer pros were paid. When they wanted a technically competent editor who would work for peanuts....

Low Pay, Great Value

About a week before Christmas 1975, my Stanford doctoral adviser informed me he was cutting off my support as of January 1. Said he, I did good work, but couldn't write well enough to produce a dissertation. (He had also missed Stanford's tenure hurdle and was leaving for industry around June.)

I began reestablishing consulting contacts (then paying about $30,000-$40,000 per year), talked to Dennis, and he invited me to edit DDJ. The choice was easy — $40K/year consulting or $350/month editing a nonexistent software rag. Of course, I took the editorship — more fun, more interesting topic, greater potential impact.

One thing had to change, however. Being a snooty computer pro, I wasn't about to besmirch my reputation by editing a Basic mag. Thus, with the first issue of the ongoing magazine, I titled it Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics. The editorial style was informal and candid, and vigorously promoted sharing and consumer advocacy (the latter being easy; we had no advertisers to offend, and no money to attract libel lawyers). We were the only rag willing to devote 10 to 30 pages for hardcore code-listings.

More Later, Maybe

Much more could be said — about cooperative connections to the Homebrew Computer Club's immensely valuable biweekly sharing orgies; the largest public microcomputer conventions in the world; Info World; the PBS "Computer Chronicles," and much more — ventures that often made energetic volunteers into millionaires, as delightful but unplanned, unintended, incidental byproducts. And, that simply provides loot to pursue further socio-technical innovation.

What Are the Points?

The "expected" often doesn't occur.

The "unexpected" becomes almost predictable — commonly having much greater value, by any measure, than whatever was originally intended.

We are more productive when we freely share and cooperate than when we covetously clutch at each incremental innovation — so much more productive, that each individual, and our nation, ends up "getting" more than if we don't share.

Energetic, unpaid, or low-paid "volunteer" effort often has amazing "personal payoffs" while accomplishing needed and laudable improvements.

What's Next?

The areas for most valuable innovation and impact involve collecting, distributing, and processing massive quantities of information for "the masses." All of these areas have major, unending opportunities for individuals and small groups; none are limited to mammoth corporations:

  • Low-cost tools are needed to process and utilize ill-structured, heterogeneous text and graphic information.
  • Low-cost, high-capacity wired and wireless mass data distribution, e-mail, teleconferencing, BBS, and networking has great room for innovation. (Data broadcasting has unlimited opportunities and very low entry costs.)
  • Providing useful information in machine-readable form has opportunities without limit — from the mundane to the magnificent: (food) weekly grocery prices, dietary data; (shelter) rental housing, real estate data; (education) reference materials, school and college details; (money) economic data of all kinds; (legal) statutory and case law. And, community events, regional data, environmental information, political activity, local, regional, national, and international news, archival data, and time-sensitive information, without limit.

People's computers, accessing significant information about the People's world, assure a Free People. Our electronic "intellectual assistants" can provide "power to the people" — not from the end of a gun, but, rather, by allowing citizens the practical opportunity to make knowledgeable, reasoned decisions about their person, family, community, state, nation, and world.

Big, conservative corporations won't do it; risk-taking, dedicated, energetic individuals will do it — together. Let us continue.

Copyright © 1991, Dr. Dobb's Journal

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