• Read the article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)
I buy quite a few books that then sit on a shelf, Kindle or Audible account for several years. Since the year 2000 I’ve had “Dealers of Lightning”, a history of the earliest days of (American) computing, waiting to be read. The other day I was flicking through the notes at the back of the book and this article was mentioned so I tracked it down online.
SPACEWAR is an article that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972 written by Stewart Brand. Brand is fondly remembered by older technologists as the founder of an early online community called the WELL and the Whole Earth Catalog, a late 60’s / 70’s catalogue for members of the American counter-culture.
Friends, I won’t be able to explain every computer-technical term that comes by. Fortunately you don’t need them to get the gist of what’s happening.
A distinct, intelligent vibe
There is a distinct, intelligent vibe in the style of writing, although I wonder how much readers at the time were able to decipher what the author meant when he describes what is happening during the game. It makes sense to people today because we are all familiar with video games, but to put this article in some kind of context it appeared one week after the arcade game Pong was released and six years before Space Invaders.
Talking of vibe, this article reminds me a lot of Tom Wolfe’s wonderful look at the invention of the integrated circuit (microchip) and the birth of Silicon Valley in “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” from Esquire magazine. If you haven’t read either article, start with Wolfe’s. You won’t regret it.
Plus ça change…
Something else you notice is how things haven’t changed much in 45 years – for example Artificial Intelligence is still the bleeding edge in technical prowess…
There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference.
…and the image of the computer geek (“Computer Bum” or “hacker”) was also already being cultivated:
The hackers are the technicians of this science – “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor.
The beginnings of the internet
There is also some history of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), from which came the Arpanet and subsequently the internet.
“90 percent of all good things that I can think of that have been done in computer science have been done funded by that agency. Chances that they would have been funded elsewhere are very low.”
Some of today’s technology jargon was in use back then too – there is mention of users sitting down “on-line” with a computer, and the ARPA Network being “up” (working) or “down” (crashed).
The dream for the Net was that researchers at widely separated facilities could share special resources, dip into each other’s files, and even work on-line together on design problems too complex to solve alone.
“How Net usage will evolve is uncertain”
Also, they saw possible opportunities and risks when connecting machines together, echoing today’s debates over internet freedoms vs surveillance:
How Net usage will evolve is uncertain. There’s a curious mix of theoretical fascination and operational resistance around the scheme. The resistance may have something to do with reluctances about equipping a future Big Brother and his Central Computer. The fascination resides in the thorough rightness of computers as communications instruments, which implies some revolutions.
They were aware that the Net had the opportunity to disrupt industries and even back then they picked out the news industry and the music biz:
From anywhere on the Net you can log in and get the news that’s coming live over the wire … Project that to household terminals, and so much for newspapers (in present form).
Since huge quantities of information can be computer-digitalized and transmitted, music researchers could, for example, swap records over the Net with “essentially perfect fidelity.” So much for record stores (in present form).
Their ideas, our world
One aspect that came over very strongly – reading this with the benefit of hindsight – is how the ideas from this group of people have shaped the computing environment we have today. Some of the projects they were working on or discussing may not have had names back then but they do now. Examples? How about the paperless office or desktop publishing.
But it was the picture of the “Dynabook” that took my breath away.
It looks like an iPad with the on-screen keyboard showing…
It is described as:
a hand-held stand-alone interactive-graphic computer… It’ll have a graphics capability which’ll let you make sketches, make drawings… Working with a stylus on the display screen… incorporate music in it so you can use it for composing… It has the Smalltalk language capability which lets people program their own things very easily… And of course it plays Spacewar.”
That description sounds to me like the Apple Pencil, iTunes / Garageband, Swift Playgrounds and Apps.
Products from Apple – the biggest company in the world today by market capitalization.
(Addendum: Some product names from Apple include PowerBook, iBook, Macbook)
Ideas at the core of Apple?
Now having discovered this article I think that Steve Jobs’ ideas on the nature of computing could have been inspired by this kind of reporting. This article from Rolling Stone came out in December 1972, more than 3 years before the founding of Apple in 1976. He was 17 when this article came out.
One of the ideals that comes across throughout this article is what the impact could be once computers are accessible to everyone:
away from hugeness and centrality, toward the small and the personal, toward putting maximum computer power in the hands of every individual who wants it… They’ll reach millions when computer power becomes like telephone power…. I think it’s important to bring computing to the people… Far beyond borrowing some one else’s computer is having your own computer… Computing power to the people.
That sounds like the Macintosh – the computer for the rest of us.
There is so much here to enjoy. I heartily recommend you read this if you have any interest in computing. I just wonder how many more of these articles are out there in old general interest magazines.
The article in all its 1970’s glory: