To celebrate the 20th anniversary of my original website from 1997 I have re-published it for all to see.
This site has moved home a few times over the years. It was originally hosted at CERN when I was working my first proper job and then on Google Drive.
Now I have it hosted on Amazon Web Services (for less than 60p a month).
• 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:
This is an excellent introduction to bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and the blockchain, intelligently covering the subject in 200 pages.
My favourite sections examine the blockchain, delving into subjects such as public key cryptography, proof of work and its relation to bitcoin. It doesn’t get overly technical but explains step-by-step how things work. Despite bitcoin being better known, it is clear that the blockchain – the foundational technology behind the currency – is more likely to revolutionise the economy. The problems facing bitcoin are not widely covered but are mentioned here.
Apart from breaking up the text, the pictures in the book serve absolutely no purpose and most add nothing to the narrative whatsoever. I’m impressed – it must take some effort to be so bad. Conversely the graphs and timelines are well done, clearly showing trends and imparting a lot of information in a concise way.
The glossary is handy and the last section called “fifty ideas” is an excellent resource if you want to read further.
One thing that perplexes me is the title of the book. Cryptocurrencies will not be “the end of money” – this is the conclusion the book itself comes to in the section called “Is bitcoin really money?”. So maybe the tile should have been “The End of Money?”. Not a big deal but it struck me as strange.
Still, if the other books in the Instant Expert series are as good as this, I will be reading more.
This lovingly crafted blog is celebrating its tenth birthday. A beer (or ten) is cooling in the fridge to toast the reaching of a milestone. Happy birthday!
• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns nine…
• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns eight…
• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns seven…
• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns six…
• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns five…
• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns four…
• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns three…
This great video explains who is at threat from automation in the workplace. Watch it and, like me, try to think what you can do about it…
• Spare Cycles: Article: Better Than Human (Wired)
• Spare Cycles: Mini Review: Race Against The Machine
• BuzzMachine.com: The jobless future
• Douglas Rushkoff : Are Jobs Obsolete?
This is the story of the early development of the computer in the United States, one that is inextricably linked to the creation of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Despite Turing’s name in the title, he only plays a small role. Rather, this book concerns John von Neumann and the Institute for Advanced Study – how a group of mathematicians and engineers took Turing’s idea of a Universal machine and made one of the early computers.
I am conflicted about this book. It is a definitive telling of the story of what happened on the other side of the Atlantic and I do recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. On the other hand, it can be rather dry and contains some largely unnecessary information. I’m all for details to make the history come alive, but some passages take you into quite long diversions from the tale being told. This could put off some readers early on, but I’d advise you to stick with it. Also, towards the end of the book the author tries to link the early developments with the internet and technology companies of today but he doesn’t do a particularly good job. To me it seemed redundant.
In relation to the audiobook version, the narrator does as a professional job – another default American male voice. It can be a little monotonous, but consistent. He does a good job with some challenging names of people and places. There are a lot of characters in this book and he wisely does not try to give each person their own voice.
Overall I would recommend this book. It is not perfect but in general it is a good story well told. This is one of the rare books where I would recommend you go for the paper version – there can be a lot to digest at points and it would be easier to follow. At some point I will pick up a copy myself, not to fully re-read but to be able to refer back to.
• The Wall Street Journal: The Nucleus of the Digital Age
• The Guardian: Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson – review