…when personal computers were revolutionary
author: Marlin Ouverson, essay © 2001
“Computers are mostly used against people instead of for people; used to control people instead of to free them; Time to change all that — we need a… Peoples Computer Company.“
I had part of a class in Fortran under my belt when I dropped out of a small community college in Iowa. I confess to having liked everything about punch cards (except dropping a deck). I can practically smell them, even now, against a fluorescent white background populated by tape drives and printer chatter.
Various adventures claimed my attention for a few years and landed me, unemployed, in Menlo Park with a sketchy background in editing and publishing. I was hauled reluctantly back into technology when the PCC1 board of directors heard about me: after several meetings at the Peninsula Creamery, a diner in Palo Alto,2 Dave Caulkins hooked me with a discussion about PCC’s “computing power for people” philosophy. They persuaded me that personal computers — still a novel concept and even suspect in some corporate and computer science circles — were indeed revolutionary.
They wanted an unbiased editor for Dr. Dobb’s Journal,3 one who would maintain a hallowed space for ideas to thrive, or not, on their own merit. My near-complete technical ignorance apparently qualified me for the job: I had no basis for bias and willingly followed the directive to let a thousand lilies bloom.
“We who have had some degree of involvement with DDJ and People’s Computer Company (PCC) modestly think of this publication as the lever which, with the slightest degree of pressure, just might move the world a bit. By serving the high end of the technological spectrum, some of our efforts do find their way by mysterious means into products and services which help people. This happens when one of our readers who sees the true potential of computers, and some piece of software we publish, puts them together in new ways.”
The material was so new to me that it was a month or two before I would know for certain if some of those articles, almost laughably over my head, even had a verb and a noun in each sentence! But I was comfortable in the role, I agreed with the philosophy and enjoyed finding words to frame it, and it was fun to facilitate the quasi-heretical communications of computerdom’s then-counterculture.
Sometimes dentists would write to us. We would laugh, for reasons a few people will remember, and it never occurred to anyone I knew to ask those dentists what they wanted a computer to do and then make a “product” for that market.
A PCC co-worker and I did a computer-literacy presentation for the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, and had a hard time getting any attendees to sit down and actually touch a keyboard.
PCC’s activists took any and every computer to presentations like that4 and to hands-on children’s events (revolutionary!), so it was a big deal when the editor got one just for editing Dr. Dobb’s Journal and Recreational Computing.5 Some number crunching and consensus building went into that purchase.
DDJ flourished and circulation doubled, or thereabouts, during my two years as editor. But Recreational Computing was sold to be absorbed by another publication, payroll was dicey, and the free spirits were focused, appropriately enough, on their respective horizons. I eventually disagreed with some board decisions that would greatly influence the subsequent course of DDJ and decided to part company with PCC.
“I was comfortable in the role, I agreed with the philosophy and enjoyed finding words to frame it, and it was fun to facilitate the quasi-heretical communications of computerdom’s then-counterculture.”
After that, I spent many years editing material primarily about the Forth language, aspects of which I still believe to resonate subtly with the ideals I found at PCC. (Yes, Forth still is around at both .org and .com.)
I now focus on print and web-based communications and creations. Apart from always looking for interesting projects to work on, I’m still interested in appropriate uses of technology and am concerned about today’s trends away from the ideas we endorsed at PCC.
A few years ago, I was driving across the great plains of the U.S. Midwest to visit friends in a Native American community. From interstate highways to state pavement, onto gravel and then BLM-maintained dirt roads, I felt the kind of calm relief that sometimes comes with distance from bloated, insistent technology.
At last I came to the lone house perched between prairie and badlands. I turned off the engine and listened to the sound of the breeze and horses grazing in the yard behind the clothesline. One of the traditional community’s leaders stepped onto the porch and waved me over. “Hey, it’s good to see you again. I got e-mail now, but I need you to install it for me.”
Copyright © 2001 by Marlin Ouverson. All rights reserved.
12 December 2009
1. The original People’s Computer Company (see Wikipedia’s PCC article)
2. Palo Alto, California, USA is on the peninsula south of the city of San Francisco, part of what was then just becoming known as Silicon Valley.
3. Dr. Dobb’s Journal (DDJ) published free source code as a service to the at-first quite small community of microcomputer owners. Little or no commercial software would be available for these machines for several years, and PCC enabled DDJ authors to place considerable amounts of code into the public domain, heralding the later open-source software (OSS) movement. (See Wikipedia’s DDJ article)
4. In the earliest phases of these activities, the computer often was not a type that was considered portable to any degree, but they devised ways to transport it.
5. Recreational Computing was another small magazine published by PCC. It can be thought of as the evolutionary end-phase of the first-ever periodical about microcomputing, whose name at first was the same as that of its parent: People’s Computer Company. Marlin Ouverson was its last editor before it was subsumed by another publication. Like DDJ, it intentionally and as a matter of principle published source code without copyright. Unlike DDJ, the material in Recreational Computing was oriented toward games because of a guiding philosophy in which play takes a vital role in the learning and child-development processes. And because it’s fun.
Originally posted at site devoted to the alumni of People’s Computer Company.
Re-posted here: 12 December 2009