Wallace, James. Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. 307 pages.This book picks up where a 1992 book by James Wallace (with co-author Jim Erickson), titled Hard Drive, left off. Neither book benefitted from any cooperation with Microsoft Corporation, although some employees and executives gave off-the-record interviews. This is the story of nerdy Bill Gates, the world's richest man, and his relentless quest to monopolize. At first it was microcomputer software. Now that this has succeeded, Gates is leveraging this position into a takeover of cyberspace. Microsoft is not known for its innovation (they almost missed the Internet), but rather for its ability to borrow, purchase, or steal the innovations of others and market the hell out of them. It forces competitors out of business by dumping products on the market, announcing nonexistent upgrades, generating phony error messages, and strong-arming computer manufacturers who might otherwise prefer to bundle non-Microsoft products with their machines.
The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission have been investigating Microsoft for years, but Gates and his lawyers are more powerful than mere bureaucrats and legislators. And it helps considerably that Microsoft is the darling of Wall Street. With a climate of deregulation producing such fantastic riches, it's clear that a crash will be required before the trustbusters can do what the taxpayers expect of them.
Brockman, John. Digerati: Encounters With the Cyber Elite. San Francisco: Hardwired, 1996. 354 pages.This slick book was put together by modish literary agent and elitist panderer John Brockman. It was published by a self-indulgent Wired Magazine spinoff that announced their takeover of the universe in 1994 and began downsizing by 1997. Between Brockman in New York City and Wired in San Francisco, whether you go across the U.S. or around the globe, no one seemed to notice; archaeologists of the future will have a tough time figuring out these pages. Neither Linux nor GNU are mentioned even once, and Bill Gates is a hero. "Part of my charm is that I am always wrong," says Brockman.
Nevertheless, it's useful to get these high-tech mavens on the record, if only to keep them too embarrassed to venture a comment (or start a bogus gold rush) the next time around. There are separate chapters based on interviews with Stewart Alsop, John Perry Barlow, Stewart Brand, David Bunnell, Doug Carlston, Denise Caruso, Steve Case, John C. Dvorak, Esther Dyson, Bill Gates, David Gelernter, Mike Godwin, W. Daniel Hillis, David R. Johnson, Brewster Kahle, Kevin Kelly, Jaron Lanier, Ted Leonsis, John Markoff, John McCrea, Scott McNealy, Jane Metcalfe, Kip Parent, Howard Rheingold, Louis Rossetto, Paul Saffo, Bob Stein, Cliff Stoll, Linda Stone, Lew Tucker, Sherry Turkle, Dave Winer, and Richard Saul Wurman. If this seems cool to you, they may all be yakking away still at www.edge.org.
Edstrom, Jennifer and Eller, Marlin. Barbarians Led by Gates: Microsoft From the Inside -- How the World's Richest Corporation Wields Its Power. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998. 256 pages.In 1999, the United Nations Development Program said in its annual global review, that Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer have more assets, nearly $140 billion, than the combined gross national product of the 43 least-developed countries and their 600 million people. It's small wonder that some Microsoft insiders have begun to think twice about the situation. This book is the result of an unusual collaboration between Jennifer Edstrom (the daughter of PR guru Pam Edstrom), and Marlin Eller, a programmer and project manager at Microsoft until he quit in 1995.
Eller confirms that Microsoft's software is deliberately "gnarly" and excessively layered, mainly to keep outside developers from becoming too independent. Time and again, Microsoft's strategy has been to see who is doing well with new applications, and then leverage Windows to copy the competition, overtake them, and finally crush them. While this book makes a useful contribution, it's unfortunately packaged as a "colorful history" that "dishes up the dirt." Hopefully it won't take too many more years before Microsoft is properly judged by some of the social and ethical standards for corporations that began to emerge in 2002. So far, Gates and Ballmer are still laughing all the way to the bank.
Kaplan, David A. The Silicon Boys. New York: William Morrow, 1999. 358 pages.If you like Hollywood celebrities in long limousines, living in huge mansions, flying to meetings in private jets, and throwing parties with ostrich salami appetizers, then you'll love Silicon Valley. David Kaplan, a writer for Newsweek, provides an educational portrait of the movers and shakers behind the excess: Steve Jobs, Jerry Yang, Larry Ellison, John Doerr, Marc Andreessen, Jim Clark, and Jim Barksdale. Bill Gates is covered (his ghost is everywhere in Silicon Valley), as well as dropout Steve Wozniak, and historical figures William Shockley and Gary Kildall. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Apple, Oracle, Sun, Yahoo, Netscape, and the venture capital scene are examined. A broad brush is used, with some well-crafted, witty sketches of certain personalities wedged between the broader strokes.
This book is no Hollywood celebrity knock-off, but instead is an excellent piece of historical journalism and social criticism. Over 100 interviews were required, along with attendance at some amazing parties. The bibliography lists 55 books. The author spent a year at Stanford in 1994-95, where much of the action was, and also spent most of 1998 in Silicon Valley. When dollars were raining from high-tech start-ups, this book was barely noticed. Yet the writing was already on the wall from the very last paragraph: "The Valley once was a new machine. It changed the world. It may do so yet again. But the machine has no soul anymore."
Goodell, Jeff. The Cyberthief and the Samurai. New York: Dell Publishing, 1996. 328 pages.There are three main characters in this story: Kevin Mitnick, the notorious computer hacker who was chased for two years by the FBI; Tsutomu Shimomura, a computer security expert who presumed that Mitnick had broken into his machines at the San Diego Supercomputer Center; and John Markoff, a reporter who hyped Mitnick in the NYT after co-authoring a book about him. The chase is on: forged e-mail and faxes, cell-phone triangulations, the FBI, and U.S. Marshals. A simple case of good guys vs. bad guy, right?
Not so fast. Mitnick is incorrigible, but he doesn't try to profit from his computer break-ins. He's the product of a poor, broken family, a "hacker without a cause." By contrast, Shimomura is a conceited, privileged yuppie, a cell phone glued to his ear, even on the ski slopes. He too lacks a social conscience, having once worked on nuclear weapons design at Los Alamos (even though his father was 15 kilometers outside Nagasaki when the bomb dropped), and now working with the ethically-challenged National Security Agency. Then there's John Markoff, reporting for the NYT, which invariably reads like a supermarket tabloid whenever it mentions the Internet. In the end, Mitnick is in the slammer again for a long time, thanks to the untiring efforts of Shimomura and Markoff, who are now millionaires with book and movie deals. Now find the cyberthieves, by identifying those who made out like bandits.
Levy, Steven. Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government -- Saving Privacy in the Digital Age. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. 356 pages.Steven Levy is a cyber pundit who has never met a nerd he didn't like. Since 1995 he has been working for Newsweek in addition to his freelancing. In the 2002-12-16 issue of Newsweek, he praised Google for being so wonderful, and only in passing mentioned that "privacy takes a hit when anyone can browse through your life in half a second." How does Levy reconcile the subtitle of this book with his love for Google? It's easy: the cypherpunks were geeky, and Google is full of geeks. Nerds can do no wrong. Levy often misses the nuances of the big picture (we recall him touting "Hackers" some years back), but he writes rather well. It is uncertain which of these characteristics qualifies him to be Newsweek's chief technology writer.
This book is all about the battle between the National Security Agency and the community of geeks and engineers who emerged with the personal computer. The NSA tried everything to stifle the development of computer algorithms that were difficult to crack. In this thirty-year war between the spooks and the geeks, citizens slowly won the right to use strong crypto. But since 9/11, and the Patriot Act, and Total Information Awareness (the book was finished earlier), many suspect by now that the battle has merely shifted to a new playing field, where the stakes are much higher.
Markoff, John. What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. New York: Viking, 2005. 310 pages.This book argues that the 1960s and early 1970s transformed the U.S. with "broad political and social upheaval that stripped away the comfortable middle-class veneer of the previous decade." Okay, no argument there. Next it claims that "the computer technologies that we take for granted today owe their shape to this unruly period." To make his case, Markoff concentrates on the California bay area, and mostly on the Stanford University scene. Now he's on thin ice, despite some good yarns in this book. Ultimately, the connections are too loose to be convincing. It's more likely that hardware advances drove the geeks, rather than the counterculture. That's not sexy packaging for a story, and Markoff likes to tell stories.
Two major institutions of the era, the Stanford Research Center and Xerox's PARC, set the scene. SRI was funded mainly by the Pentagon, even though saunas, human-potential fad philosophies, and acid trips were not unknown among its staff. In fact, these mixed rather well with grad-school geeks who worked there because they needed a "critical industries" draft deferment. Geeks can be superficial as soon as they're out of sight from a keyboard. Thankfully, Markoff also describes some who were seriously committed to the antiwar and antidraft movements, even as they pursued their interest in technology. This is what finally saves his book.
Menn, Joseph. All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning's Napster. New York: Crown Business, 2003. 355 pages.From 1999 to 2001, as the rise and burst of the dot-com bubble made headlines, a smaller rags to riches to rags story was happening at Napster. This was an interactive website that mediated between users who were looking for particular tracks of digital music, and other users who already owned that track and were willing to share it. Shawn Fanning was a programmer and central figure behind Napster, while his uncle John Fanning wrote the fine print, ended up with 70 percent ownership, and found venture capital. By October 1999, Napster could handle 22,000 simultaneous users, as it was basically a centralized index of user indexes. Once two anonymous users found each other and began transferring an MP3 file, the transfer happened outside of Napster. This made the copyright situation somewhat murky.
The Recording Industry Association of America filed a suit against Napster in December 1999, a judge issued an injunction, and the Ninth Circuit upheld it in February 2001. Napster died a few months later, and MP3 files were harder to find within a few years. Update: Several sites in Russia began hosting huge MP3 libraries, charging as little as 15 cents per track for downloads. RIAA then pressured Visa and MasterCard, which stopped service to one of these sites in 2006. Simultaneously, the U.S. was able to apply pressure because Russia wanted to join the World Trade Organization.
Miles, Sara. How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. 248 pages.Sara Miles is a progressive San Francisco-based writer who once worked for Mother Jones magazine. Portions of this book have appeared in Wired, Wired News, San Francisco Focus, and the New York Times Magazine. On the surface, this is a witty study of a bagman for the Democratic Party, Wade Randlett, as Miles follows him around Silicon Valley during the late 1990s. Randlett is a power-hungry backroom operator who is trying to funnel Silicon Valley's wealth into the coffers of Clinton and Gore, by organizing astroturf committees and attending parties given by rich people. His only ideology might be called "opportunistic centrism." Miles finds him interesting and appalling at the same time.
For those who may feel that there is little difference between the two parties, there's still a reason why this book valuable. To date, journalists have offered precious few accounts of who's who within Silicon Valley culture, and what motivates them, even though their influence on the rest of the world is undeniable. It's a strange place: there is too much money flying around, with too little history behind it, and too much isolation and self-importance. This can be a hilarious, strange, and even worrisome combination, particularly since the Valley's top players care little, and know less, about public policy and world affairs.
Motavalli, John. Bamboozled at the Revolution: How Big Media Lost Billions in the Battle for the Internet. New York: Viking, 2002. 334 pages.This is a history of Time-Warner, America Online, Disney, Newscorp, and the TV networks, as each attempted to stake out its presence on the Internet before the bubble burst. The author worked for a number of media trade publications, was the first Internet columnist at the New York Post from 1996 to 1997, and later worked at CMGI, a dot-com that saw its stock plunge from $150 to $3. He is very much an "insider," and outsiders may feel that the book contains too much detail about too many high-flyers at aging media companies. Nevertheless, it's amusing to read about ambitious execs as they try to figure out the meaning of the Internet. Is it content, eyeballs, banner ads, or portals? Without a business plan, is it possible to make do with high-tech buzzwords? "Bamboozled" is an appropriate word for the title. Another phrase, found on the flyleaf, is "black dotcomedy."
Most of the detail has to do with Time Warner, which was taken over by AOL in January 2000. Today, nearly five years later, Time Warner is still trying to recover, and AOL is still reorganizing. Now all the talk is about Google, which just completed its IPO and is the proud sponsor of Internet Bubble 2.0. As a measure of how fast things change, Google didn't get a single mention in this book -- because in 2002, just two years ago, it wasn't on anyone's radar.
Munk, Nina. Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. 352 pages.Nina Munk, a writer for Fortune and Vanity Fair, not only spent hundreds of hours in interviews for this book, but she also put it together so that it's a pleasure to read. The research behind the book is impressive, while only a novelist could spin a better yarn. You can hardly wait to move from the chapter titled "Enter the Internet Cowboys" and through "The Big Deal" (when AOL bought Time Warner) and then to the endgame as it all began to fall apart one year later. By late 2003, their stock was down 70 percent from January 2001 when the deal closed. It is still at that low level as of early 2006.
This is a book about two very different companies that merged during the Internet bubble. AOL puffed up with the bubble, and in 1999 its market cap was twice Time Warner's, even though it had only one-fifth of that old-media company's revenues. That's when Steve Case talked Jerry Levin, who was feeling rather obsolete, into a merger. The AOL gunslingers waltzed into Time Warner and alienated everyone, and at the same time the bubble popped. By the end of the book the AOL people had been purged, lawyers hired by stockholders were salivating, and Time Warner was in turmoil. A sad ending: Most of the insiders cashed out in the first half of 2001, while the stock was still doing okay, and retired comfortably.
Rivlin, Gary. The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man ... and the People Who Hate Him. New York: Random House (Times Business), 1999. 360 pages.Unlike most books about Bill Gates, this one is less focused on internal events at Microsoft, and draws in several other kinky Silicon Valley luminaries who had reason to watch Microsoft closely. Nothing rises to the level of a "plot," despite the catchy title. It's closer to "worried self-defense." When this book was written, there was still plenty of money to be made by everyone. Gary Kildall, Scott McNealy, Larry Ellison, and others who disliked Bill Gates were all stinking rich, only they weren't as rich as Bill. So you pout, or you throw insults, or you play macho on your yacht, but no one risks what they already have by "plotting."
There have been big changes since this book was published in 1999. The bubble burst in 2000, only to rise again by 2005. Today Eric Schmidt, a minor pre-Google character in this book, is counting his billions. The bubble seems ready to burst once again, now that Google is overhyped and totally dependent on ad income. Microsoft, meanwhile, got legal relief when the Democrats lost in 2000, only to find themselves in trouble with the European Union. Gates is interested in philanthropy, and few see him as a threat. Microsoft never did make money from the Internet, while Google is making too much money, most of which is accidental and undeserved.
Rohm, Wendy Goldman. The Microsoft File: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates. New York: Times Business Books (Random House), 1998. 313 pages.After a decade as a journalist specializing in high-tech, Wendy Goldman Rohm found at least one Deep Throat with some access to internal Microsoft e-mail. This book is the result. While not exactly a smoking gun (whenever Microsoft trains its firepower on a competitor, they're as likely to brag about it as to disguise it with PR), it provides an inside view of the historical situation as the antitrust trial begins. Several topics are covered in detail: how Microsoft pressured Europe's largest PC manufacturer to discard DR-DOS; the struggle of various innovators, such as WordPerfect, Lotus, Borland, and Novell, to survive Microsoft's leveraging of Windows into "office suite" applications; Microsoft's clear preference for stealing ideas and buying products rather than innovating them; the history of the antitrust case since it started at the FTC seven years earlier; and Bill Gates himself, whose predatory personality dominates the Microsoft campus.
The only criticism of this book might be that Rohm is a closet novelist. Sometimes her prose is unnecessarily poetic, while at other times the snippets of reconstructed dialog detract from the book's credibility, and fail to add the personal dimension that was presumably intended. Nevertheless, Rohm gets an "A" on her homework for this story, and she turned it in at a crucial moment in high-tech political history.
Hafner, Katie and Markoff, John. Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster (Touchstone), 1992. 368 pages.With the end of the Cold War, it seems that the "hacker gap" is replacing the "missile gap." The only thing that's certain is that the media can never be accused of a "hype gap." Katie Hafner, a technology reporter, and John Markoff, who reports on computers from the San Francisco bureau of the New York Times, take the dive into cyberpunk culture with this book.
They describe three notorious cases. One case is Kevin Mitnick, who thrived on junk food and began hanging out with Southern California phone phreaks in 1980. By 1988 he was busted by the FBI for breaking into Digital Equipment Corporation's computers. (He must be doing something right -- suddenly he's famous. So he keeps at it, and in 1995 is busted again.) Another case involves low-level Internet espionage by West Berlin's contribution to Generation X: punks who did it for fun and pocket change. The KGB, which provided the pocket change, basically got ripped off; it was the media who made out like bandits. The last case is more interesting: Roger Morris Sr., a hot-shot expert for the National Security Agency, raises a genius but forgets to teach him about right and wrong. Whereupon Roger Morris Jr. launches a virus that shuts down thousands of Internet computers in 1988. Junior gets probation, so the only real losers were all those trees that were cut down to follow the incident in newspaper headlines.
Stoll, Cliff. The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage. New York: Pocket Books, 1990. 356 pages.Cliff Stoll did his graduate work in astronomy and landed a job at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, where he assisted those responsible for maintaining the lab's Unix-based local network, and wrote programs for astronomers. Unlike the Livermore lab, where they designed nuclear weapons, the Berkeley lab did no classified research. Stoll was asked to resolve a seventy-five cent discrepancy in the computer accounts. This led to a year-long pursuit of a hacker in Germany who was going through Berkeley to browse on other unclassified systems. These were usually defense-related agencies that were connected to the Internet.
An interesting ethical problem emerges, however. Stoll, who sports long hair that looks like he just rose from an electric chair, was a "radical" Berkeley cyberspace cadet who logged in with all the right parameters -- yogurt, crewcut female motorcyclists for housemates, and Halloween parades in San Francisco. So why did he spend a year jetsetting with the CIA, NSA, FBI, and various Pentagon spooks, teaching them everything he knows and begging them to become more involved in computer security? Now it's the next decade, and these same agencies are close to monitoring every keystroke on every network. Punk hackers are irresponsible and irritating, but U.S. intelligence can be irresponsible and fatal.
Dublin, Max. Futurehype: The Tyranny of Prophecy. New York: Penguin Books (Plume), 1992. 290 pages.In this, his first book, Max Dublin, a Harvard Ph.D. and research fellow at the University of Toronto, takes aim at the institutionalization of prophecy. He sees prophecy creeping into our daily lives, from corporate executives and bureaucratic officials with their "strategic plans," to Pentagon generals and information-age gurus. Lurking behind our culture's obsession with the future are hidden agendas: prophecy depends on ideological assumptions, and is used to promote social power.
The first three chapters deal with prophecy as propaganda, the psychology of futurology, and the ideology of futurology. The next four examine "futurehype" in the military, in education, in health, and in the environmental movement. The last chapter, "Truth and Politics in Debates About the Future," makes some important observations about the confusion of science and politics in our culture: "Not only do scientific debates have wide political ramifications, but what would otherwise be hopelessly shoddy political debates often manage to achieve a certain degree of legitimacy and respectability by assuming scientific airs. As a consequence of all of this, both scientific and political debates about the future tend at best to be obscure and confusing and at worst to be mistaken and misleading."
Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. New York: Viking, 1987. 285 pages.Futurist Stewart Brand, the man behind the Whole Earth Catalog, has never met a gadget he didn't like. After spending three months at MIT's Media Lab in 1986, he was positively dazzled. When it was founded in 1985 by Nicholas Negroponte, the Lab emphasized computers and multimedia. Ten years later it began its silly season with "Things that Think" (chips in shoes or clothing that communicate with the wearer, for example). But just then the Internet materialized out of nowhere and caught the Lab with its micropants down. Judging from its website, by now the MIT Media Lab has made up for lost time by promoting projects that expand e-commerce.
More interesting than Brand's futurism are the observations he makes about the funding behind the Lab. (Brand hit the major points, but these figures are from 1995 instead of from his 1987 book.) The Lab's annual budget is $25 million, mostly from 95 corporate sponsors, half of which are overseas. While the Lab claims that sponsors cannot dictate the research, it's also true that grad students have to sign a nondisclosure agreement before receiving aid, and sponsors often fund research that is proprietary. Given this history, it's not surprising that since the Internet arrived, the Lab has been chasing the dot-com rainbow. But one has to ask: What about the public sector? Where's the vision? Does anyone at the Media Lab care?
Jackson, Tim. Inside Intel: Andy Grove and the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Chip Company. New York: Dutton (Penguin Books), 1997. 424 pages.Intel Corporation was founded in 1968 by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. They were from Fairchild Semiconductor, which by 1967 had lost momentum. Both were engineers with outstanding reputations in the field of integrated circuits, and had no trouble getting venture funding to start up Intel. Andy Grove, a university student in Hungary who emigrated to America after the Soviet intervention in 1956, was another Fairchild engineer who moved over to Intel. In 1971 Intel announced the 4004 microprocessor. The next year they released the 8008. It wasn't long before Bill Gates and Paul Allen, two students from a private high school in Northern Seattle, scraped together the $360 they needed to buy a 8008 from a local electronics store.
By 1984 Intel had 25,000 employees, but their memory chip business was hurting because of competition from Japan. Within a year they got out of memory chips and concentrated on microprocessors. The 286, 386, 486 and Pentium chips provided solid growth over the next ten years, nurtured partly by the Microsoft monopoly over desktop computing. [In 2000 Intel had 70,000 employees. Chief executive Craig Barrett, groomed as the successor to the 63-year-old Grove, is looking for ways to expand beyond processors, into chips and products for networking and communications. Grove is now a roving Intel promoter, while day-to-day operations are handled by Barrett.]
Clark, Jim with Edwards, Owen. Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion-Dollar Start-Up That Took on Microsoft. New York: St.Martin's Griffin, 2000. 276 pages.This is billionaire Jim Clark's version of events at Netscape, which wowed Wall Street with a wildly-successful IPO in August 1995. It could be said that Netscape started the dot-com gold rush. Clark, who grew up poor, went from Stanford professor to found Silicon Graphics in the early 1980s. He left in 1994 with just $20 million, after losing control and becoming bitter. Then he started Netscape by enticing some nerds at the University of Illinois, who had programmed Mosaic, to the high-caffeine lifestyle of Silicon Valley. The first and most important of these was Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape.
Everyone at Netscape got rich because their timing was good, their browser was better than Mosaic, and Microsoft was still asleep. Clark kept control at Netscape, but brought in Jim Barksdale to run things. When Clark's Netscape stock went from $2 billion to $200 million in 1998 (Microsoft was no longer asleep), he started looking for a way out. AOL bought Netscape, and Clark focused on a third startup. All three of Clark's companies are now on the rocks, but Clark knows when to jump ship. He's got his new $30 million yacht, bought a building for Stanford, still has his airplane, and also his overblown reputation as an entrepreneur.
Segaller, Stephen. Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet. New York: TV Books, 1999. 412 pages.This book grew out of a public television documentary and is based on more than seventy interviews with Internet pioneers. It is comprehensive and well-written, although some hype seeps though occasionally, as might be expected from any book written at the peak of the dot-com boom. But the effect is minimal, since this book deals mostly with events that occurred before our overeager mass media even knew that the Internet existed.
The story begins in 1957 with the launching of Sputnik, which sent shivers up the spines of the cold warriors. Money began pouring from the defense establishment into open-ended technical research and education. ARPA-funded university nerds developed digital communications protocols, and started a modest network; RAND and the Stanford Research Institute were also involved. Later the Palo Alto Research Center, a unique nerdy think tank owned by Xerox, played an important role. Soon after an affordable microprocessor chip appeared in 1974, the PhD nerds were eclipsed by the homebrew computer nerds. Over the next twenty years, everything got twice as fast, with twice the memory, and half as expensive, over and over again every few years. This book focuses on personalities, but the Internet was mostly driven by advances in hardware. The people involved, while quaint and capable, merely happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Toffler, Alvin and Heidi. War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993. 302 pages.Alvin and Heidi Toffler are billed as the world's most influential futurists. Their credits include titles such as Future Shock, The Third Wave, and Powershift, published in more than fifty countries and thirty languages. This book is a hymn of praise to the forward-looking elites in the U.S. military establishment, who bounced back from the demoralization of Vietnam to join the 21st-century with their Gulf War "smart bombs." The Tofflers don't try to moralize; they only observe. This is the information age, but in Vietnam our methods of waging war were dependent on the mass production and mass destruction of the industrial age. The shift from industrial to information age is as profound as the shift from agrarian age to industrial age; it's high time for warmakers to get with the program.
The Tofflers provide interesting reading, and they interview some information-age strategists from places like Rand Corporation and the Pentagon. As unreliable as futurism is, at least it makes us think. One thought we had is that it seems just as likely that nationalist, religious, and population pressures, along with the cultural trend toward dumbed-down infotainment, will fragment everything into another agrarian age within a hundred years. The information age may be dandy for elites, but bytes of data do not a meal make.
Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 327 pages.The author of this book, Fred Turner, is an assistant professor of communication at Stanford University. Turner's central premise is that Stewart Brand and his hippie Whole Earth catalogs, and the hacker ethic of the emerging digital age, are both part of the same seamless, wonderful technical utopianism that revolutionized the world. For example, the WELL, an early bulletin-board and email social network, is awarded its own 34-page chapter with 91 end notes. The bibliography in this book lists 500 books and articles. By any standard is much ado about very little.
On that small matter of the "dark side of utopia," Turner devotes a precious few pages at the end of the book. He comments on Ellen Ullman's 1997 "Close to the Machine," and notes that "the libertarian rhetoric of self-reliance ... can also permit a deep denial of the moral and material costs of the long-term shift toward network modes of production and ubiquitous computing." (page 259) Unfortunately, the author does not mention Google anywhere, which in 2006 some believed was the ultimate expression of digital excellence within anti-corporate culture. If he had investigated Google, Turner might have written more about how technology does not change human nature, but merely amplifies it.
Young, Jeffrey S. Cisco Unauthorized: Inside the High-Stakes Race to Own the Future. Roseville CA: Prima Publishing (Forum), 2001. 310 pages.Another dot-com-goes-bust story? Well yes, Cisco's stock had dropped dramatically by the time this book was written, and four years later it's still stuck there. And yes, there was a tremendous amount of techno-utopian fog produced by chief Cisco bubble-boy John Chambers, in those halcyon days when stockholders lined up after his speeches to get his autograph. Author Jeffrey Young, a long-time Silicon Valley watcher, remains skeptical.
However, the value of this book is mainly elsewhere. More than a history of Cisco Systems, it's a look at the companies that are competing for profits in the area of routers, fiber optics, wireless, cable and copper. It's about mega-connectivity through digital telecommunications -- all the hardware and software that determines whether the Internet works or doesn't work, or might work in the future, but which is invisible to the average consumer. To put it another way, it's nearly everything other than cell phones, broadcasting, and personal computer software. Cisco gets most of the ink in this book, but there's also Lucent, Nortel, and Juniper. This book is pre-Google, but to characterize it in 2005, one might suggest that Google is all about consumer-oriented fluff, while this is about the nuts and bolts behind the fluff. All that's missing is some discussion of the role played by open-source software, and what that might mean.
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