What the Dormouse Said

Susan Crawford blogs about John Markoff’s new book, What the Dormouse Said, which draws an intriguing connection between the San Francisco Bay Area counterculture and the origins of “personal” computing during the 1960s, particularly on the mid-Peninsula. Susan draws this conclusion: “[S]ometimes it’s a good idea to just do things. Go ahead — today — and build something useful and imaginative. People will write about you later. ”

I’ll have to pick up Markoff’s book (and add it to the summer reading list), but my reaction is a little different. He reminds us to be attuned to the material conditions that accompany what we think of creativity and imagination. The counterculture of the mid-Peninsula was a heady but tiny thing during the 1960s. The “Silicon” Valley didn’t exist, and the “Santa Clara” Valley lay somewhere to the South of Palo Alto. The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey occupied an outpost in Menlo Park pioneered by Thorsten Veblen (more on Veblen, Kesey, and Garcia, here), which was, despite its central location, beyond the domain of most “ordinary” government regulation. Importantly, in unincorporated Menlo Park, the police didn’t patrol on a regular basis.

For a glimpse of what the non-counterculture life was like in most of the mid-Peninsula during the 1960s and early 1970s (in other words, what life was like for most people), read George Packer’s excellent Blood of the Liberals, or (into the mid and late 1970s) Jeff Goodell’s Sunnyvale.

The lesson, then, may be not so much about a “public” domain or about making sure that people exercise their imaginations. The lesson may be that if we want to enjoy the fruits of creative fermentation, we need to maintain, in some way, uncontrolled corners of the world.