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What the Dormouse Said
May 7, 2005 1:40 PM   Subscribe

California Dreaming: A True Story of Computers, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll (Reg. req'd) Engineers can be so cute. In the early 1960's, Myron Stolaroff, an employee of the tape recorder manufacturer Ampex, decided to prove the value of consuming LSD. So he set up the International Foundation for Advanced Study and went about his project in classic methodical fashion.

But John Markoff, a senior writer for The New York Times who covers technology, makes a convincing case that for the swarming ubergeeks assembling in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960's, approaching drugs as they might any other potentially helpful tool or device - from a soldering iron to a computer chip - was only natural. The goals were broad in the 60's: the world would be remade, the natural order of things reconfigured, human potential amplified to infinity. Anything that could help was to be cherished, studied and improved.

Judging by the record presented in What the Dormouse Said, it is indisputable that many of the engineers and programmers who contributed to the birth of personal computing were fans of LSD, draft resisters, commune sympathizers and, to put it bluntly, long-haired hippie freaks.
posted by gleenyc (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
indisputable that many of the engineers and programmers who contributed to the birth of personal computing were fans of LSD, draft resisters, commune sympathizers and, to put it bluntly, long-haired hippie freaks.

what is indisputably amazing is that there are people who don't know this.
posted by quonsar at 2:02 PM on May 7, 2005


The Englebart Presentation is good viewing to get a glimpse of their zeitgeist.
posted by meehawl at 2:04 PM on May 7, 2005


I have a project brewing to fact-check all the sorts of hacker and "underground computer culture" books that include work by Mr. Markoff. Initial work has revealed a treasure trove of problems. I look forward to adding this work to the project.
posted by jscott at 2:11 PM on May 7, 2005


1966: Psychedelic Agents in Creative Problem-Solving: A Pilot Study, Psychological Reports, 19, 211-227.
posted by Gyan at 2:12 PM on May 7, 2005


Um, did everybody else get a big picture of some skanky-looking weed on their screen before the article loaded, or am I just really baked?

Actually, it seems to have been an "Anti-drug" ad, but still: the irony! It burns!
posted by obloquy at 2:16 PM on May 7, 2005


I do know some people who swear that playing FPSs while tripping or flipping is the only way to experience convincing game immersion.
posted by meehawl at 2:17 PM on May 7, 2005


[more not inside]
posted by I EAT TAPES at 2:49 PM on May 7, 2005


Oh, look! More baby boomers looking for ways to take credit for being revolutionary by sitting around and smoking dope while other people invented things! See also: a vast cross-section of The WELL, everyone who orbited around Mondo 2000, everything Tim Leary did since I was born, most of the rest of the Santa Cruz Mountain crew, everything Crunch has done since I was born, et cetera, et cetera.

The Bay Area is filled to the brim with crusty old hippies who misremember doing significant things and the importance of their influence, but whose only real and significant skills are those of self-aggrandizement.
posted by majick at 3:02 PM on May 7, 2005


meehawl, I don't like smoking pot. It makes me anti social. I go in my room, turn on some awesome vinyl and start cleaning my room. Otherwise, I would play a game. Computer games are amazing when you are stoned, especially Battlefield 1942. I was baked one time and landed a plane onto a totally un-landable spot in Wake Island, then blew up an enemy plane... with a tank! (You would have to play the game to know how difficult it would be to do that)
posted by Dean Keaton at 3:31 PM on May 7, 2005


...misremember doing significant things and the importance of their influence, but whose only real and significant skills are those of self-aggrandizement.

Possibly, yes, but this trait isn't solely the property of 60s contrarians. It seems as though most humans in middle age -- especially those living in societies that emphasize production and capitalist-defined notions of success (like ours) -- tend to over-state their contributions to the currently influential socio-economic models.
posted by gramschmidt at 3:32 PM on May 7, 2005


crusty old hippies who misremember doing significant things

Channelling Eric Cartman is never healthy.

it's all a bunch of tree-huggin hippie crap
posted by meehawl at 3:33 PM on May 7, 2005


meehawl, I don't like smoking pot.

How nice for you. I don't think I mentioned pot once, so I fail to see the connection. But I'll take your word for it. I *had* thought, though, than THC is a CNS depressant, so would tend to increase reaction times, which would seem to me to be counter-productive in a twitchy game.
posted by meehawl at 3:36 PM on May 7, 2005


Oh, look! More baby boomers looking for ways to take credit for being revolutionary...

I can't decide if your post was a case of tarring a group with a particullarly wide brush, or sour grapes for missing out on all the fun.

The findings of increased creativity in problem solving in the summary from the Phychological Reports study in 1966 (before the days of government sponsored demonization), suggest the kinds of rational experimentation that might be possible if we were not ruled by the ongoing climate of ignorant fear.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 3:53 PM on May 7, 2005


Here's another review, no reg. req'd.
posted by homunculus at 3:57 PM on May 7, 2005


Speaking as a vast cross-section of the Well myself, judging from my waistline, we're still doing things. And what have you done lately, majick? I love pointers to good things.
posted by digaman at 4:20 PM on May 7, 2005


from the review homunculus links to:
...there is little evidence that drug use actually improved the ability of researchers to come up with ideas. Engelbart himself took LSD as part of Stolaroff's program and found its results disappointing. The only product he invented while under its influence was a "tinkle toy," a floating waterwheel for toilet training that spins when urinated on.
One thing that is worth noting (especially for you young whippersnappers who were still dead then) is how scarce hippies were during the sixties. To keep things in perspective, in 1968, Youth For Wallace members outnumbered SDS members by about three to one. [source: Politics of Unreason]

So if hippies and freaks were over-represented in the computing scene, that is a significant data point. Exactly what it means is less clear.
posted by warbaby at 4:25 PM on May 7, 2005


Ah, it's a Bay Area thing I bet. Kentucky Fried Computers, North Star, Apple... the Bay Area was a pretty wacky place in the 1970s, good good memories (I was a gradeschooler living in El Cerrito 1974-1977, too young to grok anything but the most pronounced leitmotifs). The slogan was 'Power to the People' and the hacker ethic was about screwing The Man and getting the population digital and wired.

This is a very interesting angle to the story and I expect it to have good import. Fire in the Valley covered a lot of the same ground, here's a photo of Steve Jobs and another of Microsoft, showing the damage wasn't confined to the Bay Area.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:53 PM on May 7, 2005


what is indisputably amazing is that there are people who don't know this.

Not really, considering that the percentage of people that don't know or care about what these people did or waht they did it on it likely inversely proportional to the percentage that care about the latest celebrity affair.
posted by john at 5:04 PM on May 7, 2005


Not really, considering that the percentage of people that don't know or care about what these people did or waht they did it on it likely inversely proportional to the percentage that care about the latest celebrity affair.

There's a awful large percentage of people who could care less about either. Besides, is fawning before Steve Jobs and gobbling up every crumb of "wisdom," from within the Apple complex inherently better than obsessing over the doings of Paris Hilton? You can argue the relative merits of both endlessly, but the fact remains that your still a dewy eyed devotee an elite.
posted by jonmc at 5:09 PM on May 7, 2005


warbaby quotes: there is little evidence that drug use actually improved the ability of researchers to come up with ideas.

Which studies were these? Evidence of absence, or absence of evidence?
posted by Gyan at 5:11 PM on May 7, 2005


There was a good interview with John Markoff on TechNation (NPR) this morning. It's available either to stream or to download at http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail515.html

(No registration required)
posted by Boobus Tuber at 5:46 PM on May 7, 2005


(Sorry about the lack of spell check back there)


jonmc, I was not proposing any qualitative analysis. Either pursuit seems equally meaningless. But I do think that more people are interested in the celebrity cult thing. Otherwise we would not have networks like E! or shows like Extra and ET. that even more people don't care about either is besides the point.
posted by john at 7:21 PM on May 7, 2005


Well, it seemed like a snark, john. I was basically trying to point out that it's kind of crazy to say "my hero worship good! your hero worship bad!" regardless of who the heros being worshipped are.
posted by jonmc at 7:25 PM on May 7, 2005


Yeah, this explains a lot about the generally laughable quality of most software products today. No I'm not kidding.
posted by scheptech at 8:37 PM on May 7, 2005


What a huge wad of negativity. The comments in this thread are conclusive proof that whatever was made in the 60's, computers or freethinking, the only result today is negativity and so it's all for nothing. I'm all cheered up. Thanks everyone!
posted by nervousfritz at 8:59 PM on May 7, 2005


stop harshin' on fritz's mellow, everyone. it's not groovy.

Please, the sixties were not all flowers and sunshine. Remember Vietnam, assassinations, Charlie Manson, race riots? It was a chaotic time, just like every other time since time fucking immemorial.
posted by jonmc at 9:04 PM on May 7, 2005




Well, it seemed like a snark, john. I was basically trying to point out that it's kind of crazy to say "my hero worship good! your hero worship bad!" regardless of who the heros being worshipped are.


Yes, people who create things which benifit humanity are no better or deserving then paris hilton. Because they are similar in some abstract respects, they are the same.
posted by delmoi at 12:12 PM on May 8, 2005


beside the point, delmoi. I'm not talking about qualitative analysis between the two people, merely pointing out that celebrity worship is celebrity worship, regardless of the relative merits of the celebrities involved.
posted by jonmc at 2:11 PM on May 8, 2005


The findings of increased creativity in problem solving in the summary from the Phychological Reports study in 1966 (before the days of government sponsored demonization), suggest the kinds of rational experimentation that might be possible if we were not ruled by the ongoing climate of ignorant fear.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 6:53 PM EST on May 7 [!]


I don't have any editorial comments, but I will add that Psychological Reports is a pay-to-publish/non-refereed journal.
posted by trey at 2:33 PM on May 8, 2005


Shortly before leaving for grad school in Berkeley, a computer programmer at my old job said to me, "Both UNIX and LSD were first popularized at Berkeley. There's got to be a connection."
posted by jonp72 at 10:39 PM on May 8, 2005


If people really knew exactly how much code was written under the influence, and how much that code now affected their daily lives, there might be neo-Luddite panics and Herbert-esque Butlerian Jihads, with people burning and trampling their computers in the streets.

Picking a non-representational sampling of the rather hardcore coders I know - people who do machine/micro code for a living, people who program enormous databases, people who do security or mission-critical intensive work - the vast majority of this sampling swear by the (perhaps paradoxical) inherent logicity and simultaneous creativity of LSD in particular.

There's something very strange there that synergizes with machine-like thinking, and how to bootstrap limited machine-like thinking into stranger and more flexible territory.
posted by loquacious at 8:09 AM on May 9, 2005


Chaitin, GEB, lazy evaluation and monads in Haskell, self-referentiality and recursivity, crawling Escher figures, fractals, the Y combinator, self-modifying LISP macros, time-traveling continuations, reversible computation, Madhu Sudan's PCPs, bootstrapping compilers, Spencer-Brown, viruses blooming on every available digital substrate, Unlambda and other esos, IRC bot wars, category theory, Smullyan, Gary Flake, the physics of cellular automata, non-Turing computing, "randomness" as an object of study, polyglots, quines, and Quine.

Nope, can't imagine why there might be overlap between those populations.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:06 AM on May 9, 2005


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