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Dealers of Lightning

Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

by Michael Hiltzik

Last tended to July 09, 2021

Why I'm Reading This
Book info on Library Thing

I've been overdue to read this. In mid-2020 I began looking at interface design more seriously, and realised I knew very little about how we arrived at our current conventions and standards. I had a lot of open questions about web interfaces and the desktop metaphor in particular.
Most other people working seriously in this space have CS or HCI degrees; educational backgrounds where they've already developers a holistic awareness of computing history. I'm still playing catchup.
Reading it is giving me a deep appreciation of how profound the move to personal computing was.

A narrative, journalistic account of Xerox PARC throughout the 1970's and 1980's.

Before PARC, computer was seen as a tool for mathematicians, accountants, academic research, and military operations. Corporations and universities paid for computing time on enourmous machines at central locations. This "time-sharing" model presumed computing was a pragmatic tool for large industries. Most people couldn't concieve of why individuals would ever want to use computing power in their own lives.

Computers didn't even have graphical displays at this point. Programmes were fed into machines on paper and the results were printed out.

Douglas Englebart and Alan Kay were two of the primary visionaries who pushed for "personal computing". Kay was the primary computing "philosopher" at PARC trying to advocate for small computing devices easy enough for a child to use.

Alan Kay on Programming

There is a "marvellous catch" to programming. Programmers have to obey the rules of the programme. But they can define any abstract conditions they like as long as they map back to the machines binary logic.

"Computers use of symbols, like the use of symbols in language and mathematics, is sufficiently disconnected from the real world to enable them to create splendid nonsense... The hardware is subject to natural laws, but "the range of simulations the computer can perform is bounded only by the limits of human imagination. In a computer, spacecraft can be made to travel faster than the speed of light, time to travel in reverse" – Alan Kay (85)

The beauty of computers is the symbols are so separated and abstracted from reality we can build almost anything. This is one of the essential tension points in computing. The fact we can build systems so divorced from embodied reality, we lose ourselves in abstractions.

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