Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The really personal computer

Sitting in an office or tethered to one electronically, it's easy to think of the personal computer as a weightless, quietly hissing millstone. Worse, it's the window into our minds that Big Brother has been waiting for, and it can be thrown wide open with a wink or a handshake. But that wasn't what at least some of its pioneers meant it to be. In What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, John Markoff shows the computer's roots in radical individualism. From Vannevar Bush's theoretical Memex machine onward, sixties visionaries saw the computer as a tool to manage and explore our own minds. Nothing need be forgotten, and the burden of memory need not weigh so heavily on us. Like LSD (in some ways) and maybe like fiction (in others) the computer functioned as a mirror and amplifier, a tool of self-discovery. Is there any technology that frees its user by design, or can all tools be turned to oppression?

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