When I was a junior, I took a course on the history of modern architecture. Taught by David Brownlee, who at the time was a young, rising star in the Penn art history department (and has since gone on to be one of those professors who define an institution-- a few years ago he drove the creation of Penn's college house system), it was one of those classes that changes the way you see the world. Right after the midterm I went to New York City, and was amazed at how many of the buildings I either recognized by name (hey, that's the Lever House! there's Saarinen's CBS building! that's a Paul Rudolph!) or by style (New Brutalism, yuck).
One fun thing about reading John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said is that, if you live in the right place, the book provides a similar experience. It just happens that I live in the neighborhood where most of the book's action takes place-- in other words, where the concept of personal computing was invented. Stanford, where a lot of the key work on AI and timesharing took place, is a couple miles away. SRI, where Doug Engelbart and his group did their pioneering work, is even closer. I take my kids to Keplers Bookstore, which was a magnet for the early 1960s counterculture, for story time every Saturday morning. The offices of the Whole Earth Catalog are across the street from the cafe where we go every Saturday after gymnastics.
So the book provides some historical depth to places that I see almost every day. And while it doesn't talk explicitly about it, the book also reveals as aspect of the history of my kids' school that I hadn't appreciated before.
There are hardly any computers at Peninsula School; flag-making and face-painting are about as high-tech as you get. The school itself is a little low-tech, even anti-tech, and has always been so. Yet most of the kids are from families that are in high tech in one way or another, and if you asked them, the parents would say that they consider computer literacy to be an essential element of modern education. It's always seemed a little odd to me, but Peninsula is fundamentally a happy place with many small eccentricities.
Yet the connections between Peninsula World and the computer world turn out to go a lot deeper than I realized. In What the Dormouse Said, I keep running across names that I know from the school: people who had kids at the school, who taught there, who wrote about progressive education, or who still live just around the corner from the campus. Computers may not be in the classrooms, but since the early 1960s they've been talked about in the parking lot, in parents' get-togethers, or sneaking in at night. I once read that some of the earliest meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club were at Peninsula. Suddenly it makes perfect sense: lots of Homebrew people were connected to the school, or just one step removed from it.
It confirms something I realized a while ago: you could write an interesting history of Silicon Valley through the prism of its progressive and private schools. The most impressive power scenes in the Valley aren't board meetings, or dinners at Il Fornaio; they're at swim meets and graduations, and the lines of cars waiting to pick up kids after school.
[To the tune of Genesis, "Follow You, Follow Me," from the album "And Then There Were Three...".]