The soul of a new machine

Today, I read the book “The Soul of a New Machine“. Written by journalist Tracy Kidder, it describes a group of engineers’ and computer scientists’ intense race to design and produce a 32-bit minicomputer in just one year from 1978 to 1979.

The book is a good diachronic description of this year and a half in the lives of a group of these 30 or so engineers, their individual ambitions, negotiations over the design (especially how to avoid or accept designs as a kludge) and their manically intense work. Kidder likens the way that the work is divided among the members of the design team with the British historian John Ruskin’s description of the building of a cathedral:

In the gothic cathedrals of Europe, Ruskin argued that one could see the radiant results of work done freely and voluntarily.[…] The masons and stone carvers who constructed and ornamented the cathedrals worked presumably only partly for the money. They were building temples of worship. It is one of those works that gave life meaning. I think that was what West and his team sought.

(This is my translation from the Danish translation of the English original, which was all they could offer me at my local library. Reading a book about computers from the early 80s in Danish is quite interesting, as that was back when the Danish translations of the English computer jargon were still prevalent. A computer is a “datamat”, a harddisk is a “fast pladelager” and password is a “løsen” – I hear that some of the older lecturers at the department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen continue to use these expressions, much to the students’ amusement.)

The image of the cathedral that Kidder evokes may well have been the inspiration for Eric S. Raymond‘s use of the same in his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” – on the differences of the way that software is developed in a commercial, proprietary project and an Open Source community project, respectively.

What strikes me, though – is that according to Kidder’s description, the hackers working on the 32-bit computer in the basement of Data General’s Westborough centre are driven partly by their fascination with machine itself, partly by their intense desire to “win” – show what they can do, beat the deadlines, beat the management’s expectations, and the rivalling project. Indeed, once they’ve finished debugging the machine and sent it off for mass production, they (for the most part) seem almost completely disinterested in what their machine might be used for.

It reminds me of something that Gonzalo Frasca lamented at the “Gaming for the People” symposium I went to recently. He argued that the lack of innovation and the recurring themes of fantasy and violence in computer games were intimately connected to the dominant culture within Computer Science as a field. Computer Science has traditionally been closely linked to and sponsored by the military, and the male dominated culture of winners and losers, of new and ever more demanding technological promise that need immediate, undivided and unquestioned attention – of computers being a goal in itself.

Frasca, who have studied Computer Science himself, thinks that this attitude is continually breaking down and changing slowly – probably beginning with the Whole Earth Catalogue and the PC homebrew people and continuing with the Free Software movement – but that it has hardly breached the cultural boundaries surrounding computer games. Just take the instance that the EA managment thought that Will Wright’s the Sims was a crazy idea that couldn’t sell more than 100.000 copies, as it was basically just a doll’s house -and who’d bother to play that?

Well, it turns out, more than the 100.000, that’s for sure.

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