Sunday Salon: The Soul of A New Machine


The Sunday Salon.com

In high school I thought I wanted to be a computer programmer, so I took the first computer classes offered at my school. It was such a strange contrast to see rows of Apple IIe computers (can you tell how old I am now?) in a classroom in a school that was once heated by wall radiators. In class we learned BASIC, and on Fridays we were allowed to play games: Oregon Trail and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were favorites.

Once I was out of high school and looking at colleges, I realized I didn’t have the math skills it took to be a real programmer, although I did program, using BASIC, a simple Q&A game on the Radio Shack computer that hooked up to my TV at home.

The first weeks of those high school computer classes we learned the history of computer technology, a simple history of vacuum tubes and CRT displays, but there was a lot more history we knew nothing about, especially the development of the corporate culture that arose as computer technology evolved.

Tracy Kidder’s 1981Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Soul of A New Machine, delves into the corporate history of the evolution of computer science.

Kidder is one of my favorite literary journalists, who I first read in The New Yorker. Like other literary journalists, he has the ability to make almost any topic, any subject engaging and suspenseful, even when he’s tracing the genesis not only of minicomputers, but also of a corporate culture, the kind now satirized by comics such as Scott Adams’ Dilbert.

When Kidder began the book he was “a freelance writer struggling to pay the bills,” according to a 2000 Wired retrospective piece on the book, “had been inspired to write about technology after the protests surrounding the opening of the Seabrook nuclear reactor in 1976. Over a beer, his editor at The Atlantic, Richard Todd, suggested he look into computers. Todd knew someone in the business: his old college roommate, Tom West.”

It must have been a shock to Kidder to see the basement of Data General ( the company absorbed, according to Wired, in 1999 by storage giant EMC), the subterranean labyrinth “where machines,” Kidder writes, “were conceived, designed, labored over in prototypes, and sometimes brought to life.” Or shock is the tone I read into Kidder’s description of this place:

Then the hallways opened and all around under fluorescent light lay fields of cubicles without doors. Their walls — made of steel, some of them covered with cream-colored cloth — did not reach the ceiling, but stood five and a half feet high . . . . They created no privacy. Most of the cubicles were empty now, but each would contain one person during the day. Most had a desk with a computer terminal on it, and a little bookcase. Some held a drafting table and many had a houseplant or two.

As I read, I feel Kidder is both fascinated and troubled by this new world.  As heady as the time was — engineers willingly worked long hours to develop new computers — Kidder chooses his words carefully. The engineers “forsake, if necessary, family, hobbies, and friends” once they signed on to projects. The managerial process, to Kidder, seems sort of like Tom Sawyer’s fence.

The read, so far, is absorbing. Its insights into the new machine (there are prophetic hints of the things to come in the industry) almost seems eclipsed, however, by the evolution of the corporate culture that emerged along with the technology.

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.

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