Nerds Trying to Do the Right Thing

Here is a conversation you could overhear only on the shuttle between Seattle and San Francisco. As the passengers board the plane, a pair of men in their thirties chat in loud voices. One kids the other about his newlywed status, and the fact that, while away on business, he actually misses his wife. “Kissy kissy kissy,” he teases. The second man replies, “maybe if you had done more kissy kissy kissy you’d still be married.” “Nah,” said the first. “The reason I’m not married is that I did too much of that. Should have got a pre-nup.” “Yeah,” says the newlywed, “I could have used one of those my first time around.” “Bad?” asks the first. The other nods. “Because of the kid. I couldn’t really argue. I had to give her whatever she asked for.” “Okay,” says the first. “How bad was it?” The other replies, “bought her a house with Sun stock I got before I even met her.” “That’s the way it works,” says the first guy, sympathetically. “Mine got half of my Oracle stock.” “But you know,” says the newlywed, philosophically. “It’s not worth it to fight it. Twenty years from now you look around and you’re worth 100 million bucks and you feel stupid for playing the asshole.”

Nerd Past

The people who work in Silicon Valley are notoriously uninterested in their own history. One reason may be that the technologist who is ignorant of the past is not condemned to repeat it. His education more or less contains everything that has been thought and said in his field. He learns his own history by osmosis. Or perhaps the Valley has been created so rapidly that no one in it has had time to pause and reflect. In any case the papers left by old technocrats to local libraries and the computers donated to museums go mostly unread and unseen.

Still, it is a shame, as some of the old gadgets and papers deserve to be kept alive. Inside the Computer Museum–currently an old shed on a corner of the Ames Air Force base near San Jose–there is a gleaming red four foot high Jetson-like computer built in the early 1960s. Into it the typical American housewife was meant to program her recipes. “If only she could cook as well as this can compute,” read the ad in the Neiman Marcus catalogue. The idea was that every American housewife would one day have something like this massive computer in her kitchen, and that she would be able to program the thing. “They never sold a single one,” says a spokesman at the computer museum. “It shows what happens when you let engineers control the product.”

Looking to learn something about the origin of computer culture I recently picked up a copy of Dorothy Stein’s biography of Augusta Ada Byron. Ada, as she was known, was the daughter of the famous lothario, Lord Byron, and the author of the first computer software. What is interesting is how Ada wandered into her chosen field. In the flush of late adolescence she became terrified by her own strong sexual impulses. Her tutor prescribed mathematics as the antidote. (“My dearest Ada, You are quite right in supposing that your chief resource and safeguard at present is a course of severe intellectual study. For this purpose there is no subject to be compared to Mathematics….”) Soon enough Ada had grown obsessed by the work of Charles Babbage, who invented, in the late 1830s and 1840s, the first computer. Babbage took Ada and her math on board and the rest is history.

In devoting herself to the writing of computer software Ada successfully avoided having sex. That is a piece of history nerds also learn by osmosis.