Book Review – The Soul Of A New Machine

My last book I read on computer history was “Dealers of Lightning” that describes what happened in Xerox PARC around graphical user interfaces, networks and object oriented programming in the 1970’s. In that book it was described that the famous Alto computer ran user programs in a “Nova emulation mode”. Digging a bit deeper I learned that the Nova was a popular computer system by Data General at the time and the designers wanted Nova programs to run on the Alto. This lead me to another book, “The sould of a new machine” which deals with how a successor machine of the successor machine of the Nova was developed. I was expecting to find a book that would give me more insight about the computing history from that angle but this was not quite what I got. Instead I got some other interesting insights.

“The Soul of a New Machine” was written by Tracy Kidder at the beginning of the 1980s and is not so much about how Data General fits into the overall scheme of computing but more about the way a new computer was developed in the company. When reading his account it’s quite obvious how little has changed in the way the tech industry works in the 35 years since the book was written. And then I was amazed when I read the following:

“To some the crucial issue was privacy. In theory, computers should be able to manage, more efficiently than people, huge amounts of a society’s information. In the sixties there was proposed a “National Data Bank,” which would, theoretically, improve the government’s efficiency by allowing agencies to share information. The fact that such a system could be abused did not mean it would be, proponents said; it could be constructed in such a way as to guarantee benign use. Nonsense, said opponents, who managed to block the proposal; no matter what the intent or the safeguards, the existence of such a system would inevitably lead toward the creation of a police state.”

Written 35 years ago, think about that for a minute!