The Friendly Orange Glow

Jul 13 23

The Friendly Orange Glow

Paul Weinstein

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of CybercultureThe Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture by Brian Dear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For context, I grew up in the Chicago suburbs during the 1980s and 90s. I experienced, second-hand, the technical and economic impact of intuitions such as Fermi and Argonne National laboratories, U.S. Robotics, Tellabs, Motorola, the Universities of Chicago, Northwestern (and to a lesser extent) Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Purdue. Since that time, I’ve made my way[1] to the modern mecca of technology, where I work in the industry, first as a programmer and now as a manager[2].

Meanwhile, over those same years, there have been several attempts to brand the technical innovations that come from the Midwest. Names such as Silicon Prairie and Digital Third Coast have been thrown around as suggested monikers to be included with the likes of Research Triangle Park (aka RTP – Raleigh-Durham), Silicon Alley (New York City) and of course, Silicon Valley (San Francisco Bay Area)[3].

My point is to emphasize the very first theme in Dear’s book, a point raised so early, in the Preface, that some readers may have simply skipped over it. In the mythology of computers there is one story, the story of innovation on the coasts. Be it at celebrated innovation centers on the east – Bell Labs, IBM, MIT Model Railroad Club. Or on the west, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox PARC, Homebrew Computing Club.

In doing so, we have done ourselves a disservice. 

Divided into three main sections, The Friendly Orange Glow by Brian Dear, tells the story of the PLATO System – it’s origin and influence – that came to life at the University of Illinois Urbana-Campaign’s Computer-based Education Research Lab (CERL). The first section is dedicated to the founding of CERL and the political, economic, philosophical and psychological underpinnings that led a team of engineers and professors to first envision a computer-assisted instruction platform in the 1950s. 

The growing body of late-1950s academic research and commercial projects inspired by the behaviorist work of Pressey, Skinner and Crowder had raised awareness of the advantages of teaching machines and programmed instruction, among those being Self-Pacing and Immediate Feedback. Self-Pacing was a given, just as it had been with the earlier pre-computer boxes. The PLATO team took particular interest in the Immediate Feedback concept, imbuing the system with a need for responsiveness right down deep into the core of the hardware.[4](pg. 64)

The chapters in the second section explore some on the unexpected side effects of the new platform, the “cyberculture” that took root, both physically and virtually. With hindsight, it is obvious that a computing system build on fundamental ideas of self-pacing and immediate feedback would also be perfect for other activities, gaming and collaboration. 

Instead of PLATO being the ultimate online teacher at the ultimate online Academy, rivaling that of the Greek figure for whom the system was named, a digital place to come and learn about everything from anthropology to zoology, PLATO had become, for so many young people, a place to come and learn about PLATO. A place to learn about each other. The system itself was the thing. (pg. 309)

In the same decade Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, the medium is the message, a new medium had been built. The stated goal was education, but instead the medium itself took hold and one of the first true online communities in the world came to life.

The final third dives into the details of the public-private partnership between CERL and the Control Data Corporation (CDC). Starting with the second-generation system[5] the backbone of PLATO was built on computing hardware designed and built by CDC. CDC, based in Minnesota[6], in the 1960s was one of the nine major computer companies. As the PLATO program grew at CERL, so did the involvement of CDC.

CDC had by then [1975] recruited executives to drive the PLATO initiative, who in turn built teams, labs, offices and even had secured a PLATO system of their own quietly running in a Minneapolis suburb. (pg. 405)

Yet, by the mid-1970s, the market was shifting away from mainframes. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) had already made headway in the market with its minicomputers and the Altair 8800, a homebuilt microcomputer, was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics

[Chuck] Miller says, “The thing that hurt PLATO the most was the way it was rammed down everybody’s throat as ‘Thou shalt take PLATO and make It prosperous,’ as opposed to ‘Here’s an opportunity, we have to change the way we do business.’ CDC just never got over ‘I want to sell a mainframe for $10 million.’ They never got over that. Their motto was If it plugs in the wall, it’s way too small. Got to be a mainframe, and going to a service was just beyond their comprehension. (pg. 454)

So, is the reason why we don’t think of the Midwest as a hub of technological innovation the fault of the leaders at CERL and CDC, leaders who failed to embrace microcomputing over mainframes? Partly, but I think the simpler answer can be found in the final chapter, Leaving the Nest. Here Dear profiles the follow-on success some of the students, programmers and administrators of PLATO found later in life. People such as Ray Ozzie, Tim Halvorsen and Len Kawell who would use the elements of collaboration on a connected system to form the core of Lotus Notes. Brand Fortner and Bruce Artwick who created the first flight simulator programs and who’s work would go on to live in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator game. Additionally, while Brian Dear doesn’t include himself in this chapter, after encountering the PLATO System in 1979, went on to have a successfully career as a tech writer and businessperson. 

The common denominator is that this “new wave” scatter across different parts of the country. 

Contrast that to the “Traitorous eight”, William Shockley’s[7] dissatisfied employees at Shockley Semiconductor who left to pave their own path. Instead of scattering across the country they stuck together to form Fairchild Semi just down the road from Shockley in Mountain View. Many of those who left would do it again, with Intel, AMD and several other businesses within the same 10-20 mile radius. In doing so, they helped transform a valley of carrots, almonds, prunes, apricots and cherries into a valley of silicon.

Brian Dear’s book is an impressively research and documented tale about what was and could have been. I would easily consider this work to be among the Top 5[8] must read books on how our digital world came to be, including some of the pitfalls we face today, on a much larger scale. 

[1] Twice in fact, in 1998 and then again in 2015

[2] 2023 – 1998 = a whole lot of years have gone by now 

[3] Interestingly, I’m not aware of, nor can find a label online for the west coast Seattle tech hub. Home, of course, to the likes of Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon.

[4] To this day, the user interface’s response time is a core design element in building an effective user experience.  

[5] Known as PLATO II

[6] Note, another, influential organization based in the Midwest. 

[7] I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Shockley was a racist and an anti-Semite, besides being “a difficult person”.

[8] The rest of the list would include; Steven Levy’s Hackers, Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory, Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander’s Fumbling the Future, How Xerox invented, Then Ignored, The First Personal Computer and Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late, The Origins Of The Internet