Histories of the computer industry tend to have a focus on the West Coast in general and California and Silicon Valley in particular. It’s where Apple and Microsoft came from, along with Atari. Occasionally, histories will head to Texas (because Texas Instruments) or New Mexico (because Microsoft was based there in a while, and that’s where MITS operated). However, the Midwest tends to get brushed over. So, when a book about the PLATO system, which came out of the University of Illinois, came up on my radar, touting about how much of modern cyber-culture came about on the system, I decided to check it out.
By way of explanation, the PLATO system was an electronic, and later computerized, system for education developed at the University of Illinois Urbana campus. The system, by its third and fourth versions, was a series of dummy terminals that dialed into a mainframe that – originally – was meant to present interactive lessons on a variety of subjects using the terminals touch-screen equipped plasma display (from which the “Friendly Orange Glow” that the book gets its title from came), and keyboard.
Now, PLATO succeeded at that goal admirably – but that’s not the focus of the book necessarily. As with any computer system of the ’70s and ’80s – particularly one attached to an education institution – you get hackers in the classical sense. By which I mean, people who want to push the system to its limits, who want to explore it and see what it can do. And the focus of this book lies with them.
In short, the book makes the case that almost every form of Internet culture (aside from cat videos) has a precedent in some form or another on the PLATO system. From E-mail, to discussion boards, to people using anonymity to talk about things they don’t want to tie their real identity to (like discussions of drug use or sexual identity), to even early forms of online gaming – including proto-MMOs that include raids.
But what makes this book superior to other oral histories – in particular Console Wars – is that author Brian Dear sites all of his sources. Unlike blake Harris’s book – Dear includes an extensive list of sources and interviews, both individually and by chapter. As someone who used Console Wars as a source for a paper in college and felt dirty afterward due to the lack of documentation in the original work, I was very glad to see this at the back of the book.
In short, The Friendly Orange Glow has earned a spot on my list of recommended works on the history of computing, and I highly recommend you check this book out.
The Friendly Orange Glow is available in Print, Digital, or Audiobook editions from Amazon.com – buying anything through those links helps to support the site. It’s also available in Hardcover or Paperback from Powells – buying anything from them doesn’t support me, but does support an independent bookseller.