Sunday, June 22, 2008

How to Write a Non-Fiction Book About Technological Innovation

Recently I've been on a "history of computing" kick." I've always been fascinated by the explosion of possibilities during the early days of computing -- Whilrwind, the PDP series, the Alto, the Arpanet -- so I have been reading (and re-reading) some wonderful books about the subject.

I started with "Crystal Fire" by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, which describes in meticulous detail the development of the transistor (and, by extension, the microchip). These sorts of books often try to "play up" internal conflicts in order to add tension to the subject, but this time it must have been easy; William Shockley -- whose mismanagement skills resulted in an exodus of researchers who eventually built Silicon Valley -- sounds like he was a real jerk.

Right now I'm re-reading Michael Waldrop's "The Dream Machine," which I highly recommend. It follows J. C. R. Licklider's extraordinary career, from MIT to ARPA, touching on all of the people he inspired and the technologies they in turn developed. These people conceived of -- and built -- everything we know about personal computing today: graphical user interfaces, object-oriented programming, plasma screens, laser printers, mice, networking, word processing. I'm particularly interested in the information about PARC, an institution that has fairytale connotations in my mind.

Eventually I'll be re-reading two more classic works -- "Hackers" by Stephen Levy and "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder -- but I'm already experiencing a sort of "computer book" fatigue. I notice that there are common methods for presenting information in these books, and I can't help getting slightly annoyed every time I run across's gotten to the point where I can see them coming ten pages in advance.

Here are a list of cliches to avoid when talking about the history of computing, both to improve future books on the subject and so I can get them off of my chest. Each cliche will be presented as a title followed by a paraphrased example.

Introducing a New Person Who Eventually Became Famous and Who Will Be the Subject of the Next Chapter
Pensive, John Doe found himself wandering the hallways in search of inspiration. Eventually he found himself face-to-face with a nondescript young man in bluejeans and sandals...a young man named Bill Gates.

(Chapter break)

Gates' grandparents moved to the American midwest in 1895...
Mentioning a New Person Who Eventually Became Famous Whose Biography was Cut From the Book For Reasons of Space
John Doe never thought to patent his invention, believing that all mankind should benefit. Other people certainly DID benefit, especially a nondescript young man named Bill Gates.

But that came later...
Mentioning Important Forums and Research Papers
John Doe published his research paper in a tiny engineering journal, expecting nothing to come of his insights. This paper is now considered to be one of the landmarks in computing history and is still read by students today.
Revealing an Innovation to Be Something That We Now Take For Granted
What should he call his new discovery? John Doe spent weeks trying to find the perfect name. Fortunately for us, names like "Spunkonet" and "Poopertron" were rejected offhand. But one, submitted by a nondescript young man named Bill Gates, finally stuck.

"Those other names are silly," said Bill, standing fashionable in his sandals and bluejeans. "Why not call this thing...The Internet?"


jj said...

you read fast! Do you buy these books or borrow from the library? And are you planning to get aboard and or shelfari? :-)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I bought them, some new and some from used book stores...I like to own books (and re-read them), not rent them!

I briefly tried to write little book reviews on Facebook, but I found that if I wrote them there...I wouldn't write them here. Why do the work twice? Why sign up for yet ANOTHER service that I can't remember the password for?

This blog shall be my refuge.

jj said...

Hmm, where is the space in your apartment? Brought bookshelves? For how much? :-)

Do take a look at shelfari/goodread. These are basically nifty tools to organize your books online/find people with similiar tastes/discuss the books and so on. Pretty nifty - even if despite prompting I am yet to upload my own collection. :)

jj said...

And oh, having trouble maintaining multiple passwords?

This is the way to go:

jj said...

On second thoughts, the only good reason to sign up is if you really want to get laid by bookphiles.
I just spent some time browsing through the shelves of some friends plus strangers hoping to get some good "lust" books but the end result was me wondering why on earth would anyway want to read most of that shit. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Laid by bibliophiles?

Well, THAT doesn't sound so terrible!

scott said...

I's tough to do. You gotta yank their noses outta them books!