Guttenberg's Net



Insanely Great:
The Life and Times of Macintosh,
The Computer That Changed Everything

by Steven Levy

Book review by E. Johnson

The story begins in Cupertino California and ends in Cupertino. It was November 1983. Levy was at Apple's headquarters, where he eventually fell in love with the "the now familiar component of [American] culture:" the Macintosh computer (well, he also did with a svelte receptionist).

Insanely Great is book about people, or should I say, "artists" obsessed with the idea of creating a machine that would eventually "put a dent in the Universe," or so they believed.

Like other books about "the wizards of the computer industry," this book is riddled with names. It starts off with Vannevar Bush, a former vice president of MIT and then the director of the US's Office of Scientific Research and Development.

According to Levy's account, Bush practically gave out the blueprint to future creators of Mac. Bored, he wrote an essay entitled "As we may think", and somehow, a similarly bored radar engineer, Douglas Engelbart, read it, and thought, "Why didn't I think of that!"

Incidentally, Engelbart, who was 20 years old at that time, stumbled upon Bush's scribbling in a little nipa hut cum library housed in a naval station in Leyte (yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Philippines.) Thank God the boat due to take him home came in late.

Later, he quit his job at a certain agency now known as NASA, got married and studied computer science.

Engelbart was more than a dreamer compared with Bush. Years later, he wrote his own version of the "As we may think" and somehow got the attention of the US Department of Defense. Guess which agency that was? It was the Advanced Research Project Agency or (ARPA), which was also partly involved with the creation of the Internet.

Engelbart and Bush's ideas subsequently landed at an R&D arm of Xerox Corporation known as Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Here, we meet Alan Kay whose worked eventually laid down the foundations for the creation of Macintosh.

However, as the story goes, Xerox failed to recognize what the wizards at PARC were up to. It was in December of 1979 when Apple's wizards cum businessmen conducted a daylight raid at PARC, and who else led them but "the man", Steve Jobs.

To cut the story short: Apple company "borrowed" their idea and transformed it into something more tangible; thus the Macintosh.

Steven Levy weaves all these stories into one book, as though he knew all these people since childhood. He confessed though that It took him 10 years to connect all these "unrelated" events.

He was, in fact, "a stranger to science and uneasy to computer and technology." He loved rock music (he previously wrote for rock and roll magazine, Rolling Stones).

At eleventh grade, Levy confessed that he was so obsessed with Bob Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues band that he almost flunked his Geometry class.

He played guitar in coffeehouses, studied Shakespeare, and "utilized a strange loophole in the academic rule book to replace [his] two semester science requirement with independent study in a topic of [his] choosing": rock music.

He wrote essays about the Rolling Stones instead of Physics, and his thesis involved a comparative study of Crosby, Still and Nash's version of "Woodstock" and Joni Mitchell's version.

So how did he end up writing this book? Serendipity. A call from Jane Fonda (actually someone who worked for her) eventually led him to write about the people behind Macintosh.

Levy has been a columnist for Macworld magazine since 1985, and often contributes to international magazines like Newsweek.

His first brush with technology and its wizards was, however, not during the time he wrote this book, but when he authored "Hackers", another runaway bestseller.

Personally, Insanely Great is more than just a runaway bestseller. It's history plus entertainment. It's a rare find, and an "insanely great" read, as evidenced in one of many commentaries inserted throughout the book:

"...the most interesting thing about them was their vision: their goal was not primarily to make money (though a startling number of them were newly minted multimillionaires); they mostly did what they did because they loved doing it."

Sounds familiar?

By the way, you might be wondering why Levy called this book "Insanely Great". Here's the story:

Levy and Steve Jobs were having a "small talk" in a restaurant somewhere in California. Jobs was trying to convince Levy to put Mac's team in Rolling Stone's cover shot, when he suddenly shifted the discussion to Macintosh.

"I look at most of the people I get to work with as artists. I look at myself as an artist if anything," begins Jobs.

"Really?" answers Levy.

"Sort of a trapeze artist," Jobs quipped.

"With or without a net?"


Then, he turned serious and asked why "we're constantly taking things." He argued that people creating something that would change the world, or something that would dent the universe, is becoming a rarity.

"I'm one of those people who think that Thomas Edison and the light bulb changed the world a lot more than Karl Marx ever did. And we have this incredible chance to do that in the next five years," explained Jobs.

"I don't want to sound arrogant but I know this thing is going to be the next great milestone in this industry. If it's not, I'll just go back to Tibet or something. Retire from this material life..."

"Every bone in my body says it's going to be great. And people are just going to realize that and buy it," he posed. Jobs later corrected himself and said that the Macintosh is not "just great," but "insanely great." And he would often repeat this phrase in front of his soldiers.

Indeed, as the book's back page caption notes: "Mac's creation in 1984 catapulted America into the digital age, created a fanatic cult audience, and transformed the way people used computers."


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