The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture First Edition
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—Phil Lapsley, The Wall Street Journal
“Brian Dear has made an important and fascinating contribution to the history of the digital age. This insightful book tells the story of the pioneering system of networked computing known as PLATO. Much of what we enjoy today sprang from PLATO and the colorful community that created and embraced it.”
—Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators and Steve Jobs
“That Dear was able to interview the many engineers, programmers, authors, and users of PLATO is a signal achievement. One might say that The Friendly Orange Glow is a kind of ‘fan non-fiction’; Dear is to PLATO what Chernow is to Hamilton. . . . Dear has done a great deal of heavy lifting here to tell a story that needed to be told and we are much the richer for his telling.”
—Steve Jones, New Media & Society
“A full decade before the history most people believe, PLATO was the original system that inspired modern computing—and even the cloud. Designed and built by Midwestern pioneers starting in 1960, PLATO was still operational when I attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the early 1990s. In fact, I took math classes on it before building Mosaic. This story is a testament to the importance of both innovation and timing!”
—Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz
“I loved this deep unknown history. An incredible tale of a rag-tag team of students inventing key technologies—flat screens, instant messaging, networked games, blogging—decades before Silicon Valley, and then they were totally forgotten. Your mind will be blown.”
—Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick for Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable
“Prodigious research. . . . The story shines through—a fascinating tale of missed opportunities and blind spots.”
—Sharon Weinberger, Nature
“Absorbing and eye-opening history. . . . Entertaining, anecdote-laden account waxes more than a little nostalgic about the little-remembered program . . . behind cyberculture’s flourishing global impact.”
“This exuberant history . . . offers a lively portrait of the energy and creativity that a networked world can unleash. . . . Dear’s sprawling re-creation conveys the excitement of technological innovation and the freewheeling eccentricity of this vibrant scene.”
“Promoted as an educational experiment, PLATO became home to the first interactive games, electronic communities, student hacking escapades and online romances. Could Nixon's staff censor online impeachment discussions? Is online gaming a form of education? Should systems sell advertising? Here’s the astonishing story of that first network—how students and programmers twisted a thousand clunky, connected computers to change the course of computing.”
—Clifford Stoll, author of High-Tech Heretic
“Packed with delightful details, The Friendly Orange Glow offers a fascinating account of how the first initial forays by passionate geeks snowballed to establish digital culture. This book is an essential read for anyone who takes the internet for granted.”
—danah boyd, founder of Data & Society and principal researcher, Microsoft Research
“The word that comes to mind about this book is comprehensive! It is truly a historical tour de force telling the story of the PLATO system, its origins and the people who made it happen. I had a glancing exposure to the program and Don Bitzer in the late 1960s as I embarked on work at UCLA on the ARPANET. The team was wrestling with the neon plasma panel display and I came away very impressed by Bitzer’s palpable can-do enthusiasm. He may have been Felix Ungar to Daniel Albert’s Oscar Madison, but I have never met a more determined engineer in my fifty-year career. This book is a timely reminder of what PLATO people astonishingly accomplished long before the rest of the world caught on.”
—Vint Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google
“Finally! Here is the secret history of the Internet’s elder sibling, the one no one talks about after a mysterious disappearance.”
—Jaron Lanier, author I Am Not a Gadget
“Long before ‘UI’ signified User Interface, ‘UI’ signified University of Illinois, where, fifty years ago, much of what we take for granted as a User Interface for personal and collaborative computing first took form. To an Internet user, The Friendly Orange Glow is like finding a trunk in your attic full of detailed notes kept by your parents chronicling all the adventures they had before you were born. This is history of the best kind: authoritative, intimate, and painstakingly assembled, firsthand. A landmark work.”
—George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral
About the Author
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What is PLATO, you ask? The stuffy description would be that it was started in 1960 as a computer-based education system, a way to improve the learning (training?) of the United States to help keep ahead of the Soviet Union. It starts in the 1950s, touching on the impetus and mindset caused by the Soviet Union launching Sputnik. The Cold War.
But, the PLATO system evolved to become much more than that. PLATO IV expanded the horizons of being an on-campus system in the 1960s to a far-reaching networked system in the early 1970s. In 1973 and 1974 alone, interactive chat, screen sharing, person notes (email), notesfiles (topic discussion groups), multi-player networked games, animated text graphics (animated emojis), graphic logon pages (Goodle search page), and more all provided a social dimension much broader than just being used for training.
“The Friendly Orange Glow” (TFOG) details the culture in which this environment thrived; the culture led by Don Bitzer and supported by the creative team at the University of Illinois. This development approach helped support the development of these many capabilities.
It also highlights stories, as Brian Dear suggests, three books worth of stories, with heart and emotion, the highs and pitfalls of online culture. How careers were made; how careers were lost by the addictive nature that PLATO affected some, many flunking from college or getting divorced because of the interactive networked games or discussion groups.
In late 1975, an interactive story, Guanogap, was released in installments. It was written as if you were watching over the shoulder of the narrator while he interacts with various characters, reads notes and pnotes (email). You see it happen. It is a snapshot of the culture, of the life on the PLATO system in 1975. I looked forward to every installment. I have yet to see an implementation of an interactive story anywhere on the Internet.
Wait, you say, weren’t interactive network games first started on the Internet in the 1990s? (Or, if you knew of the Xwindows systems of the 1980s, weren’t they developed there?)
Wasn’t networked computer-based training (CBT) first done using MOOCs in the 2000s? No. The first time-sharing use of a computer was developed for PLATO in the early 1960s.
John Brunner published my favorite read, “The Shockwave Rider” in 1975. I re-read it every few years and remain astounded at how forward looking it was, describing a twenty-first century world dominated by computer networks, hackers, cyber crime, and more. I don’t know whether Brunner ever saw or knew about the PLATO system, but the book also describes aspects of what PLATO was at the time in the early 1970s and what it could have become. The Internet has become that network. It first existed on the PLATO network.
You can still SEE and TOUCH the PLATO system live on the Internet. You can still use Notes, talkomatic, term-talk, and play the multitude of interactive games. Every Sunday evening, there is a pickup game in Empire. You might even see me there, though I tend to get killed a lot.
Guanogap is also there for you to read and experience.
Reading this book brings me back to when I was in my 20's and I and my fellow workers knew we were on the cutting edge of educational technology. Seeing the names of old friends that I haven't thought of in decades was moving. Seeing the names of friends that I still have today...and who were instrumental in making PLATO work...again...a pleasure. When PLATO slowly faded out in the 80's we felt a real sense of loss.
Brian has written an eminently readable book, no small task when you are tackling a subject as complex and diverse as the genesis of the PLATO system. I'm reading sections where I'm going "Oh! So THAT'S what was going on that I didn't know about!" Many, many, of the people that went on to develop the internet as we know it today cut their computer teeth on PLATO. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in the foundation of our modern connected world.
A vital contribution to the history of computing and networking.
Top international reviews
Le style naratif est aussi très agréable.
Je recommande très certainement ce livre à ceux qui ont fait partie de cette merveilleuse aventure et aussi à ceux qui désirent voir l'histoire de l'informatique moderne par un autre bout de la lorgnette.