The Soul of a New Machine
Ever since C. P. Snow defined the world of science and the world of those not conversant with scientific language as comprising two distinct cultures, many people have lamented the separation between ordinary human experience and the realms of science and technology. The products of applied science touch people at every turn, as close as the light switch and often as frustrating and aggravating as a mistake in a computer-generated bill. Much of the anger and confusion in the modern world comes from the effects of scientific knowledge, even as the blessings of technology are increasingly taken for granted. The wonders of satellite television and video arcade games delight millions, while computer-generated mass mailings clog mailboxes with pseudopersonal letters written and signed by “people” who have no existence outside of a computer program.
Many have hoped for books written by people versed in the language of science and technology who can also translate that language into more everyday terms so that the general reading public can deal with the impact of science and technology in an informed way. In recent years, a number of writers have sought to bridge the gap between the two cultures, seeking not only to provide a nontechnical account of modern technology but also to “humanize” science by revealing something of the kinds of people who actually create and understand the machines and products that are changing lives in both major and subtle ways. The most successful of these writers has been John McPhee; on the basis of this book, one now must add the name of Tracy Kidder.
Kidder’s achievement in this book cannot be underestimated; the computer is the product of technology which is transforming old electronic systems such as the telephone and bringing into being new, heretofore undreamed of devices such as the hand-held calculator, the video game, and the home data processing system. Yet, to the uninitiate, the language of computers—hardware, software, REMS, RAMS, BYTES, dot-matrix printers, and the like—is forbidding and confusing. In The Soul of a New Machine, Kidder takes the reader within the world of the computer engineer to bring him and his work alive and make them meaningful.
Kidder begins with a distinctively literary model—the quest story, with its heroes and obstacles to overcome against great odds under constraints of time—as old as the Odyssey (c. 800 B.C.), and sets it in the context of the electronics firms that surround Boston. The specific focus of his tale is an actual sequence of events, the efforts of a small team of engineers at Data General Corporation to create a new minicomputer that would work faster and handle more information than competitive models. In addition, the workers in Massachusetts are trying to develop their version of this computer faster than other Data General engineers in North Carolina. The odds are great, since the Massachusetts engineers are prohibited from using one element of technology reserved for the team in North Carolina which would have made their work easier. The stakes are high; Data General needs this machine to compete with other computer firms in a field in which it is falling behind.
Kidder knows that few readers could comprehend or care much about the technical issues at stake, although one of the important things about this book is the ease with which it explains a good bit about the working of computers. Accordingly, he enlivens the book with in-depth portraits of the various members of the Data General team. One comes to know something of what computer scientists are like—how they got to be in this field, what they do in their spare time, what their home lives are like. Most important, Kidder conveys what it feels like to attempt the untried and unprecedented in electronics, and convinces his readers of the fascination of such a challenge.
There is, indeed, a profound sense in which this story is not about computers at all, but about the ways in which...
(The entire section is 1,342 words.)