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The Philosopher of Palo Alto: Mark Weiser, Xerox PARC, and the Original Internet of Things (Hardcover)
A compelling biography of Mark Weiser, a pioneering innovator whose legacy looms over the tech industry’s quest to connect everything—and who hoped for something better.
When developers and critics trace the roots of today’s Internet of Things—our smart gadgets and smart cities—they may single out the same creative source: Mark Weiser (1952–99), the first chief technology officer at Xerox PARC and the so-called “father of ubiquitous computing.” But Weiser, who died young at age 46 in 1999, would be heartbroken if he had lived to see the ways we use technology today. As John Tinnell shows in this thought-provoking narrative, Weiser was an outlier in Silicon Valley. A computer scientist whose first love was philosophy, he relished debates about the machine’s ultimate purpose. Good technology, Weiser argued, should not mine our experiences for saleable data or demand our attention; rather, it should quietly boost our intuition as we move through the world.
Informed by deep archival research and interviews with Weiser’s family and colleagues, The Philosopher of Palo Alto chronicles Weiser’s struggle to initiate a new era of computing. Working in the shadows of the dot-com boom, Weiser and his collaborators made Xerox PARC headquarters the site of a grand experiment. Throughout the building, they embedded software into all sorts of objects—coffeepots, pens, energy systems, ID badges—imbuing them with interactive features. Their push to integrate the digital and the physical soon caught on. Microsoft’s Bill Gates flagged Weiser’s Scientific American article “The Computer for the 21st Century” as a must-read. Yet, as more tech leaders warmed to his vision, Weiser grew alarmed about where they wished to take it.
In this fascinating story of an innovator and a big idea, Tinnell crafts a poignant and critical history of today’s Internet of Things. At the heart of the narrative is Weiser’s desire for deeper connection, which animated his life and inspired his notion of what technology at its best could be.
About the Author
John Tinnell is director of digital studies and associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver. He is the author of Actionable Media: Digital Communication Beyond the Desktop, and he has written for the Los Angeles Times and Boston Review.
"Weiser’s pioneering ideas, which he refined in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, led to the present-day Internet of Things, but his vision lost out to the surveillance-capitalist imperatives of Big Tech. Tinnell’s profound biography evokes an alternative paradigm, in which technology companies did not seek to monitor and exploit users."
— New Yorker
"The story of Weiser’s undertaking is told by John Tinnell, a professor of English at the University of Colorado at Denver, in his new biography The Philosopher of Palo Alto, and it’s refreshingly strange. . . . Tinnell presents Weiser both as a progenitor of this state of affairs—his PARC was where 'the seeds for the Internet of Things had been sown”—and as the prophet of an alternative paradigm that might “hold some conceptual tenets for building a better Internet of Things today,' one that rejects 'total surveillance and zero privacy, runaway automation, and diminished agency.'”
— New York Review of Books
"In the life of Mark Weiser, John Tinnell has found a morality tale for our times. For anyone looking to understand how technology is shaping society today, The Philosopher of Palo Alto is a compelling and necessary read."
— Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and The Glass Cage
"This riveting, up-close account reveals how one man’s dream of benevolent computing helped set us on the road to the hyper-connected, surveillance-driven nightmare we inhabit today. A deeply unsettling and cautionary tale."
— Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
"Along with Doug Engelbart’s intelligence augmentation and Alan Kay’s Dynabook, Mark Weiser’s ubiquitous computing is one of the three big concepts that Silicon Valley has fed off of for decades. Tinnell has done a wonderful job of capturing the arc of Weiser’s ideas."
— John Markoff author of Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
“The Philosopher of Palo Alto is a really interesting read in the context of the latest developments in AI. I do have a boundless appetite for books about the history of the industry and was intrigued by this as I’d never heard of Mark Weiser. The reason for that gap, even though he ran the computer science lab at Xerox PARC, is probably that his philosophy of computing lost out. In a nutshell, he was strongly opposed to tech whose smartness involved making people superfluous.”
— Diane Coyle