Review: Where Wizards Stay Up Late

Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon

Title: Where Wizards Stay Up Late
Author: Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon
Twitter: @KatieHafner
Published: 1996
ISBN-13: 9780684832678
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publisher’s Blurb: Twenty five years ago, it didn’t exist.
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

DARPA had set out to link the core processing capabilities in America’s top computer science research centers … (p. 232)

The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used.  (p. 218)

You know I’m old when I say there was a time in my life when I didn’t know what a computer really was, and I’d never heard of the internet or the World Wide Web.  Really.  Phones were attached to walls then too.

In 1984 I moved from Texas to Silicon Valley with my then boyfriend who had a newly minted degree in Computer Science and a job at a company which made disc duplicators.

I had no idea what I was in for.  The Selectric III was the height of fashion for secretaries at the time, and I loved mine.   But because I lived with a geek, the culture seeped in.  We had multiple phone lines, various computers and modems, and … well, the rest is history, so to speak.

As I write this, I work at the Computer History Museum and am surrounded by the internet.  It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.

Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s book Where Wizards Stay Up Late takes the reader through the history of the Internet.  From the wild and wooly days of ARPA, whose IPTO  was charged with developing a way for academic computers to link together allowing for sharing of information over AT&T’s phone line.

The birth of what because the internet was four enormous computers in Santa Barbara, Menlo Park, CA, Boston, and Salt Lake City, Utah.  And what an effort it took to figure out how to do that.  No one knew what they were doing, it had to be developed from scratch.

While Hafner & Lyon lay out the history, this book is not highly readable for someone who isn’t either a history nut (me) or a computer geek (partly me).  It gets technical, which is fascinating if you’re someone whose been around the lingo for almost 30 years (also me).  It reads a lot like a text book.

One of the oddities was the condescending manner in which things like “kludge” were explained, but more technical terms and phrases were often unexplained.  It was like reading a book for adults, and then finding something directed at children randomly inserted.

I like my reading to be aimed at intelligent adults, not someone who hasn’t learned to tie their shoes yet.

The end felt rushed, as though the authors realized they were running out of time and needed to pick up the pace.  As with all things computer history related, there’s a complex story to tell.  In trying to simplify the story enough to tell in one short book, Hafner and Lyon shortchanged their readers.

In other words, it’s an okay book.  But just okay.