At a time when Steve Jobs was only a teenager and Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t even born, a group of visionary engineers and designers—some of them only high school students—in the late 1960s and 1970s created a computer system called PLATO, which was light-years ahead in experimenting with how people would learn, engage, communicate, and play through connected computers. Not only did PLATO engineers make significant hardware breakthroughs with plasma displays and touch screens but PLATO programmers also came up with a long list of software innovations: chat rooms, instant messaging, message boards, screen savers, multiplayer games, online newspapers, interactive fiction, and emoticons. Together, the PLATO community pioneered what we now collectively engage in as cyberculture. They were among the first to identify and also realize the potential and scope of the social interconnectivity of computers, well before the creation of the internet. PLATO was the foundational model for every online community that was to follow in its footsteps.
The Friendly Orange Glow is the first history to recount in fascinating detail the remarkable accomplishments and inspiring personal stories of the PLATO community. The addictive nature of PLATO both ruined many a college career and launched pathbreaking multimillion-dollar software products. Its development, impact, and eventual disappearance provides an instructive case study of technological innovation and disruption, project management, and missed opportunities. Above all, The Friendly Orange Glow at last reveals new perspectives on the origins of social computing and our internet-infatuated world.
An important addition to computer history
The “Friendly Orange Glow” refers to the flat-panel background lighting on the PLATO computer—a computer way ahead of its time. Mr. Dear describes in detail the origins of PLATO in 1950s educational theory of operant conditioning and adaptations that not only embraced gaming, communications, and a feeling of community, but also designed and produced hardware and software that influenced the entire computer field as it continues to do today. Flat panel touch screen, immediate responses, an email system, instant messaging, chat rooms, PLATO had it all. Even a “cloud”, though called time-sharing back then.
I was fascinated by the history of PLATO provided in Mr. Dear’s book. Although reviews have noted that the book is very detailed, I thought much of the detail stood in the way of understanding the broader picture.
I was there, in 1978, working on PLATO at Control Data Corporation, which had an office in downtown Baltimore. I had discovered the lone PLATO computer that sat in a quiet area of the University of Maryland school of medicine, where I was a student at the time. I was transfixed. So when I took a leave of absence from medical school, I sought a job at CDC, only a 20 minute bus ride from my apartment.
I was to work on health and science “courseware” for PLATO. Mr. Dear’s book describes the lure that PLATO had, and which I also felt. Reading this book has given me a broader context and filled in some holes I had in my mental picture of PLATO. Though quite readable, the detail was a bit too much—a problem only if you don’t like detail. I also have published something about PLATO—it is the subject of one chapter in my memoir “Public Health/Private Disease” available on Amazon.
Thank you, Mr. Dean, for bringing some memories back to me.