Books

The Web Before the Web: On Writing The Friendly Orange Glow

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Editor's Note:

Brian Dear is a longtime tech-startup entrepreneur and the founder of companies including Coconut Computing, FlatWorks, Eventful, and Nettle. He has also worked at a variety of dot-com companies, including MP3 and eBay, and he worked in computer-based education for eight years, including five on the PLATO system. He has written for Educational Technology, BYTE, IEEE Expert, and San Diego Reader.

When I entered the University of Delaware in 1979 as a freshman, I discovered the campus was full of strange, futuristic computer terminals connected to a system called PLATO. To my utter surprise, PLATO had almost everything we now take for granted. It was full of people online, all of them connecting, collaborating, communicating. I was blown away. There were graphics and multiplayer games of every sort. Message forums on every topic imaginable. Email, chat rooms, instant messaging. You could converse with people all over the world. My official major might have been English and journalism, but in reality, I was soon majoring in PLATO.

By 1985 I wanted to write a book. All I had was a title: Gurus: A History of Education’s Future. It would consist of a handful of profiles of prominent visionaries in the field of educational technology like PLATO. It wasn’t clear whose vision of the future was going to turn out to be “the one,” so I interviewed all of these prominent names, including Dr. Donald Bitzer, the founder of PLATO. Each person was convinced their vision was the right one and everyone else’s was wrong. It didn’t take me long to notice that no matter who I was interviewing, my questions kept returning to the topic of PLATO.

That same year I bought a copy of Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. The first thing I did when buying such books was search the index for mentions of PLATO. But there were none. The media likewise kept mum. PLATO was light-years beyond what was happening with still-primitive microcomputers, and yet the world seemed determined to ignore it, year after year. PLATO had turned 25 years old in 1985 and still there remained no books on the subject. By 1988 I’d abandoned the Gurus concept and refocused my book on PLATO itself.

The story was too good. Whenever the opportunity arose to interview someone, I pursued it, even if it meant travel. I had no backing from a publisher or a foundation, but I was determined to unearth the PLATO story. I interviewed people on the phone, at conferences, on business trips. Each interview unveiled new clues, new names, new stories that I had to check out. Each person’s story was a piece in a puzzle. What the completed puzzle would look like, I had no idea, but the clues were tantalizing.

The research would take decades, in-between breaks from day jobs. I would work on the book for a year or two, then go back to a day job for a few years, then return to the book for a spell, then another job, repeat, repeat, repeat, straight through to just a few years ago.

Along the way, the World Wide Web was born. In 1996 I set up a website about the book, including listing out my sources. If anyone gave me useful details through an interview or email, I added their name to the list. Over years the list would grow to be many hundreds of names. People all over the world would scan the list, then email me saying, “Hey, you need to talk to me!” or “You need to talk to X, they’re not on your list!” Off I’d go to more interviews.

Transcribing interview recordings took decades as well, resulting in well over five million words of transcripts. By 2010 I started seeing how the puzzle pieces fit together. Themes emerged. A narrative structure began to take shape. By January 2017, the book was done.

Even recent computer history books still lack any mention of PLATO. That’s always fueled my determination even more to finish The Friendly Orange Glow. With the release of the book, my hope is PLATO finally makes it into the mainstream conversation, and that the book becomes the first of many to explore over fifty years of amazing history.