Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Friendly Orange Glow

Title:  The Friendly Orange Glow:  The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture
Author:  Brian Dear
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2017. 640 pages.
ISBN:  1101871555 / 978-1101871553

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They sat in little wooden chairs in front of little wooden desks."

Favorite Quote:  "PLATO was a computer system, but more important, it was a culture, both physical and online, a community that formed on its own, with its own jargon, customs, and idioms; its own cast of thousands, a world familiar to us yet subtly foreign, an entire era that clashes with the accepted, canonical history of computing, social media, online communities, online games, and online education. It's as if an advanced civilization had once thrived on earth, dwelled among us, built a wondrous technology, but then disappeared as quietly as they had arrived, leaving behind scraps of legend and artifacts that only few noticed."

The author worked for five years on the PLATO system; he is "someone who had the great fortune to come of age, to 'become digital,' as it were withing that very culture." That perspective makes this history a very personal one.

"The story of PLATO as a technological and cultural history is unusual. Unlike most such histories, there are no existing major books, magazine articles, documentaries, or other common sources to which historians may turn ... An untenable situation was avoided by setting up a website, running since 1996, announcing the book project, describing its scope, listing questions for which the author was seeking answers ... The result is a book largely based on oral history, capturing, before they are forever lost, the stories of the people who participated in the late, great online community known as PLATO." This source material makes this history a very personal one and makes this history a story of the people involved beyond the facts of the project itself.

What, you may ask, is PLATO? I had never heard of it before reading this book; I would venture to guess that neither have most people. That dearth of knowledge is what makes this history a necessary one. PLATO stands for Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations. It was an early computer development project that began in 1960 at the University of Illinois. Its ideas are the predecessor to many things we take for granted today - online forums, email, instant messaging, screen sharing, and other technology essential to remote, cooperative work.

The intent of PLATO was an educational platform. Could a computer be used to teach students as effectively as a human teacher? What role could this technology play in reimagining the US education system. A by-product of this project was an intensely committed community dedicated to its development, sustenance, and enjoyment. This book is a story of that community. It is, in fact, the community itself seeking to preserve its history.

The book itself relates its history in three segments. The first part is about the historical environment and the behavioral ideas that led to the system's development. The title to Part Two is also the title of an Isaac Asimov short story about learning through mechanical teachers rather than a human one - the PLATO objective. The final part is the successful and unsuccessful attempts to move PLATO to a wider platform - beyond both its community and beyond the world of education. Clearly, the impact has lingered although the system and the names have not.

The Friendly Orange Glow is a book written by a community for a community. It is an endeavor to preserve a history. The research and time put into compiling the history is clear in the length and depth of the details and the extensive list of sources and notes at the end. The personal interest and viewpoint of the author is clear from beginning to end. The book is lengthy and dense but nevertheless a fascinating story of a time, a place, and a community.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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