Book Review: The Friendly Orange Glow

The Friendly Orange Glow:The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cybercultureby Brian DearPantheon, 2017Tech writer and entrepreneur Brian Dear decides right at the beginning of his epic nerd-fest of a book, The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, that it's better to seek the glory of Pelennor Fields than to slink around the Halls of Mandos in quiet obscurity. His book is about the young creators of what is in many ways the prototype of the interconnected computing world we all know today, the grinning brainiacs who crafted out of thin air in 1960 something they called PLATO: Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations, a primitive computer network loaded by its creators with forerunners of many of the staples of our present-day online life: live chat, instant messaging, chat rooms, email, and even, shudder, emoticons.Dear has his hands on a great story, and he clearly knows it: The Friendly Orange Glow bounds with energy from its first pages, when those PLATO creators are described in terms more fitting for the Justice League than the varsity AV club:

We are living in the very “shocking future” Alvin Toffler wrote about – warned us about – forty-five years ago. And the history of how we reached this future has been researched, deciphered, studied, analyzed, organized, and disseminated far and wide for long enough that the story has become legend, set in stone. Nerds, geeks, and hackers are no longer outcasts and ridiculed; they're now sought-after “thought leaders,” many counted among the tens of thousands of recent millionaires and hundreds of billionaires. The list of heroes' names in the “computer revolution” is long. But there is an equally long list of unknown computer pioneers, the people whose stories fill the pages of this book.

Readers good-natured enough to suppress their snickering at this kind of stuff (hackers may no longer be outcasts – not all of them, not explicitly – but ridiculing geeks is still a recognized Olympic sport, and calling somebody a “hero” because he creates a new Federation-vs-Klingon gaming subroutine says some pretty dim things about what you'd then call somebody who runs into burning buildings to rescue people stranded inside) will love the rest of the book, which charts in loving detail the birth and growth of the PLATO system at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the multiple guest-star walk-ons (from Leonard Nimoy to Galatea 2.2 novelist Richard Powers to, of all people, Richard Nixon who, it turns out, hated the proto-Internet as much as he hated everything else), and its eventual spread to include many thousands of users by the 1970s. Dear's enthusiasm even extends to that least likely of subjects, the topography of the Prairie State:

To be in the great state of Illinois is to be hours away by jet, days by car or rail, from the West or East Coasts, each a thousand miles away. To be in Illinois is, instead, to be in the heart of the fruited plain, that vast prairie with soil so rich you could jam a broomstick into it and leaves would sprout. Some 80 percent of the state's nearly 58,000 square and famously flat miles are devoted to farming, much of it corn and, in more recent years, soy. Endless farmland surrounds most Illinois cities and towns, which pop up like islands in a sea of green.

The Friendly Orange Glow does exactly what it's delightfully partisan author claims: it restores to the narrative a largely-overlooked chapter from the early years of computing. That alone would be reason enough to reads the book. Dear's writing verve is an extra bonus, not always provided by tech-writers and much appreciated by the lay reader.