COMPUTERS TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY BOOK REPORT ‘The Soul of a New Machine’ by Tracy Kidder1981.
New York: Avon PublishingAn underlying messageThere is I believe a single quote from this book that encapsulates almost entirely its underlying message: “No one ever pats anyone on the back around here. If de Castro ever patted me on the back, I’d probably quit”Herein lies the soul, not a soul of silicon or of steel yet no less tangible. It is human soul that manifests itself through the endeavors of a team of computer designers working at the frontiers of human knowledge and engineering. A vision of high-tech AmericaCelebrated for its insight into the world of corporate, high-technology America, the book earned the author a Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1982.
But this book holds far more for its reader, so much more than a mere insight, superficial, into the world of high-tech. Its pages are full of an insight that goes far deeper than that. I would venture that most of its insights are not about corporations, nor business, nor high-tech, but about people. On the surface it gives the reader a factual and extremely detailed account of a team of engineers who between them create a new mini-computer (those machines you more often than not find in businesses and which have now in the most part been surpassed in power by the now ubiquitous desktop PC), a machine, advanced for its day (the story begins back in the late 1970’s), but in many ways just another machine that, set against the developments in computing technology that have taken place since then, pales into insignificance performance-wise.Interwoven throughout its pages are extremely accessible descriptions of the technology that these early machines encompassed, the tangible hardware comprising: the CPU (Central Processor Unit), the IP (Instruction Processor), the ATU (Address Translation Unit), and the IOC (Input/Output Control Board).
And of the software: Machine Code, Microcode and Operating System, those ethereal intangible electron flows, those bits and bytes of binary control data that breath life into those hardware components so that we humans can interact with the machine.A human dramaCertainly it tells us the story of high-tech industry and it’s products. It tells us the story of the hoards of engineers and marketing men that built and sold to the these new machines to the world from enormously powerful computer vendor companies of the ilk of IBM and DEC, those huge conglomerates that once dominated the world of computing around twenty or thirty years ago.The quotes above and those similar however, begin to lead the reader towards another far less obvious, perhaps even subliminal, moral that underlies this tale, and this is a very human tale that encompasses those individual stories that more often than not remain hidden in the noise.
Kidder paints for us a vivid picture of U.S. corporate dynamics in the world of high-tech, but once this background scene is set, he then begins to assemble against it the individual characters who will play out this human drama.
"I'm a little suspicious of the great, overarching view. It always leaves something out," says Kidder. "What interests me is trying to catch the reflection of the human being on the page. I'm interested in how ordinary people live their lives." The story is about team-work, about the individuals who serve to make up a team, and in this instance ‘serve’ is the operative word; Most certainly there was personal fulfillment at work here and many of the individual ‘players’ in this story were certainly pursuing their own personal dreams and desires but rarely did these personal gains occur at the expense of the overall project, the goal of which provided the overriding focal point for their seemingly individual efforts. He tells us of their past lives, how they got here, of their childhood, of what motivates them and of their love for what they do.Inspirational ManagementIt is also a story of inspired management, about individual commitment, about responsibility but above all of these, it is about inspired, eminently intelligent, leadership.
And, it was that leadership, embodied in the character of Tom West, that tied all of these individual processes together, aimed them and fired them off in one unified.