Sweet Old Bob and the Siren Song of Technology

Spiritual Smart Aleck

113

When I came to the island in 1973, among the hippies I got to know was a tall slender guy named Bob. He had long black hair and a beard. He made his living selling dope pipes that he made from brass lamp parts and wooden beads.

By 1974 Bob decided to give up the hippie craftsman life and move to Seattle to pursue more interesting things. He’d always been interested in computers.

Flash forward: I was visiting my mother in California in June 2000 and picked up a copy of Time Magazine and began reading an article about ecstasy, the rave drug. Near the end I saw a picture of “Bob Wallace, retired Microsoft millionaire,” who funded the testing of drugs at raves to make sure the drugs were safe.

Yes, it was our Bob. After moving to Seattle he had become Microsoft employee number 9. You can miss a lot when you lose touch with a person for twenty-six years.

Bob was an integral part of the computer revolution that changed our world. He left Microsoft after a few years and started a company called Quicksoft, which he later sold, and then he and his wife, Megan, moved to northern California, and funded research into mind altering drugs. Testing drugs at raves was a service Bob funded.

On September 20, 2002, at age 53, he died in his sleep. He had pneumonia. He changed the world but was not great at taking care of himself.

Bill Larson,* who lived on Vashon in the 1970s and ‘80s, knew Bob Wallace when they both lived here. Bill told me this story recently:
One day Bob told Bill about an idea he had for a portable computer. It would consist of the computer, a monitor, and a keyboard, which would all fold into a suitcase so it could be carried, and it would weigh under eighty pounds! Voila! Portable computer!

This was back in the mid-70s when computers still filled rooms.

The idea was a little ahead of its time, but not much. In 1981, the first portable computer, the Osborne 1, debuted. It weighed about 24 pounds and had a five-inch screen, two floppy disk drives, and 64K memory. It cost $1795, looked like a suitcase when closed, and was a success for a few years. Portable computers that looked more like the laptops we know soon followed.

At first, I thought the personal computer was a solution without a problem. I got a Panasonic word processor that was advertised as, “too smart to be a typewriter, too easy to be a computer.” I loved that thing. Used it for years.

But then – I heard about the internet. I got a Mac Performa and listened to the SKREE and static of dial-up with tense anticipation and delight. Now I could (slowly) be in contact with friends and family across the country and around the world. Thrills!

That was a little over twenty years ago. Now I have a computer I can hold in my hand, called a cell phone, or mobile. I can use it to go online, play games, and even make phone calls.
That first flush of “Gee whiz, computers are so keen!” has been replaced by “Yikes, my bank account has been hacked!” “Holy gazoly, our elections have been rigged!” And other not so great uses of computers and the internet.

Did the visionary geniuses who pioneered computer technology foresee their work being put to these uses? Here’s someone who thought about developing technology:
“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer

Okay.

It is a shame that human beings do not grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as fast as we create new technology. Technological innovations amaze, but we’re still chasing the same old delusions of power and money.

Perhaps there are some visionary geniuses now who will be able to help save humanity from the unforeseen consequences of technological advancements that were too sweet to pass by.

Perhaps the necessities imposed by climate change, or some other challenge that the whole world faces, will force us to drop the false dichotomy of our disagreements.

Meanwhile? Let us be kind, to ourselves, and one another, and keep breathing.

*Bill Larson makes custom guitar slides in colors out of borosilicate glass. If you are jonesing to play slide blues guitar and want a slide in your size and color, you can look him up at The Rocky Butte Guitar Slide Company.