Versions of history: on Dallas, computers, & AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire

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Don’t mess with Texas coders: a promo graphic for the second season of Halt and Catch Fire (via AMC)

Tinkerers are everywhere and probably always have been. The very idea of ham radio, for instance, was that it didn’t matter where you were; once you built or bought a transmitter, a receiver, and an antenna, you were set—you could chat with people in another part of the country, the continent, or the world. The network of hams formed an Internet before there was an Internet; when other channels failed or were blocked, hams were sometimes the first to spread the news of disasters and other events, much as the recent coup attempt in Turkey was reported on Twitter as it unfolded (by Zeynep Tufekci, among others). Where computers are concerned, there’s been no shortage of popular histories that have shown the far-flung origins of the devices on our desks and in our pockets. In 1984, Steven Levy published Hackers, a book tracing the hacker spirit in electrical engineers, computer programmers, electronics hobbyists, game creators, and phone phreaks around the country; many of these figures, in places ranging from Boston, Massachusetts, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, carried the flag of the personal-computer revolution. Levy’s book didn’t, as I recall, say much about women or the rest of the world, but Walter Isaacson, writing more broadly about computer history in his 2014 book, The Innovators, looked farther afield, describing the 19th-century British pioneers Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, 20th-century figures such as Alan Turing in Britain and Konrad Zuse in Germany, and a variety of women who followed, one way or another, in Ada’s footsteps.[1] The popular histories may yet remain incomplete; for instance, it’s well known to techies but apparently little known elsewhere that the ARM architecture for computer processors, which is at the heart of most of the world’s mobile devices, was developed in Britain and dates back to the 80s. Still, the picture is pretty clear, for those who’ve cared to study it: personal computers, mobile computers (which is what smartphones and tablets really are), and software aren’t created in just one place and never have been.

Yet it’s still easy to imagine, for many people outside the business, that the PC business sprouted and grew mainly in California (despite the obvious role played by IBM), in part because of the way we talk. We use “Silicon Valley” as shorthand for the American computer industry, just as we use “Hollywood” as a metonym for the American film industry, “Wall Street” for the American financial system, and “Washington” for the federal government. Sure, a large part of the film business is concentrated in Los Angeles, though much of it is based in Culver City, not Hollywood (a point made by the charmingly iconoclastic film Los Angeles Plays Itself), and if software is eating the world, as software pioneer Marc Andreessen said in a 2011 Wall Street Journal essay, there may be no better place from which to observe and participate than Silicon Valley, which is where Andreessen works (to be exact, he’s based in Menlo Park). But we’re always in danger of forgetting what our terms really mean.

In short, and to get to the point, because brevity is the soul of wit, etc., the AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire, now in its third season, has been useful because it informs us if we didn’t know, or reminds us if we did, that there’s more to “Silicon Valley” than Silicon Valley itself. It begins in 1983 in Dallas, with the coming together of a small group of characters who are either working to create a new personal computer or indirectly supporting the cause through a job at a major manufacturer. Whether this has struck anyone as far-fetched I can’t say, but Dallas is better known for oil, finance, football, and right-wing grouches—and still, I imagine, for a certain swashbuckling businessman named J.R.

Yet, in a manner of speaking, Halt and Catch Fire’s scenario is true history. Texas Instruments, where Donna works, is or should be as recognizable a name as IBM, which Joe recently left; TI commercialized the silicon transistor. The mainframe-software maker that hires Joe at the outset resembles one that I worked at later in the 80s, called Image Sciences, whose products could generate and laser-print forms on demand for the insurance industry. (Anyone who thinks computers transformed publishing is right, but mainframes and minicomputers did it first; the Atex system was used at the daily newspaper where I worked in the late 70s.) The Dallas area in the 80s and 90s was, in fact, a genuine technology hub, fed by engineering programs at Southern Methodist University (some students in its e-school, which I was briefly a part of, were talking about digital audio in the early 70s, years before CDs arrived) and the University of Texas at Dallas, and dotted with headquarters or outposts for some major players in aerospace (such as Rockwell), telecommunications (such as AT&T and Nortel), data processing (such as EDS), and electronics. In 1982, Steve Wallach, one of the hero-engineers in Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Soul of a New Machine, co-founded a company in Richardson, called Convex, to make minisupercomputers.[2] A manufacturer called Dallas Semiconductor, founded in 1984, made a number of clever components that were both talked about and used at the time. The annual SIGGRAPH conference on computer graphics was held in Dallas three times in one decade: in 1981, ’86, and ’90.[3] At SIGGRAPH 86, which I attended, Pixar fired a shot heard round the world when it debuted its Luxo Jr. demo, which became the first CGI film nominated for an Academy Award.

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A frame from Luxo Jr. (via Pixar Animation Studios)

The big fish were accompanied by smaller fish. One company where I worked, PCSG, had begun by making software for portable computers such as the TRS-80 Model 100, expanded into personal-computer software, and was bought by an Indonesian maker of clove cigarettes, which funded it as a sort of R&D hothouse.[4] If I hadn’t been there, I might not believe this improbable tale myself. One thing we developed but never released was a peer-to-peer email program—a way for my computer to dial up your computer and send it a message, not a bad idea at the time, when LAN and Internet access was far less common. Another company I worked for, Dallas Fax, began by making fax-modem cards and software and developed an early, inexpensive form of voice automation. (Voice menus are not much loved now, but our product won an Editors’ Choice award from PC Magazine.)

The rest of Texas was in the game, too. Compaq, whose story resembles that told in the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, was founded in Houston in 1982. Dell started in Austin in 1984, and in 1988 Austin became the original location for a government-industry research consortium called SEMATECH.

Halt and Catch Fire may seem to be modernizing history in placing women among its engineers: not so. True, women were often employed in roles so traditional they could’ve been copied from the 60s. At PCSG, after I fetched a Coke from the kitchen, one of the secretaries called me to suggest that I let her do that—it was part of her job. But the system administrator at Image Sciences was a woman, as was one of the handful of programmers. At AT&T Consumer Billings Systems, roughly half my team was women.

Two things can be said about this sketch, which I haven’t attempted to color in. One, the history of the Dallas area broadly confirms what Halt and Catch Fire depicts. I haven’t seen anyone question it, but I haven’t seen anyone remark on it either—other than its creators, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, one of whose fathers sold systems software in the area back then. Two, in the curious way that fiction has of playing back upon the world it springs from, the show, by dramatizing tech workers and tech work in Dallas, validates them. It feels odd saying so, but Halt and Catch Fire has renewed my sense that I was part of something valuable—I know it was real because I’ve seen it on TV. For what it’s worth, the end of Halt and Catch Fire’s second season paralleled history in another way, at least anecdotally: the show’s characters packed up and moved to the West Coast, just as one of my friends did. He had found his career options as a coder too limited in Texas and gave in to the siren call of Silicon Valley. (He changed gender as well, and not long ago he, now she, abandoned the Bay Area for Washington State. Leaving the Valley is becoming a thing, for reasons illuminated by Anna Wiener’s smashing spring-2016 essay for n+1.)

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Maybe a tongue-in-cheek nod to Dallas’s image, since longhorn cattle aren’t common in downtown Dallas (frame grab by me, from program content copyright 2014 AMC Networks)

Cameron, Halt and Catch Fire’s “rebel prodigy” (Richard Lawson, in VF.com), may represent “the future,” as Marc Andreessen said in a New Yorker profile last year, echoing the Season One remark of another character on the show. If she does, though, it’s more because of her ideas and her attitude than her gender. Women are still doing tech work, and they’re still underrepresented. But in a sense Halt and Catch Fire isn’t about computer history anyway. Jonathan Lisco, its showrunner for the first two seasons, told HitFix early on that the show is “an investigation of narcissism, the fallout from our own ambitions, whether or not we’re visionary or fraud, the insecurities of trying to strive for something greater and not knowing if you’re gonna succeed.” Ambition comes in many flavors; the “Greed is good” decade also saw the spread—though they began earlier—of the socially transformative, pseudo-altruistic ambitions in the computer industry to “make the world a better place.” (The latter expression, incidentally, may owe its popularity to another emblem of the 80s, Michael Jackson.) The characters of Halt and Catch Fire fall in the middle of that spectrum. They’re not trying to get rich, and they’re not really trying to change the world, despite nods in that direction such as Joe’s pithy line from the pilot episode: ”Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Their ideas are technological—a new computer, a friendlier operating system, a new kind of video game, or a new way for people to connect online—but in a way they’re just trying to build better mousetraps, which is what most people launching a business want to do. And they confront familiar getting-ahead-in-business questions: What’s your idea? Is it good enough? Are you? Whom do you ally yourself with? Who’s in your way? What, or whom, are you willing to sacrifice? How do you get past the past, what’s happened to you, what you’ve done?

In outline, Halt and Catch Fire presents a fast-paced, high-stakes competition where there are always obstacles, anything you can get away with is fair, and there’s always another round to play, as long as you can stay in the game. But for a show whose original tagline was “The Battle for CTRL Begins,” the action can come off as a little uncontrolled; its execution leans toward melodrama. From the pilot to the latest episode, its characters fight and they break up, they kiss and they make up—no, wait, that’s a Katy Perry song. But we see a fair number of angry outbursts and changes of mind, deceptions and betrayals and manipulative seductions, reckless moves and misjudgments and mere mistakes. Much of this is embodied in Joe, “the smooth golden-boy rule-breaker” (Leslie Horn, in Gizmodo), in whom lurks something broken that wants to break other things—something of Don Draper. Joe has earned the mistrust of the others many times over, but they all do it. Halt and Catch Fire is showing us the shaky foundations of the questing soul, those restless seekers of what’s new, what’s next. (There’s a difference—Cameron’s idea for a conversational interface was new, but it didn’t come to pass until much later, with voice input to Google search and Apple’s Siri and the like.) As a bonus, you can see it as a submerged metaphor for the ups and downs of show business—or, if you prefer, as a backstage musical. But from episode to episode, especially in previous seasons, it has sometimes been hard to be sure the show knows what it’s doing. Another of my tech friends puts it simply: “It’s good but it tries too hard.”

You don’t doubt the characters’ basic intelligence. Along with Cameron and Joe, its central quartet includes engineer Gordon—shadowed by an early failure, he’s prone to wander and needs to be gripped by something—and Donna, his wife, also an engineer, who’s the stable one but doesn’t want to be confined to that role. And there’s Bosworth, an older man skilled in business management, who has become something of a camp follower in that he’s willing to do what the others won’t. None of them are short on ideas or skills or commitment. They’re concerned to do things right, do things well, but they’re not beyond taking a shortcut if it looks likely to get them somewhere—they’ll cross an ethical line, or a legal one. Gordon’s not alone in having landed behind bars. Their brilliance is decidedly of the passionate kind. And at the end of Season Two, when they all leave the heartland for Silicon Valley itself, it’s not only for bigger opportunities but also for a fresh start—they’ve made rather a mess of things in Dallas.

Surprisingly for a show that’s partly pitched at a knowledgeable audience, Halt and Catch Fire’s relationship to tech has been a bit shaky, though more often right than wrong. Some of the show’s ideas need no explaining because we recognize them—they’ve become part of our world. Others have been subtle or deftly handled. In Season One, it tosses out a reference to degaussing and allows the meaning to become clear from the conversation; likewise for the derisory term “kludge.” The show mentions Palo Alto and Xerox in an episode that concludes with a stunning glimpse of the new Macintosh computer, some features of which had drawn on work at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. The first episode of Season Three, set in 1986, includes a quick debate on the proper pronunciation of “GIF”—a slight anachronism, since the format was invented the following year, but the dispute persists, like the eternal tabs-versus-spaces clash we saw on Silicon Valley. On the other hand, an episode in Season Two questionably shows Gordon writing a piece of software that—oops!—turns out to be a virus;[5] it’s also doubtful that his PC code can easily be made to work on a mainframe. That Season One reference to “kludge” was mispronounced. And the show’s explanation of its title, which it stopped displaying almost immediately, was a faulty metaphor: what it implied made sense, but what it said didn’t—processor instructions can’t compete, and the real HCF did something different.

 

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How the show explained its title (frame grab by me, from program content copyright 2014 AMC Networks)

 

Though it usually gets the facts right, Halt and Catch Fire’s broader relation to history isn’t so simple. Mad Men was often discussed as if it aimed to duplicate the 60s, allowing a few commentators to complain about this or that box on the list going unchecked and many others to praise its accuracy. As some essays in the collection Mad Men, Mad World argued, the show was really up to something more, or different, constructing a version of the 60s rather than recreating it and speaking to the present by means of the past. Similarly, though a recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay discussed Halt and Catch Fire in terms of nostalgia TV, as if it were only restoring the past to us, the show rings so many contemporary bells that it looks like a vision of the present displaced to the 80s—for which we should be thankful, since it spares us the big hair. Computer viruses and online security are major concerns now; both were present in the 80s too, but their amplification in the show reflects current anxieties. Freeware is far more prominent now than it was then; likewise the role of venture capital. Limited opportunities for women in tech were a fact of the 80s, but this wasn’t an issue in anything like the way it is now. When we see, in Halt and Catch Fire, that women have become engineers and have founded a company, but that sexism leads men to try cheating them, to shortchange them in a funding offer, or to deny them altogether: this moves us in part because we like Donna and Cameron, but surely it’s also because the show is dramatizing a human dilemma now faced by the entire industry—it pushes a button.

It’s harder to know how to take the many moments in which the characters light on an idea that is, we know, prescient. Sometimes it flies, because they’re in a position to act on it (as when Mutiny invents the first-person shooter and the chat room); sometimes it doesn’t, because they can’t make it happen by themselves, or it’s just not possible yet (as with Cameron’s pilot-episode vision of computers connected to other computers), or even because they sabotage themselves (Gordon yanks Cameron’s conversational OS to make their computer’s response time faster). One could criticize this as a static view of history, in which the past is simply a less fully developed form of the present rather than a different place altogether, but a more generous view is that it’s a pleasure to see good ideas spark and flare in the minds of these people.

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Girls just want to have funding: Donna and Cameron go for venture capital in Season Three (photo by Tina Rowden/AMC)

Despite Halt and Catch Fire’s blemishes, it has moments of beauty, often with a shading of irony, and many of them come, not from the unceasing competition, but from collaboration. An extended scene in the pilot shows Joe and Gordon laboring over circuit boards in an archetypal garage (I described it in a discussion of that episode); the montage is essentially lyrical, yet it represents a violation and thus prefigures many other crossings of a line in which the characters will engage. A comparable set of scenes in the first episode of Season Two shows Donna and Cameron hashing out their differences, deciding how to proceed, and getting hold of some needed hardware (another case of legal trespass), in the process going “Thelma-and-Louise on a creep,” as Willa Paskin wrote last year for Slate, in an excellent appreciation of Season Two’s pivot toward the women. Another such scene occurred in the opening of Season Three.

There’s a parallel between the situation of Halt and Catch Fire’s scrappy characters in the midst of the 80s computer scene and the situation of this scrappy show itself in the period of peak TV: the ideas are good, but are they good enough? Its audience has been slow to grow, but critics have increasingly favored it. Halt and Catch Fire is, in a word, maturing; it’s calmer now, less coltish. The third episode of Season Three was more focused, carefully developed, and witty than perhaps anything before it. (The episode was written by Lisa Albert, who worked on Mad Men.) I hope Halt and Catch Fire can stay in the game for a few more rounds.

Notes

  1. I mention those two books only because I’m acquainted with them. But, as a freelancer for the Condé Nast magazine Vanity Fair, I have an indirect connection to the authors of both books. Steven Levy now works for Condé Nast; Walter Isaacson has contributed to Vanity Fair, and he participated in its first annual conference.
  2. The notion that computers had no style before Apple is wrong. Computers often had style; it’s just personal computers that looked fatally bland. Even IBM mainframes used color in their design. Convex made gold-and-black machines that looked both seductive and powerful. And Cray made machines that looked like they came from the Clarke-Kubrick future shown in 2001.
  3. That Dallas hosted SIGGRAPH three times may say more about the city’s prowess in drawing conventions, but I’d like to think that the area’s technology industry played a part.
  4. To the best of my recollection, that tens of thousands of smokers were funding our work was seldom if ever discussed. Some of us enjoyed being able to get free clove cigarettes, which were popular in the 80s club scene, and that was about it.
  5. I recall an anecdote suggesting that an early piece of software designed to spread through a network had proven hard to eradicate—like a virus in that it became a nuisance, if not a threat. But it’s hard to imagine a competent engineer writing code that’ll do this—that is, copy itself—without realizing he’s doing it.
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2 thoughts on “Versions of history: on Dallas, computers, & AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire

  1. Freakin’ awesome piece, beautifully narrated and diligently researched. I came of age in Dallas during those scrappy pioneering days John speaks of, and had only the faintest glimmer that something revolutionary was happening under the shadow of, as he says, the Big Hair. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    Like

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