Tim Ferriss: I was just going to say if it’s helpful, I was going to ask about The Dream Machine. And maybe that illustrates how you vet books or hold onto books that are particularly valuable because at any given point in time, even if you have six to eight books around your houses, there are hundreds of thousands of books published every year. So there’s a selection challenge.
Patrick Collison: Yes. Okay. So first off, I think you should mostly ignore the books that are published every year and take advantage of the fact that quite a lot of books have been published up to 10 years ago. But the books published up to 10 years ago, people have had a lot of time to filter through them and try to select the real gems there. And of course, there are other false negatives. There are a lot of great books that just never, for whatever reason, got the attention they deserved. Or maybe that they don’t have the salience that they ought to have for you. But I really think people should be much more biased towards older books than they are. I think The Dream Machine is a good example of this. And I think there are two things that stand out in The Dream Machine. The first is Mitchell Waldrop, the author, he really spent the ti – well, I guess I should describe what it is.
It is a book about the history – well, it is nominally, a biography of J. C. R. Licklider. And many people were responsible for the creation of the internet. But I think Licklider has more claim than any other single person to being the individual causally responsible for its creation. He funded a lot of the early researchers. He tried to bring the community together. And he really instigated much of the movement that led to ARPANET and the internet and so on. And it’s this amazing book about, obviously, one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity. And Mitchell Waldrop spent the time to real – years to really understand in depth not just the specific sequence of events that led to this happening but the milieu and intellectual environment and thinking and landscape that it all came from.
And so the book starts way before Licklider was doing anything because there were all these different fields and disciplines and strains of thinking that Licklider built on. I think it’s pretty rare that an author either takes the time or has the time to really go deep in that manner. And it’s striking that if you look at how The Dream Machine came to be, he was funded by a grant. As I recall, it was the Sloan Foundation. I could be wrong on that, but I believe it was the Sloan Foundation. They thought this was, obviously, a super important period in history. But Waldrop was not toiling under the clock to get a book out by Christmas. He was really trying to capture an important series of events in the arc of technology. So that’s really what stands out about that book.
Tim Ferriss: How did you come across that book? Because was it in print or out of print at the time that you came across it?
Patrick Collison: It was out of print. There were a couple of copies on Amazon. After I finished it, I was so excited about it that I went and bought a whole bunch of them to give away to people at Stripe, to give away to my friends and fairly quickly, we exhausted Amazon’s pretty limited supply. I think I first heard about it from I think some combination of Bret Victor and Alan Kay. Alan Kay many of your listeners will already know about. For anyone who doesn’t, he was a researcher who worked at – he was best known for working at Xerox PARC, which was this amazing industrial research lab that played a formative role in the creation of the GUI, the graphical computer interface and ethernet, one of the main networking technologies, and object-oriented programing, which is the main programming paradigm that’s used today. And so they were just really critical in the history of where we consider modern technology, modern software.
Anyway, Alan Kay worked there and was one of the leading researchers there. And then Bret Victor is one of the most interesting researchers, software creatives working today. And I remember Alan saying that The Dream Machine is semi-unique among computer history and technology history books and that really gets it right. And obviously, we’re a pretty young field. And so there hasn’t been a whole lot of research and deep, scholarly scrutiny, at least to the extent that there might be for math or physics or something. But this book really stood out. And the technology industry is not an industry that spends a lot of time looking to its past in a way that I think is really both a strength and a weakness in that people are always trying ideas that have failed tons of times before. And they’re oblivious to the fact that they’ve failed tons of times before.
And that really is a good thing because sometimes the fact that it has failed five times before does not mean that it’s going to fail the sixth time. But it can, of course, also, in some ways be a weakness where we don’t build on ideas that precede us. Alan Kay’s line about this is computer science is a kind of pop culture where it’s Brownian motion rather than really building layer by layer. Anyway, in a broader culture, I think The Dream Machine is an outlier.
Tim Ferriss: And you mentioned Alan. I will just mention a quote that perhaps people have heard, which is often misattributed. But it is, I think, correctly attributed to Alan, which is, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” That may be a quote that people recognize but perhaps not in association with the name.
Patrick Collison: Yeah. Alan, I would say is quite widely recognized as a genius. But despite that, I think he is still underrated. I think he will be even more highly regarded in 50 years or in 100 years than he is today.