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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reading List: Forbidden Science. Vol. 2

Vallee, Jacques. Forbidden Science. Vol. 2. San Francisco: Documatica Research, 2008. ISBN 978-0-615-24974-2.
This, the second volume of Jacques Vallee's journals, chronicles the years from 1970 through 1979. (I read the first volume, covering 1957–1969, before I began this list.) Early in the narrative (p. 153), Vallee becomes a U.S. citizen, but although surrendering his French passport, he never gives up his Gallic rationalism and scepticism, both of which serve him well in the increasingly weird Northern California scene in the Seventies. It was in those locust years that the seeds for the personal computing and Internet revolutions matured, and Vallee was at the nexus of this technological ferment, working on databases, Doug Englebart's Augmentation project, and later systems for conferencing and collaborative work across networks. By the end of the decade he, like many in Silicon Valley of the epoch, has become an entrepreneur, running a company based upon the conferencing technology he developed. (One amusing anecdote which indicates how far we've come since the 70s in mindset is when he pitches his conferencing system to General Electric who, at the time, had the largest commercial data network to support their timesharing service. They said they were afraid to implement anything which looked too much like a messaging system for fear of running afoul of the Post Office.)

If this were purely a personal narrative of the formative years of the Internet and personal computing, it would be a valuable book—I was there, then, and Vallee gets it absolutely right. A journal is, in many ways, better than a history because you experience the groping for solutions amidst confusion and ignorance which is the stuff of real life, not the narrative of an historian who knows how it all came out. But in addition to being a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and (later) venture capitalist, Vallee is also one of the preeminent researchers into the UFO and related paranormal phenomena (the character Claude Lacombe, played by François Truffaut in Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was based upon Vallee). As the 1970s progress, the author becomes increasingly convinced that the UFO phenomenon cannot be explained by extraterrestrials and spaceships, and that it is rooted in the same stratum of the human mind and the universe we inhabit which has given rise to folklore about little people and various occult and esoteric traditions. Later in the decade, he begins to suspect that at least some UFO activity is the work of deliberate manipulators bent on creating an irrational, anti-science worldview in the general populace, a hypothesis expounded in his 1979 book, Messengers of Deception, which remains controversial three decades after its publication.

The Bay Area in the Seventies was a kind of cosmic vortex of the weird, and along with Vallee we encounter many of the prominent figures of the time, including Uri Geller (who Vallee immediately dismisses as a charlatan), Doug Engelbart, J. Allen Hynek, Anton LaVey, Russell Targ, Hal Puthoff, Ingo Swann, Ira Einhorn, Tim Leary, Tom Bearden, Jack Sarfatti, Melvin Belli, and many more. Always on a relentlessly rational even keel, he observes with dismay as many of his colleagues disappear into drugs, cults, gullibility, pseudoscience, and fads as that dark decade takes its toll. In May 1979 he feels himself to be at “the end of an age that defied all conventions but failed miserably to set new standards” (p. 463). While this is certainly spot on in the social and cultural context in which he meant it, it is ironic that so many of the standards upon which the subsequent explosion of computer and networking technology are based were created in those years by engineers patiently toiling away in Silicon Valley amidst all the madness.

An introduction and retrospective at the end puts the work into perspective from the present day, and 25 pages of end notes expand upon items in the journals which may be obscure at this remove and provide source citations for events and works mentioned. You might wonder what possesses somebody to read more than five hundred pages of journal entries by somebody else which date from thirty to forty years ago. Well, I took the time, and I'm glad I did: it perfectly recreated the sense of the times and of the intellectual and technological challenges of the age. Trust me: if you're too young to remember the Seventies, it's far better to experience those years here than to have actually lived through them.

Posted at October 6, 2009 17:23