Biographer Secrest reveals a little-known slice of computer history in her account of the Italian typewriter company Olivetti, which created the first desktop computer, and the conspiracies that surround its leaders' deaths.
Secrest brings the extraordinary Olivetti clan vividly to life, reports on highly suspicious deaths, and dramatically illuminates their legendary company’s shocking downfall via long-hidden, deeply sordid conspiracies among fascists, Mafiosi, the CIA, IBM, GE, and Fiat to obliterate Olivetti’s crowning achievement and marvel of ingenuity, Programma 101, the first desktop computer. Deftly seeded with clues and lavish in intriguing detail, Secrest’s many-faceted exposé intensifies with dark surprise as it reveals Cold War acts of sinister politics, ruthless espionage, and covert crimes, and traces the long, grasping tentacles of the American military-industrial complex.
These are sensational charges, and Ms. Secrest doesn’t make them calmly. Whereas her earlier chapters are engaging and tolerably well written, the last and longest—the book’s raison d’être—is a muddle, its flimsy theories spewed out in feverish prose ... Subscribing to a cartoonishly exaggerated view of American power in Italy, Ms. Secrest blames it for all Olivetti’s misfortunes ... [Secrest's] attempt to establish the Olivettis as victims of American villainy is doomed by her weakness for dietrologia, with its paranoia and Cold War clichés. It’s as if some dark puppet master menaced her with a poison gun.
Secrest focuses more on the Olivetti family than its products. There is a bare-bones description of the P101 and how it was developed...But there is little more on what must be an intriguing techie history ... Secrest thus also misses several opportunities to tease out intriguing storylines ... The book’s treatment of espionage is at times more detailed than its take on tech ... This conspiracy-mongering is a shame. Secrest does all the right research, and the clues to the company’s troubles (and Olivetti’s woes) are right in front of her. In an era of rampant conspiracy theories, we rely on scholarship to pull out the facts, not just the speculation ... Yet this book is, in other ways, a laudable attempt. It shines when describing Adriano Olivetti’s interest in architecture. Secrest writes well on the aesthetics of Olivetti machines...Her biographer’s instinct is also to be applauded. As she laments, 'the Programma 101 has not been well served by computer historians on or off the Internet.' She is right. That record remains to be filled.