Hackers and Left Politics

Some of the key pioneers in the personal computing revolution were not driven by entrepeneurial greed. For example, the Community Memory project in Berkeley, California was launched in 1973 by Lee Felsenstein. The project allowed remote public access to a time-shared XDS mainframe in order to provide "a communication system which allows people to make contact with each other on the basis of mutually expressed interests, without having to cede judgement to third parties." The Community Memory project served as a kind of bulletin board where people could post notes, information, etc., sort of like an embryonic version of the Interenet.

Felsenstein, born in 1945, was the son of a CP district organizer and got involved in civil rights struggles in the 1950's. Eventually, he hooked up with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and became a committed radical. Lee's other passion was electronics and he entered the UC as an electrical engineering major.

Felsenstein then hooked up with another left-of-center computer hacker by the name of Bob Halbrecht and the two went on to form a tabloid called PCC "People's Computer Company". Among the people drawn to the journal was Ted Nelson, a programmer who had bounced from one corporate job to another throughout the 60's but who was always repelled by "the incredible bleakness of the place in these corridors."

Nelson was the author of "Computer Lib" and announced in its pages that "I want to see computers useful to individuals, and the sooner the better, without necessary complication or human servility being required." Community Memory flourished for a year and a half until the XDS started breaking down too often The group disbanded in 1975.

The PCC continued, however, and played a key role in publicizing the earliest personal computers. One of the machines that Felsenstein and Halbrecht got their hands on was an Altair 8800, the first genuine personal computer for sale to the public.

So enamored of the idea of personal computing were Felsentsein and Halbrecht that they then launched something called the Homebrew Computer Club. The club drew together the initial corps of engineers and programmers who would launch the personal computer revolution. Among the participants were a couple of adolescents named Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak who went on to form the Apple Corporation.

The hacker ethic which prevailed at the Homebrew Computer Club was decidely anticapitalist, but not consciously pro-socialist. Software was freely exchanged at the club and the idea of proprietary software was anathema to the club members. There were 2 hackers who didn't share these altruistic beliefs, namely Paul Allen and Bill Gates. When Allen and Gates discovered that their version of Basic which was written for the Altair was being distributed freely at the club, they rose hell. The 19 year old Gates stated in a letter to the club that "Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?"

Another interesting example of the anticapitalist hacker ethic is personified in one Richard Stallman. Stallman worked at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in the early 1970's and, no doubt influenced by the spirit of the age, came to see the lab as the embodiment of a philosophy which "does not mean advocating a dog-eat-dog jungle. American society is already a dog-eat-dog jungle, and its rules maintain it that way. We hackers wish to replace those rules with a concern for constructive cooperation."

Stallman developed EMACS, the most widely used Unix text editor, and went on to form the GNU foundation which distributes EMACS and other free software. When you press ctrl-x, ctrl-w upon entering EMACS, you can read a statement of the GNU foundation which includes the following words "If you distribute copies of a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must give the recipients all the rights you have. You must make sure that they, too, receive or get the source code." Can one imagine Microsoft Inc. issuing a statement such as this?

I have gone on at length without discussing the Internet. Suffice it to say that the hacker ethic infuses the entire project know as the Internet. What threatens it the most is the mindset best exemplified by Bill Gates who would make every last thing proprietary.

In general, we should resist the tempation to put an equal sign between the so-called free-market and technological advances. There is much evidence that the kind of breakthrough that personal computing represents is to a large degree attributable to the selfless, generous and anticorporate motives of the early hackers.