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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
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
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 go 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.