The Internet’s Old Guard
“I have participated and contributed to events that have significantly reduced the power of middle management and which have placed powerful information tools into the hands of unlikely people.” — Lee Felsenstein
On the last night of the Decentralized Web Camp, I was hanging around outside after dinner when an older white-haired man walked past, shouting “Old timer’s circle starting soon! Everyone who’s been doing stuff with computers 30 years or more.” I stopped him and asked if young people were welcome to come listen. “Of course, there’s no point if it’s just us talking to ourselves.”
So we gathered around a circle of old timers and listened to them reminisce. The man who’d called the gathering guided the conversation. It slowly dawned on me that he was Lee Felsenstein, who’d set up the first public-access computer in Berkeley, and helped start the Homebrew Computer Club, which incubated Apple and the personal computer. He was managing this conversation with the skills he’d learned from moderating the HCC meetings for years. I’d read his story in Steven Levy’s book Hackers. Sometimes you’re reminded that history isn’t something that happened elsewhere, it’s an ongoing story we’re still living in.
I don’t have complete notes from the conversation, but I’ll try to share the parts I wrote down that distilled years of experiences into a few lines or a story. Some people I’ll quote by name, others I’ll quote anonymously because I didn’t catch their names. I’ve read some of these stories in books, but it’s different to hear them from the people who lived them, while sitting around in a drafty old warehouse, drinking wine out of a thermos.
Mark Graham > “We saw Nazi accounts on fido net, and we thought the peace movement could use this, so we created Peace Net on a timeshare.”
Mary Lou Jepsen > “Back then the only job women could get in engineering was in submarines. I was in a facility with no bathroom for women… There are different ways of looking at change in the world. We’re biologically the same as we were 10,000 years ago. Maybe the only change we can make is through technology. Culture is changing, and that change might be caused by technology.”
Lee Felsenstein > “If politics is the art of the possible, who determines the possible?”
Bruce Baumgart > “We do. Which is why we have the responsibility.”
> “When I was 8 or 9 I convinced my teacher to take us on a tour of a computing facility. When I got home I told my mother about it, and she said the most important inventions humans have ever made were the wheel and the computer. That comment set me on my life path.”
>> “So you’ve worked on wheels ever since huh”
Brewster Kahle > “Someone asked me, tell me how the world is better with your technology. So I started thinking. I had 2 ideas, one was to try and save privacy even though they were going to throw it away. Diffie and Rivest were working upstairs on this cryptography thing, so I thought about applying it to phone calls. I wanted to make a chip to encrypt, but I figured you needed to compete on other features and throw in privacy for free. Creating a library of everything was the other idea. I went to Jerry Sussman about the chip thing, and he said ‘Show up, start working, and we’ll see if you’re good for anything.’ That formed me. It was on me to make this come true. It cost 2000 dollars to make a privacy chip to encrypt at that time, my estimate. 1980. And it would only be bought by military, big corporations, and the mafia. So I decided to work on the other idea. Explaining it to someone else, asking if I should take some job as an intermediate step, he said, I understand your vision but shoot straight for your goal. Shoot for a big goal. Pick up a big subject you’re never going to solve in your lifetime. Everyone can work along on it with you without working for you. Have a north star, one that isn’t something you’re going to achieve in your lifetime. I’d say the Dweb is in that category. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to take a lot of people, and you can’t just hire up and get VCs to fund the thing.”
> “There’s always an elegant hack to change the world.”
Danny O’Brien > “There was a Chinese art shop across from the computer lab. It had a sign “We’re shut today because of Tiananmen square”. I’d been shut away downloading games, so I went out and got the paper and read the news, and that’s the point where I went OK, you’re in this situation where the communication has been cut, everything is going down, and you know you’ve either built a system that gets the news out and connects people or you haven’t. That was the point where I stopped downloading games and decided there’s a bigger goal we could work on with this technology.”
> “The males were in one building, the females in the other building.”
> “This deck of punch cards worked all over the world except in Australia, and what was happening was customs inspectors, when they inspected things like light bulbs, would pull one out at random to check. They did the same thing with the punch cards, and put them back in out of order.”
Lee > “Our charter was to provide computers to the counterculture, so how do we do this… It was next to a musician’s bulletin board. We’d say to people who came up, would you like to use our electronic bulletin board? We’re using a computer. And people would all say, can I use it? And well they did. Most of the traffic on the musician’s bulletin board moved over to our computer, and that was beginning of Community Memory. I’d say we opened the door to cyberspace and found it hospitable.”
Brewster > “I want to talk about the beginning of open source. At the MIT AI lab you didn’t sign your own code, that was thought of as arrogant. You might have started a file but others edited and added. You could tell we were building something bigger than ourselves. The whole thing was about growing the machine and we were all the machine. In the meantime there was a law passed, the 1976 copyright rewrite act. It was a tragedy. It flipped opt-in to opt-out of copyright. Everything written was copyrighted automatically. If everything is copyrighted, MIT said, then we own the Lisp machine software. And if we own it, we can sell it. So they forked the lisp operating machine and sold to Symbolics, and there started to be a divergence. Grenblat and Stallman stayed at MIT to try to keep the MIT codebase going. Richard had an understanding of what was going to happen. If our fork didn’t keep up with the Symbolics it was going to die. The forking was a violent act. There’s only a few hackers I’ve known like Richard Stallman, he’d write flawless code at typing speed. He worked himself to the bone trying to keep up with really smart former colleagues who had been poached from MIT. Carpal tunnel, sleeping under the desk, really trying hard for a few years and it was killing him. So he basically says I give up, we’re going to lose the Lisp machine. It was going into this company that was flying high, it was going to own the world — and he said it was going to die, and with it the Lisp machine. He said all that work is going to be lost, we need a way to deal with the violence of forking. So he came up with the GNU public license. The GPL is a really elegant hack in the classic sense of a hack. His idea of the GPL was to allow people to use code but to let people put it back into things. Share and share alike. With contracts you have to do a contract with somebody else. Stallman came up with a public license. The public can use this but they have to give something back, share back results. A beautiful interesting weird legal hack that would only come from a computer geek who’s freaking desperate. So that’s GPL, a license between you and the public. A weird hack.”
Lee > “In 1975 and 76 we were trying to overthrow the order of the technological priesthood… things don’t go happily ever after necessarily.”
Bruce > “You just get a different priesthood. But that’s OK.”
Mitra Ardon > “In ’89 people didn’t have email. The military did but they only talked to military, and academics did but they only talked to academics, and companies had inter-company email. The only other people who had email were activists. We could get email to any other activist on the planet in a matter of hours. In ’89 the World Bank was holding a conference on Brazil. The government and press fly in, the government tells all kinds of lies, and the press prints the lies because they have no way to check facts. So activists come to town and set up across from World Bank. They’d say the dam was great, and the activists would call us up to get the real story. We’d email Brazilian activists, and they’d send back a message saying what really happened with the World Bank dam. The money didn’t really go to Brazil, it went to US contractors and Swiss bank accounts. Then the dam would break and flood and they’d have to clean stuff up. Back then telex was how you submitted press releases if you were rich. We wrote code that allowed us to reach their telex gateway from email. So we’re sending out info from organizations we interviewed as press releases through telex. Every press release comes from a different organization. The news media thinks all these telexes are coming from different organizations about stuff happening at the world bank conference, and didn’t know its all the same people. We didn’t know if this was having an effect. But the next day we opened up the International Herald Tribune. There was a 2 page spread on the World Bank conference. The left page was all pro-World Bank, by journalists being fed fodder of the World Bank. And everything on the right hand had been written by us, news from activists from Brazil, from all over world, written up by us 5 activists in Berlin. That was the beginning of the end of the World Bank doing this sort of crap. They had to put in social sustainability — they’re far from a good org but they couldn’t pull off what they used to anymore.”
The conversation gradually tapered off until it was just a few people sitting around, asking Lee to tell more stories.
> “This isn’t this invite-only thing, anybody could come here, and we’re all aspirational and that’s why we came here. The first DWeb was Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee and whoever, and they’re here, but anybody who wants to come here can. So we’re human, we’re born, we learn these things, we want to change the world, and you have, Lee. So tell them what it was like.”
Lee > “I am”
> “But your ambition-”
Lee > “You don’t get paid for that. Steve Jobs wanted to get me out the door. I try to explain what we were doing with the public access terminal system at Community Memory. And Jobs makes bobblehead motions with his head trying to get me out of there. We reach the door and I’m gone. Jobs at that time was totally intimidated by the concept of social media… People thought I was buddy buddy with Steve Jobs, thought he was a part of the computer club, but Wozniak was the constant. Wozniak brought him by twice. At the mapping session, Jobs just ran around and tried to listen to every conversation. That’s it. I never got hired.”
I asked Lee to tell us about the early days of the Homebrew Computer Club. Fred Moore and Gordon French started it, and Lee ended up facilitating the meetings after Gordon French left. Fred was an activist who went around and made a list of the people who knew things about computing hardware, and got them together for a meeting. Lee made sure they all wrote down their contact information, and then sent it out to everyone in the group. It struck me how much attention he paid to cultivating the optimal kind of circuits for information exchange between people.
The Homebrew Computer Club meetings used to be lecture-style, but Lee noticed people were having animated discussions in the hall. He thought “these need to be brought inside. These are the main thing.” When he started running the meetings, he set up a format where at the beginning each person stood up and explained what they wanted to talk about, and everyone else noted who they wanted to connect with. Then the room would split up into discussion groups organized by common interest. This structure probably sped up the development of the PC considerably by creating the right structures for rapid information exchange among early computer hobbyists.
Lee Felsenstein played a key role in events that changed the world, but he was not as good at capturing a piece of all this value he helped create. He has a Patreon page now, where he writes. Many of his posts are public if you want to read more firsthand accounts of computing history. I like the measured way he describes his legacy: “I have participated and contributed to events that have significantly reduced the power of middle management and which have placed powerful information tools into the hands of unlikely people.”
Writing down these stories made me reflect on technological change.
Early on in the development of new technologies that only a few understand, individuals who see the shape of what is coming can change the course of history by taking initiative or drawing a line in the sand.
When you consider the long-term future impact, computing is very new. Many of its pioneers are still around — that won’t be the case in a few generations. It will be easier to see in retrospect, but this is also a pivotal period, and things done now will have ripple effects all the way down our future light cone.
Utopian visions never work out. You can strive for them, but expect your expectations to be subverted. Perhaps it’s more realistic to think in terms of shifting the range of possible futures available with what we introduce.
Encourage people to bring out the positive but build defenses against the negative for all possible outcomes of a new technology.
The formation of a business community and investment of capital catalyzes adoption, but often the early work is done for the sake of curiosity and aspiration for a better world. The creation of value and the capture of value are not the same thing. Finding better ways to reward and sustain those who are good at creating value but not capturing it would improve society.
The structure of the community that develops a new technology is formative to its evolution. Innovation requires high bandwidth information exchange between people. The design of technology is as much about the design of organizations and processes as it is machines.
One generation ago women were so institutionally excluded from the technological priesthood that there were no bathrooms available for them. Only a few made it through those barriers. That’s had a big impact on the culture and development of tech. I’m excited for a more inclusive future.