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The ‘Hackers’ Book Gets Re-Visited

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Steven Levy, who wrote ‘Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution’ twenty five years ago, has re-interviewed some of the original subjects from the book in a Wired article titled ‘Geek Power: Steven Levy Revisits Tech Titans, Hackers, Idealists

Its a long read, but worth it. Very interesting.

There are some illuminating quotes from Richard Stallman – twenty fives years ago he said:

I’m the last survivor of a dead culture. And I don’t really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel I ought to be dead.

And today:

In terms of effect on the world, it’s very good that I’ve lived. And so I guess, if I could go back in time and prevent my birth, I wouldn’t do it. But I sure wish I hadn’t had so much pain.

To me, these statements are telling. Why does Stallman feel such pain? I can only think of two possible reasons. Either his ideas and ideals are so far ahead of their time that the world is not ready for them, or they don’t fit well with the world and never will.

His idea that software ‘cannot be owned’ makes no sense to me. The idea that, by sitting at home and writing code on my computer for my own purpose, I am somehow violating the rights of other people is absurd to me. He is denying me the right to my own ideas, and the ability to provide for my family.

Stallman is entitled to his beliefs, to communicate them, and to try to get them adopted. But I’m not surprised he feels pain trying to do this, personally I reject his beliefs. In my mind, I have fewer rights under his world view – I have no right to my own invention, I do not own any software I write, it must be released to the world. He is at least consistent in his beliefs, he feels the same way about music and movies and the companies that try to claim or exert ownership of what they create.

I do think the GPL license, conceptually, it a thing of elegance and beauty. Simple, concise, and powerful. I only have one problem with it – it is self-limiting. It limits usage to those who feel and think exactly one way. It also limits the ability of the established, mainstream market to participate.

It is the same with the Free Software Foundation. They don’t believe in intellectual property. I agree that the software patent system is badly flawed, but I still believe in ownership. But if you don’t comply 100% with their ideals, you are a bad guy. 90% is not good enough. There are no alliances based on common enemies. The FSF has no compelling, or viable, vision of the future that I can see. There is no plan. Just a skirmish war against a unbelieving world. Stallman even objects to the views and actions of Linux’s Linus Torvalds. Meanwhile the markets move on, alliances form, and invention continues. Everything evolves. The world evolves gradually. Unfortunately, Stallman’s views are more creationist – you cannot evolve to them, you will be shut out, berated, and branded as evil until you are 100% there.

Maybe at some time in the future Stallman’s views will prevail. Maybe the world will be a better place when that happens. I just don’t see it happening any time soon.

As can be seen from Levy’s article there is a divide between the hackers: those who view commerce as bad, and those who try to get their ideas adopted widely. Without commerce the world would be one big feudal system – the dark ages again. To reject commerce is to reject the world as it really is. That’s fine for an individual to do, it’s their choice, but to expect the rest of us to do us so in order to adopt or use their ideas is unrealistic.

When we look back in another 25 years at the effect the hackers have had on the world, who’s efforts will have had the biggest impact? The anti-commerce hackers, or the others?


Written by James

April 21, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Microsoft, open source

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