Further thoughts on computers and socialism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Wed Dec 7 11:58:16 MST 1994


Here are some further ruminations on the topic of socialism and
computers.

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 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 temptation 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.

Louis Proyect, Columbia University


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