Ken McLeod's latest

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Dec 16 07:30:39 MST 2000

[Ken is a Marxist libertarian--his own self-description--sci-fi novelist.
He was subbed to the Marxism list briefly but spends most of his time on
alt.politics.socialism.trotsky where he can be found collecting material
for his next novel.]

The Linux jihad
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Andrew Leonard (

Dec. 15, 2000 | "Old programmers never die," writes Ken Macleod, "they just
move over to legacy systems."

The line appears in Macleod's rollicking new science fiction novel,
"Cosmonaut Keep." In the year 2049 today's under-30 geeks are still hacking
code. They're even still wearing the same faded T-shirts they always did,
which still sport the logos of the likes of Microsoft, Oracle and that
silly penguin. But these code-geek geezers are far from redundant -- their
T-shirts are actually advertisements for their particular set of still very
useful skills. After all, you never know when the Communist Party of the
U.K. might need you to hack into some ancient system in the U.S. that's
still running a 50-year-old copy of FreeBSD.

I'm a sucker for programmer jokes, and Macleod, a former hacker himself,
makes plenty -- whenever he pauses to catch a breath in the midst of a plot
that includes giant alien squid starship navigators, crypto, castles and
dinosaurs. It's a dynamic mix, particularly when you add in the numerous
references to Marxism-Leninism, libertarianism and Linux. Only Macleod, our
greatest living Scottish libertarian Trotskyist cyberpunk science-fiction
writer, could pull it off.

But I pulled up short when I read a scene in which some aging hackers
hanging out in a bar complain because network troubles are denying them
access to Slashdot -- in the year 2049. The strangely compelling image,
along with a passing reference to a historical event known as "the Linux
Jihad," filled me with nostalgia -- not exactly the sentiment usually
inspired in me by science fiction.

As the year 2000 limps to a close, the days when Slashdot's name was at the
tip of every tech pundit's tongue, and Linux's rise to world domination
seemed a foregone conclusion, are suddenly long gone. The prominence of
free software in the tech and financial press has sharply declined. I mean,
you know the buzz is fading fast when media outlets become so bored that
they can't even muster the energy to harp on the declining stock prices of
Linux companies. Sure, the dot-com downturn is responsible for a lot of the
deflation, as is the normal news cycle that treats yesterday's news as,
well, yesterday's news, but was it really only a year ago that VA Linux was
breaking all records for IPO debuts?

The funny thing is, Macleod's recapitulation of present-day hacker society
as the cyberpunk science fiction past is a signal that, even while stock
prices and media buzz are down, the cultural spread of free software and
hacker social mores is alive and well. And that's not just because of the
natural synergy between science fiction and programming. On the contrary,
it's yet more fallout from the ascendance of the Internet. Free software
hacker culture is at the heart of the Net, and now that the Net is at the
heart of daily life reflections of that reality are popping up in all kinds
of expected and unexpected places.

It's not just in science fiction novels written by former programmers that
we find jokes about firewalls, cross-platform integration and Unix. The
same kind of stuff is turning up in academic journals, interwoven with
references to Derrida. And even though cynics are now busy decrying the end
of open-source software as a business strategy, and are even going so far
as to lament that the thrill is gone, the sense of fun that is at the core
of hacking something new -- that got people hacking on things like Linux in
the first place -- is still vital. You just have to know where to look for
it, and right now, that place is not in Red Hat or VA Linux's quarterly
earnings reports.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list