[Marxism] Doug Henwood on Bill Gates's "genius"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 2 11:43:44 MST 2010


Hackers and Left Politics

Some of the key pioneers in the personal computing revolution were 
not driven by entrepreneurial 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 

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 

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 gone 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.

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