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
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
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?