Silicon Follies

Chapter 33: Steve draws a bead on The Man

Published July 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Steve had caught a glimmer of the similarities between WHIP and his own recent hacks, and he couldn't help himself. He had to tease out the details from his friend, NDA or not. He wasn't fishing for proprietary secrets, exactly; his motivations were more obscure and less commercial than that.

True hackers take great pride in being completely unpredictable. Of the signal qualities of digital wizards, this fundamental perversity stands out most prominently. They took glee in thwarting expectation.

That unpredictability had attained epic proportions of late. As a conflux of greedy industrial programmers poured into Silicon Valley to scramble for the winnings, the business-wary hacker underground was busy subverting and reinventing the very roots of digital commerce. In particular, they had been collectivizing their efforts in loosely structured, electronically networked federations, neatly segmenting and conquering sticky computing problems.

The startling thing was not so much that it all took place completely outside of any commercial framework. Never mind the money. What made it remarkable was that in many instances the resulting products were markedly superior to commercial offerings. They simply worked better and crashed less.

But most infuriating -- and threatening -- to the corporate software world was the exclamation point with which the hackers had emphasized their effort: They gave it away. After all, these weren't commercial products -- they were works of art, rendered by hackers for hackers. Hackers were not businessmen; they were informed by higher motives. As artists and craftsmen, they created a community on an entirely different plane. The exchanged capital was purely reputational. It didn't matter who you were in "real" life -- hobbyist, callow teenage misfit, a professional with a subversive edge. Build something really cool, and you earned the undying respect of your colleagues on the Net. In this crowd, it was compensation enough.

This "Free Bits" movement -- as it was known in computerdom -- was a topic of rabid debate: Was it online Marxism, or a welcome restructuring of intellectual capital? A breath of digital fresh air, or a threat to the American way? Whole Web sites became clearing houses for the rhetoric of the revolution.

There were reformers:

Posted by Commander Burrito on Tuesday March 30, @09:59AM EDT

Corporations are fundamentally stupid. Look, when you put all that time and energy into maintaining corporate secrecy, not to mention legal departments and extensive CYA, you can't help but lose lots of collective IQ points. It isn't that the Free Bit'ers are so much smarter -- they just refuse to mentally handicap themselves. We concentrate on the stuff that matters: It's the code, stupid.

There were alarmists:

Posted by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, @10:07AM EDT

Make no mistake: The Free Bits gang is coming for your livelihood. In their Brave New World, we'll all have great, free OSes. And no jobs. Gimme cutthroat capitalism anyday.

Some angrily hurled indictments:

Posted by Mister Pfister on Tuesday March 30, @11:14AM EDT

Free Bits has gotten this far for the same reason rich, spoiled kids like Bill Gates get so far ... they sponge off their rich parents and don't face the same obstacles and pressures that your average company does. Who else could afford to work for free?

And many more were typically impertinent:

Posted by on Tuesday March 30, @11:23AM EDT

The answer is "sudo rm -rf /*". Now, what was your question again?

Steve had keenly followed the packet-switched polemic. And after his last geek-out with Paul over Chinese food, he found the possibilities of a Free Bits WHIP equivalent increasingly tantalizing. Of course he could recruit any number of co-conspirators out in Net-land; the computing issues alone were sufficiently fascinating to lure any number of hobbyists and hackers to such an effort.

But if he were honest, he'd have to admit at least one darker motive. Ever since he'd heard Barry Dominic declaiming on TV about the demise of the Hacker at the hands of Big Business, Steve's mind had brooded on a way to prove him wrong. Others had already launched successful assaults on info-capitalism; already a Free Bits operating system had begun to stand the server market on its ear. Maybe Steve's own Free Bits project would be another shot across The Man's bow. Maybe it would demonstrate Barry Dominic's eminence as a Class A turd-knocker.

Maybe Steve could call it "Network Encrypted Multi-System Internet Standard" -- NEMSIS for short.

He liked the sound of that.

By Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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