Chapter 1: Boot Time

Part 3: The Bamboo Forest


Salon Staff
March 6, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

One spring day in 1997, two elderly Chinese women appeared at the front door of my house in the flatlands of Berkeley, Calif. Their English was minimal, but I speak some Chinese, and after a few false starts I grasped that the women were seeking permission to harvest my bamboo grove. Bamboo shoots, best picked just before they begin to poke their insistent heads up through the earth, are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. My bamboo grove, which lined one fence of my back yard, separating my house from a neighboring three-story apartment building, was just beginning to sprout.

I acceded to their request, but grudgingly. I was new to the neighborhood -- it was my first spring in my new home -- and I wanted more bamboo, not less. The bamboo had been planted by a previous owner who wanted a barricade blocking his view of the apartment building; I was of the opinion that there was still plenty left that could benefit from obscurement. I told the women they could pick just a few shoots. But I felt selfish, and the quizzical look in their eyes, as if they couldn't comprehend how anyone could be stupid enough not to want their bamboo harvested, failed to improve my spirits.

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The rainy season faltered two months early that spring, and the bamboo shoots that escaped the clutches of the scavengers withered and died. I felt sorry for the poor bamboo, so obviously unfit to flourish in the harsh Bay Area climate. I watered the rest of the grove throughout the summer, and idly wondered whether I should dose the bamboo with a mass treatment of fertilizer.

But the bamboo spirits had just been biding their time. The next winter, one of the wettest El Niqo deluges of the entire century pummeled California. One day, when the torrent paused to grab a breath, I strolled through the yard and noted, with a sense of surprise quickly graduating to alarm, that 50 or 60 new shoots had erupted out of the moist earth, some as far as 6 feet away from the main thicket. Most of them were an inch and a half to 2 inches in diameter at the base, significantly thicker than the average already-existing full-grown stalks, or "culms." Two weeks later, I was shocked to see that a wicker chair left sitting near the grove had suddenly been hoisted several feet in the air by a fast-moving culm. After a few more days had passed I looked again: The culms were growing at a rate of several feet a week.

"It is a most impressive sight to see the new sprouts of a bamboo grove, shooting spike-like out of the ground like Cadmus' crop of dragon's teeth," wrote one bamboo-fascinated Westerner who lived in China around the turn of the 19th century. I could not agree more -- especially after I learned that bamboo grows to its full height (in this case, 30 feet) in a single season. (One species has even been clocked at 47.6 inches of growth in a single 24-hour period.) I suddenly wanted to call my Chinese visitors back. The bamboo, in the space of a few weeks, had transformed itself from a pleasing, decorative and useful adornment into an invading army.

The metaphor was more apt than I knew. Bamboo falls under a subclass of grasses that display "rhizome" reproductive habits; they are plants that propagate primarily through their root structure, rather than by seed or pollen. There are two main types of bamboo: clumping bamboo, which stays close to home, and so-called running bamboo, which botanists describe with no apparent sense of humor as "rampantly invasive."

My bamboo was running bamboo. The main patch sent rhizome roots 1 inch thick in diameter shooting out in every direction, each capable of launching new culms every few inches. A bamboo patch has no central tap root to decapitate, and any shred of rhizome left undemolished can relaunch the entire patch. No wonder Li Khan, the 13th century author of one of China's greatest treatises on bamboo, tells us that the proper word to describe the extending rhizomes of the running bamboo is xingbian -- "on the march."

My running bamboo was advancing on the foundation of my home. The prospect of rhizomes ripping my basement apart did not thrill me. I was even less delighted to overhear the neighbors discussing my bamboo. The rhizomes had penetrated the fence between us, scooted under 4 feet of concrete and started sending troops of sprouts up through cracks in their pavement.

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Shortly after discovering how quickly the bamboo was spreading, I retrieved a spade from my basement and began to dig at the base of one of the culms. But before I reached the rhizome I stumbled into a spaghettilike intertwining network of much smaller roots, or rootlets, that originated in the culm and also radiated out from the rhizomes. Together, the rhizomes and rootlets were replacing the uppermost foot of topsoil in that part of the garden with a woody, impenetrable mass easily capable of denting my spade.

I paused in reflection. The wind ruffled the bamboo leaves -- a gentle rustle that in Chinese culture has long been considered an indicator of elegance and gracious living but to me seemed a most sinister susurrus. Still, even as my fear began to mount, I found it difficult not to admire the ornery, gnarly survival of the bamboo. Praised throughout millenniums in Asia for combining strength with flexibility, bamboo is clearly one of nature's great achievements. If I had known then what I now know -- that a bamboo grove was one of the only living things to survive the atomic blast on Hiroshima, or that a bamboo forest is considered one of the safest places to be in an earthquake (because the interlocking rhizomes hold the ground together) -- I would no doubt have quailed at the prospect of ever overcoming the graceful intruder. But at the time, I was just impressed with how tough the plant was.

I considered a backhoe. I contemplated poison. I wondered about dynamite. But the first option struck me as unmanly and the second as ecologically unwise. The third would have delighted my children but probably not helped my property's value. So at the advice of a friend, who, not coincidentally, is the editor of this book, I obtained a mattock: a heavy-duty peasant implement of destruction, a combination of ax and pick, designed for breaking up inhospitable terrain. The mattock is an altogether pleasing tool, and it sliced right through the bamboo roots -- not quite like a knife through butter, but still with undeniable confidence.

I enjoyed swinging the mattock. I am a technology reporter for an online magazine, which means most of my waking life is spent sitting in front of my computer writing words meant to be read by other people sitting in front of their computers. The virtual life is deficient in visceral fulfillment; after pushing e-mail back and forth all week, the prospect of repeatedly hurling a heavy chunk of iron and fiberglass into the dirt offered welcome satisfaction. As I raised the mattock over my back and let it fall with a sweet thwack into the bamboo, I fell into a nearly unthinking rhythm -- hoist the mattock, let it fall, hoist, fall, hoist, fall. Every so often I would grab a 4-foot crowbar and crack another section of rhizome out of the ground, lifting the grotesquely beautiful twisted mass of roots on high to flaunt at my family, as if I had just snared a 20-pound bass or brought down a charging 12-point stag with a bow and arrow.

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But try as I might, I found myself unable to sever my workaday life from my backyard labor. In between hoists, my thoughts swung back to the cornerstones of my daily reporting. For two years, my attention had increasingly gravitated toward one particular set of stories: the free-software movement. The story of free software, it seemed to me, set forth a grand narrative about technology that put the entire world of computing into sharp, intriguing focus.

As far as I was concerned, thumping away at my runaway running bamboo, the story of the free-software movement was equal parts political revolution, cultural upheaval and economic tidal wave. It was the most interesting and most important narrative to be told in the computing universe. My editors at Salon.com agreed with me, their enthusiasm fueled by the circulation figures our traffic tabulating software registered whenever I wrote an article on the topic. For nearly two years they had been encouraging me to follow the story, to attempt to answer the many questions that rippled off free software's wake. How was it possible that free-software projects could battle Microsoft and Netscape for market share? How could a ragtag band of hackers dotted across the world -- from Finland to Fremont, Calif. -- be collaborating with such efficiency? What did the concept of free software mean for the protection of intellectual property? And what would happen when the big guns of corporate capitalism finally trained their sights on this upstart? Could free software actually win in the long run? Or would Microsoft annihilate it, as it had demolished so many opponents before?

My editors weren't the only people paying attention. As I labored away in my garden and at my computer, mighty Microsoft was casting its Sauron-like eye upon these meddlesome hacker hobbits. Microsoft is an arrogant company, but it is not stupid. Several influential Microsoft executives were justly alarmed at the fast growth of a competitor that might possibly, in the long run, be even more dangerous to Microsoft's stock price and quarterly profits than the trustbusting Department of Justice, or any gaggle of Bill Gates-hating Silicon Valley CEOs.

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The free-software movement poses a unique challenge to Microsoft. Microsoft's traditional strategy, when faced by a threat from another company, is simple: Buy out, crush or subvert the enemy. Yet even though there are a smattering of corporations boasting particularly high profiles in the free-software world, there is no single company that symbolizes or controls the movement. The code itself is common property, the product of a collaborative effort midwifed by the Internet. Microsoft would be able to squash free software about as easily at it could squelch the Net itself.

One particular morning I swung my mattock at yet another square inch of gleaming rhizome. Thwack. I stared with despair at how little progress I had made after several hours of backbreaking work. Theoretically, this was fun, a relaxing change of pace. But I was really getting next to nowhere, and I had to face the fact that if I didn't uproot every last square inch, some tiny rhizome splinter would start it all up again. That roiling mass of roots -- the woody rhizome, the slender rootlets -- all twisted together in incredible complexity ... how dared I imagine I could defeat it? Who did I think I was -- Microsoft?

Rhizome power. How obvious could a metaphor be? My bamboo offered me a clear and simple demonstration of just what kind of foe Microsoft and the rest of the proprietary-software world faced from the free-software challenge.

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The Internet is a rhizome: It has no central trunk, no main axis, no single point of entry or exit. It spreads everywhere, connects everything. The Internet even does Mother Nature one better: It's a superrhizome. Bamboo roots interlock and intertwine, but they don't actually interconnect; if you sever one rhizome, you create two distinct patches. But the Internet is built on the principle of multiply redundant interconnection. There's always another way through, another "workaround," as programmers like to say.

Recall Torvalds' "community of cooperation." That community is a social reflection of the power unleashed by the Net -- the fuel for unquenchable grass-roots excitement. It makes sense, even if the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the original meaning of "grass roots" refers only to the lowest, or most fundamental, level of a thing. Rhizomes, after all, are grass roots; they are the interconnecting substrate that stitches an endless prairie into one living organism. They emblematize the lack of bureaucratic hierarchy that makes a successful grass-roots campaign an unstoppable phenomenon.

I am far from the first person to have latched onto the grass-roots potential of the Internet's rhizomelike characteristics. Activists of every political and ideological persuasion are wont to seize upon the Net, imagining it the perfect organizational tool for energizing do-it-yourself campaigns. Whether the cause is Tibetan independence, the right to keep and bear arms, pro-choice or pro-life fanaticism makes no difference. Only the willfully blind fail to recognize how fast e-mail and the Net can transmit information and rally the faithful.

Even if the Net's early pioneers didn't label it with botanic precision, they knew what they were seeing. As John Gilmore,* a well-known programmer, "cypherpunk"* and free-software advocate has often been quoted as saying: "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." The description sums up more than just the resilience of modern telecommunication networks -- it's a dandy summary of how a rhizome survives in a hostile environment.

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Libertarians like Gilmore have long viewed the Net's decentralization as a welcome refuge from Big Government control. As they zip their most private, confidential information from hidden node to hidden node in cryptographically encoded sheaths, they imagine that they may elude the heavy hand of the tax man or the censor. Their version of rhizome liberation is escapist in a most practical sense. But they aren't the only people placing their bets for transcendent change on the Internet. Philosophers, idealists and visionaries of all stripes employ the Net as a magic mirror to reflect the object of their most ardent desire.

The libertarians crave escape, while other revolutionaries cry for rebellion. For some philosophers the metaphor of the rhizome seduces with a promise to discombobulate all normal power relations and dynamics, to enable "resistance" to the status quo, however that status quo is defined. For their online-savvy disciples, the Internet is an attractive embodiment of such theory. Unmappable, inchoate, ever changing, ever growing, contemptuous of geographical borders or legal restrictions -- what better home could there be than the Net for a myriad of "temporary autonomous zones," "pirate oases" welcoming dissidents of every description?

There's just one nagging problem. A close review of the Net's impact on society doesn't automatically prove that the Net is actually accomplishing significant political or social change, despite its obvious potential for enabling grass-roots campaigns. One reason, of course, is that the tool has no inherent bias -- anyone can use it. If, for example, both Republicans and Democrats take to the Net in a U.S. Senate election, the net advantage to either side, so to speak, is negligible, a wash. Virtual organizing doesn't always alleviate flesh-and-blood oppression. What difference has e-mail yet made to religious freedom in China?

But the Net is making a difference in the arena of software development. And, unlikely as it may seem, there is a connection between the arcane intricacies of how best to write complex, powerful code and the question of whether the Net will or can change society for the vast nonprogramming majority.

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Free software is the leading edge of what is to come, the first product of the indigenous culture of cyberspace. That shouldn't be a surprise. Programmers built the Net and were its first inhabitants; naturally, they would be the first to understand how to most fully exploit its potential. What is really eye-opening, however, is how different the culture that those programmers created online is from the culture that dominates the offline world. One can even argue that this new programmer culture -- the culture of free software, the so-called gift economy -- has grown up in resistance to the standard operating procedures of the technoeconomy.

The "gift economy" is a phrase originally coined by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss to describe certain practices of exchange he observed in tribal peoples of America's Northwest and the Southeast Pacific. In a gift-economy society, people volunteer their services or goods to others and in turn benefit from similar volunteer efforts. For example, the Chinook Indians regularly held "potlatch" gatherings in which all participants contributed their own offerings -- the ancestor to today's potlucks. By giving to others, you expressed your own status and also incurred in the recipients of your gifts a reciprocal obligation. Many years later, digital anthropologists seeking to explain how the Internet grew in its early years began to use the "gift economy" phrase to describe how programmers contributed their own software tools to the Net community without expecting direct recompense, but nonetheless, by their own example, encouraging others to also give freely.

Microsoft does not operate according to the gift economy, nor do most icons of modern capitalism. The gift economy is an oddity, a culture in which ways of living that, to put it bluntly, simply feel good pay off. The gift economy, based on sharing, collaboration and openness, is only now translating into an economic windfall, and none of it could have happened without the spread of internationally linked computer networks. One lesson of free software is that highly complex projects can be undertaken on an essentially volunteer basis, if there is an infrastructure available that seamlessly enables tapping the resources and abilities of a large enough group.

The Linux explosion is the gift economy's greatest single success, save for, of course, the Internet itself. Linux has proved that certain truths heretofore held self-evident about how to become commercially successful don't necessarily hold water. To succeed, you don't need brute force, a $100 million-dollar marketing campaign or a ruthless determination to own or crush any competitor. Even more fundamentally, you don't necessarily need to spend money to make money.

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We live in a world where software increasingly underlies every aspect of human existence. Good software is a necessary tool for survival. Linux, and a vast toolbox of other useful items provided to the world by the free-software movement, can be used to build efficient organizations, run companies, allocate resources and, wherever there is a bootstrapping need, fill it. Whether they know it or not, the free-software programmers are helping to change the way the world does business, by empowering the little and afflicting the big.

I had contemplated, in general terms, the free-ranging nature of the Internet's infrastructure many times before, but until that moment when I stood, leaning on my mattock, staring into the heart of the rhizome, I hadn't made the connection between the Internet's fundamental characteristics and the vigor of free software. Free software programs are the shoots springing up from the Internet's multitudinous nodes. Wherever there is a crack in the software industry's pavement, they'll squeeze through and grow like mad. Chop one off, and a hundred more will spring up -- just like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. And like bamboo, the Net's decentralized structure makes it resistant to nuclear devastation and to the digital equivalents of poison or rampaging backhoes.

Chinese poets have long compared the snapping cracks of fast-growing new bamboo shoots to the sound of thunder and lightning. In the 11th century, Ou-yang Hsiu wrote:

As startling thunder cracks a maddening whip,

So their misty sheaths unfold from patterned stem.

Humble of heart, they yet tower high themselves.

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As I swung my mattock with renewed energy, excited by the insight proffered me by the bamboo, that startling thunder cracked its maddening whip on my own reporter's soul. How high would free software tower?


Salon Staff

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