The Linux jihad

Or, what do alien crypto, poststructuralism and virtual private networks all have in common?

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 15, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

"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.

Reading Macleod is just too much fun and too easy, so I had to alternate enjoying him with struggling my way through an essay titled "Worlding Cyberspace: Toward a Critical Ethnography in Time, Space, and Theory" by Michael M.J. Fischer. A chapter in a collection of essays published in 1999 called "Critical Anthropology Now," the essay is aimed at setting up some ground-rule recommendations for ethnographers interested in mapping the new communities that have sprung up in the digital domain.

At least that's what I think the essay was about. My own ability to parse the meaning of quotations from poststructuralist critical theorists like Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, and Avital Ronell is not of a very high order. Portions of the essay could have been written in hexadecimal code for all I could make head or tail of them. But a general thesis was discernible, and interesting. Fischer argues that emergent digital culture is demonstrating the shakiness of the big narratives of the 20th century. So, for example, the digital threat to copyright is undermining the law, the ubiquity of virtual life is challenging concepts of place and identity, and so on.

To me, the most interesting part of the essay was a section on "hackish" -- the language of techies. It's a language full of inside jokes, jargon twisted upon itself and acronymic pun play. And it's a language, argues Fischer, that demonstrates the socially constructed semiotic fluidity of "language" itself.

"To what degree does 'hackish' not merely reflect a love of language play, but provide a particularly effective window into the surrounding culture," writes Fischer, "into how its inventions grow out of the way in which computers are configured and software language is designed, showing if there is in fact a new style of technically grounded culture logic in which 'flavorful' elegant puns 'bend' phrases so as to include a second 'jargon' word as a function of a kind of condensation that increases awareness of linguistic form, logic, multiple allusions or references, and precision, and yet maintains transparency, efficiencies of communication, and relatively easy accessibility."

Never mind the delight I felt in discovering an essay that treats Eric Raymond with the same respect as it treats Derrida and Alluquere Rosanne Stone, an essay that accords the recursive acronym "GNU = Gnu's Not Unix" with surpassing linguistic importance. And never mind whether it's true that the evolution of hackish is demonstrating useful insights into the nature of language. To me, just the fact that the question is being debated and studied at all, the fact that critical theorists are reading the Jargon File and pondering its deep structure, proves that hacker culture is out of the cyber-ghetto and wreaking havoc on the real world.

Hackish is fun, hacking is cool -- both science fiction novelists and critical anthropologists understand that, and in that understanding lies a useful insight into why the Internet happened at all, and why we don't need to worry about the fact that Linux hype is in a downturn.

We've just got to look a little harder to see where the fun is happening. Which brings me to the third leg of my hacking triumvirate -- an actual interview with an actual hacker.

When Mark Tuomenoksa, the CEO of a start-up called OpenReach, started pitching his company via e-mail to me, his messages barely avoided the filter that gobbles up 99 percent of the company promo pitches that pour into my in box. Did I really care about another company doing "Virtual Private Networks"? Did I really want to interview another CEO mouthing platitudes about market opportunities and service-oriented business models?

Ah, but Tuomenoksa said the magic words. He seemed legitimately excited about something he called "open-source networking" -- and such excitement is the way to my free-software-addicted heart.

As soon as I met Tuomenoksa I realized that this was not your average CEO. A blond, earringed, intense-looking fast talker, it was clear after a few seconds that Mark was a geek, a true hacker. His cred was unimpeachable. He had started out at the mail room at Bell Labs, but ended up writing Unix scripts to respond to incoming e-mail with the appropriate document or copy of source code desired by a correspondent. The guy had done time as a frigging Unix kernel coder, for crying out loud.

Tuomenoksa's company is a contender in the hotly contested VPN market niche. VPNs are secure networks within the Internet that a company can use to link together all its employees without having to create an entirely separate data network. His pitch was that OpenReach, by running publicly available networking software and crypto on top of Linux boxes, could vastly undersell competitors who depended on dedicated router machinery and proprietary software.

Tuomenoksa seemed like a good guy to get a state-of-the-Linux-scene update from. So I jumped on him when he made the usual Linux-advocate comment about being able to benefit from free support on the Net whenever he or his engineers ran into a technical problem. I told him that recently I had heard exactly the opposite; that since the rise of commercial Linux companies that had hired all the hackers who used to hang out in Usenet answering questions, the quality of free online support had plummeted.

Tuomenoksa disagreed. Perhaps that was true for people looking for information on how to install the new version of Red Hat. But if you were interested in bleeding-edge networking applications or other ultra-new cool stuff, the online free software community was very much present and helpful.

If true, it was heartening. All those restless hackers, busy twisting the English language up and down with their obscure puns, busy donating their energy to public projects and passions -- they're still out there, following their coding stars. Their curiosity helped build the Internet, helped make code like Linux, BSD and Perl flourish to the point that the commercial world had to take notice.

But now that the commercial world is no longer quite as obsessed, that doesn't mean they've gone away. They've just turned their energies toward even cooler stuff -- I'm sure there's some brand new open-source VPN jokes just waiting to propagate. And as their greatest creation, the Net, continues to expand and enfold the world, their cultural influence, as evidenced by their cameos in academic journals and sci-fi novels, continues to expand also.

I can't wait for the next chapter.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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