spesh || danny || writing || religion


Originally printed in Mute Magazine. Which explains the distinct lack of hyperlinks, and my shoddy auto-markup.
        * Some dead URLs retargetted, one to the Wayback Machine copy. Hooray
          for archivists! And thanks, Dr. DTHP.

		* Fixed Linux birth URL - tnx Peter Lowe at clara.net

        * Global search and replaced "Linux" with "GNU/Linux" following
        failed bet with RMS. Damn his folk dancing ways!

        * Clarification of RMS house-burning incident

"My name is Linus, and I am your God"
- Linus Torvalds, Linux Expo, Durham NC, 1998


A gently-rocking Bill Gates, the 20th Century's Greatest Living Autist, makes a Jesuitical distinction to an unimpressed circuit Judge. The US government goes for his sallow throat, and the whole system of proprietary software begins to collapse. Elsewhere, Richard M. Stallman, recipient of a $240,000 MacArthur Foundation Genius grant, a man so consumed by his Great Work that he discovered that his house burnt down via e-mail and lived in his office thereafter, pulls the trigger on a Colt .45 ACP Officer's Model semiautomatic pistol in an Atlanta gun shoot. Hitherto peaceful, he mulls over his options as Eric S. Raymond, respected commentator on Free Software to Corporate America - also self-proclaimed "neopagan anarchist wacko" - suggests, jokingly (but "ha, ha, only serious" say the hackers), that this revolution should arm itself.

This is not your everyday computing story. The technological press is not configured to describe these events - or even the possibility of these events. The vocabulary of the Office Integration Pack Group Test and Review cannot hold. So how can the technological ghetto explain to the rest of the world how these fierce emotions are burning?

Well, which religious metaphor would you like to use today?


Here's the Authorised Version of the Free Software story. In the Sixties, software was created free, out in the high temples of Western technological academia: MIT, Stanford, enlightened corners of Bell Labs. The Internet was created here, they say, as were the purer artifacts of the programming art: LISP, and C, and UNIX. The future was dedicated to the dissemination of uncorruptable knowledge, passed on and improved through the frictionless channels of the fledgling Net.

But then (thunderclap on soundtrack, please) the software hoarding begins. Graduates sell out to companies, who retail their code without sharing the knowledge behind it. Software that, when bought, could not be changed, or fixed, or improved. Frozen forever - imprisoned by the greed of its owner, who did not want his secrets revealed, or his product redistributed to the needy.

Horrified, but isolated, Richard M. Stallman, at MIT's AI Lab, makes a stand. In 1984, he dedicates his life to preserving the ideals of Free Software: he forms the Free Software Foundation, and begins building the tools that will allow, one day, a computer to be used without having to purchase any hoarded, proprietary software at all. Free Software - but not just free as in for nothing, but free as in free to be distributed, modified, improved; fixed by anyone who has a different plan from the blinkered view of the binary-pushing corporations.

Stallman is viewed as a saint by many in the Free Software movement. And, if you ask him, he'll dress like one. He has a costume. He is called St. Ignucius.

This fact has not passed unnoticed by profile writers.
God bless


1990 was the annus mirabilis for Microsoft. Before that year, the company was a shadow of its present self. Every IBM machine, true, had its MS-DOS software installed, but Microsoft Word and Excel - the future cash-cows - were merely players in a market counterbalanced by Lotus and WordPerfect.

Then, in 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0.

It was an unprecedented success. All competition was instantly deposed: masters of programming for MS-DOS, they found that no-one was buying DOS software any more. Everyone had bought into Windows, and wanted Windows software to run on it. And guess who had beaten its competition to market, with a slew of pre-written applications?

And from then on, Bill Gates leads his followers into the promised land. He transforms himself overnight from successful businessman to cultural icon: he ascends to the heaven of 20th century celebrity, and never looks back.


Stallman slaves away, coding, proselytising - slowly, very slowly. He's dedicated, and has help - he's allowed to work at the MIT campus, although he draws no salary. His flat does indeed burn down (a colleague e-mails him to let him know): mostly, he lives in the AI lab next to his machine. For seven years, the Free Software Foundation supplies tools to grateful programmers, but no central operating system: the long awaited GNU (Gnu's Not Unix) system. Wherever Free Software is used, it is perforce run on an enslaved machine running a proprietary OS, bought from a software hoarder. In 1990, the FSF's Great Work, a UNIX-compatible operating system called the GNU HURD, is nowhere near completion.

But then, the herd comes to him.


In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Swedish-speaking Finn at Helsinki University, mentions a project he's working on to comp.os.minix. As an aside, at the bottom of the message is a request to test another program of his, a hack of the Unix "finger" program that most half-decent Unix programmers could rustle up in their sleep. The first project is a plan to write his own, UNIX-like operating system. The disparity between this minor achievement and his aims couldn't be more stark.

Years later, industry pundits will hail this as a seminal moment in the history of computing. Thomas Scoville, writing in Salon Magazine, will describe in terms of Luther hammering his demands onto the doors of Castle Church, and smashing the Papacy of Bill Gates (Scoville also designed the Silicon Valley Tarot pack, which includes cards like The Hacker, the Salesman of Networks, and the Four of Cubicles).

But if the religion has a leader, where are the followers to come from?


Like Gates' competition, the enthusiastic part-time programmers that drove the home PC market had honed their skills in DOS. Like Gates' competition, they were discovering that Windows was almost impossible to code from scratch without expensive assistance from Mr Gaes. Programming Windows is also a lot less fun. In the brief moments between Gates gassing his enemies, and introducing cheap and cheerful development software - Visual Basic - for the devoted Windows fans in 1992, his followers have a precious chance to wander off.

And who is this flock composed of? Teenagers and uni students, mainly, acting out the same actions as Bill Gates had done when he was that age. Hungry programmers, joined by the orphans of platforms murdered by Bill - the Atari owners, the Amiga hackers, some Mac coders. All milling around, wanting to do something - *anything* - with the increasingly powerful equipment that was dropping into their hands, but prevented from doing so from by the corporate-led intentions of Microsoft. A crusade of orphaned, illegimate children. Hobbyists.

The initially simple Linux, as way of handling this machine, was perfect to these hobbyists in just the way as Windows was not. Windows (unlike DOS before it) is almost incomprehensible to one person: one might say, deliberately so, if Microsoft were to make it any simpler, it might be successfully cloned and replaced by a competitor. Linux, by contrast, *had* to be simple enough to be understood by one person - at least in overall structure. If it got more complex than that, Linus Torvald's head would explode.

By choosing a UNIX-compatible system, Linux' OS could use all of the tools created by Stallman. Before his system could even boot, it had an editor, a development suite, and hundreds of vital utilities already prepared. They were also introduced to Stallman's strongly-expressed belief that all software should be as free as the code they were working on now.

Whenever some new feature was needed by the new OS, it was joyously written by the crowd. Because they understood the benefits, they fed the code back into the whole. GNU/Linux, and the numbers of GNU/Linux users, grew.


"Our hacker heritage is just what they need to make moral and mythic sense of the infant cyberspace struggling to be born out of the Net."
- Eric S. Raymond, The New Hacker's Dictionary

The fit between the old Stallman worldview and the GNU/Linux hackers was not perfect. It was only by the somewhat forced collation of the two groups by mediators such as Eric S. Raymond (who pointedly documented the old hacker ways in his New Hacker's Dictionary with the explicit intention of explaining them to the new audience), that the two groups melded at all.

One could say that the connection between that tradition and the new, GNU generation, is like the relationship between Muslim antiquity and the Nation of Islam: a heritage adopted to solidify an alienation, rather than a tradition. But, just as importantly, that alienation dictates the vitality of the movement. Rudderless, still young, and distrustful of authority, Gates' bastard children injected the emotional charge into the technical culture that so many still insist it lacks.

One *could* say that.


"Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning." -- Bill Gates, "Time" magazine

Or perhaps, it is Bill Gates who - while just a few miles away, at Harvard, from the cradle of hackerdom - is the one struggling against the dominant geek culture? In some ways, he was the abandoned child: provided with the gifts that grew from the free software (Microsoft's first success, BASIC, was based on academic software project at Dartmouth University), but set apart from the ethical mitochondria that surrounded it. Gates and Stallman were - very briefly - contemporaries at Harvard in 1973, before Gates dropped out. He would have been 18, Richard Stallman 20.

Instead, Bill met his future vice-president and marketing genius, Steve Ballmer, and forged his own ethical universe from his background among the afflent bourgoisie. Instead of sharing the software, he insists - in his infamous 1976 "Open Letter To Hobbyists" that copying software is but stealing. Could this be a better fit against the 95 Lutheran Edicts?

And do you see how easy this is, now?


Or, perhaps the difference lies in nationalities. Is Linus drawing upon his own countries' traditions? In one of the earliest outings for GNU/Linux in the mainstream press,Glyn Moody in Wired suggested that Linux's collaborative nature hearkened back to the Kalevala, a patchwork mythology that helped form Finland's national self-image in the nineteenth century.

Or do we have the wrong religion? It's worth noting that two of the key figures in GNU/Linux development - Eric S. Raymond, and Alan Cox (the Welsh deputy to Linus in the loose organisation that maintains the kernel), have connections with the Neopagan movement. ESR is recognised as the founder of a Wiccan lineage that still worships today. Perhaps something can be made of that? It's only a matter of time. And, of course, there's all that gun-toting libertarianism in the background, which can only spell religious fanaticism and Waco to a European


"ha ha only serious" - A phrase that aptly captures the essence of much hacker discourse ... Indeed, the entirety of hacker culture is often perceived as ha-ha-only serious by hackers themselves; to take it either too lightly or too seriously marks a person as an outsider. For further enlightenment, consult any Zen master.
- The New Hacker's Dictionary

You can spool these spiritual comparisons forever - and if the wave of pro-Linux articles in the mainstream continues, you'll be choking down many more of them.

Why? Because religion is a modern place-holder for when we don't understand the motivations of others. And the use and re-use of these metaphors to describe GNU/Linux indicates how *any* motivation beyond the purely financial gets thrown to the mad, religious drive. What font of faith drives these holy men, to work without pay - because without money, surely all projects are nothing?

Richard Stallman's stock reply when asked "If no-one paid them for software, why would programmers work?" is: "because programming is fun." And programming has a culture, because creating a culture is fun. Stallman, for all his projected evangelism, objects to "software hoarding", because he saw it as an impediment to sharing that enjoyment. People hate Bill Gates, because he spoilt that fun too - by making it too expensive, at the weakest level, or by simply refusing to join in, because fun for Bill is not hacking, but accumulating.

Creating a work of art as complex, and ornate, and as powerful as GNU/Linux is as enjoyable as creating the complex, ornate, metaphors drawn up to describe its phenomenon. Just because it's practical, doesn't mean it has to be motivated by greed; just because it's non-commercial, doesn't mean it has to be driven by a spiritual yearning. And just because they're pretty, doesn't make them true.

The idiocy of the modern computer is that it is a toy. It is a toy designed to amuse hackers, that could only spread that enjoyment if the world, as one, pretended that it served some commercial use. Like art, which whores itself with its own po-faced seriousness, to somehow justify why anyone should dance or paint or sing.

And if there is a religious lesson to GNU/Linux, it's that, given enough beauty, one man's bright and entertaining idea will eventually be sucked dry by some straight-faced St. Paul loser trying to pad out his own barren life, by turning it into a religion, or turn it into a buck.

Sadly, the principals of Free Software delimit the extent of the last part, so we're stuck with issues of faith.

And for that, you should pray. For all our sakes.


On USENET, in comp.os.linux.advocacy, Stephen Edwards writes:
 >Oh, how fugging pathetic.  Next thing you know, people will be wearing
 >"L"s on gold chains around their necks, and praising Linus Torvald's
 >sacrifices and teachings.

On USENET, in comp.os.linux.advocacy, Linus replies:

What the h*ll? They don't already?




Danny O'Brien <danny@spesh.com> is an editor on "Need To Know", Britain's most sarcastic weekly technological update. He doesn't mean what he says.