The Land-Pirats

on September 2, 2010

“Some dishonest Booksellers, called Land-Pirats, who make it their practice to steal Impressions of other mens Copies.”
— J. Hancock, Brooks’ String of Pearls, 1668 (quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary)

“The last man in the world sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
— Fredric Brown

In 1984, Steven Levy concluded his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution with a melancholy epilogue titled “The Last of the True Hackers.”

“A man who called himself the last true hacker sat in a room on the ninth floor of Tech Square,” it begins. “His name was Richard Stallman, and he spoke in a tense, high-pitched voice that did not attempt to veil the emotion with which he described, in his words, the ‘rape of the artificial intelligence lab.’ He was thirty years old. His pale complexion and scraggly dark hair contrasted vividly with the intense luminescence of his deep green eyes. The eyes moistened as he described the decay of the Hacker Ethic at Tech Square.”

As explained by Levy, Stallman saw the ethic which had emerged among the original computer hackers of the late 50’s and 60’s as a form of communal anarchism based upon “a concern for constructive cooperation.” But in the 70’s, that first generation grew up, entered the corporate world, and accepted its restrictions — most notably the enforcement of software copyrights.

Around the same time, the Pentagon bureaucrats who controlled access to ARPAnet — the earliest form of the Internet — became obsessed with security measures. And though Stallman fought “to delay the fascist advances with every method I could,” he found himself without allies.

“I don’t believe that software should be owned,” he told Levy. “Because [the practice] sabotages humanity as a whole. It prevents people getting the maximum benefit out of the program’s existence.”

That interview in the fall of 1983 marked a moment of great frustration for Stallman. But in his very despair can be seen the signs of a romantic break about to explode.

By 1983, all the necessary elements for that explosion were already in place. ARPAnet had spawned the first public access networks — CompuServe in 1979 and AOL in 1983. Personal computers were on the loose, and teams of juvenile software crackers were competing against each other to break copy protection on newly released games. And by the time Stallman left MIT in January 1984 (the same month as the Apple “Big Brother” ad), he was already making plans to develop the non-proprietary GNU operating system.

“What Stallman did was to join a mass movement of Real World hackerism,” Levy explains. “The emergence of hackerism at MIT twenty-five years before was a concentrated attempt to fully ingest the magic of the computer. … Only the tiniest percentage of these new computer users would experience that magic with the all-encompassing fury of the MIT hackers, but everyone had the chance to. … It would extend their powers, spur their creativity, and teach them something, perhaps, of the Hacker Ethic.”

From that point, events moved very quickly. In an Afterword written ten years later for the second edition of his book, Levy would describe the convening in November 1984 of the first Hacker Conference, originally conceived by Stewart Brand. It was at that conference that Brand stated, “Information wants to be free,” and in 1985, he would co-found the WELL, one of the earliest and most successful online communities. That same year, Stallman established the Free Software Foundation.

In these events can be seen the anatomy of a romantic break as experienced from the inside by those who lived it. The 1984-85 timing places it at exactly the right moment — a point which my charts show as equivalent to 1941-42, 1877-79, or 1783-86. And the utopian hopes which it fostered have been as intense as those engendered by the French Revolution, though considerably less bloody.

But I’m also discovering that there are many things about these romantic breaks I still don’t understand.

It was, after all, only a few months ago that I realized the “break” which occurs partway through the era of each dominant partnership is not merely a shift in the prevailing mood. It also gives rise to a kind of “shadow” vision, associated in some way with the senior member of the partnership.

Back in June, I speculated that these shadow visions represent a final attempt by the senior vision to reclaim its original sense of transcendence as it becomes subordinated to the junior member of the partnership. And I suggested that each such attempt remains influential only until the next true vision of the same type becomes culturally dominant and then is either absorbed into it or fades away.

But now I’m coming to suspect that both these conclusions are, at most, only half true.

For one thing, the Hacker Ethic appears to be related to the democracy vision mainly in being socially-based and in placing a high value on the idea of freedom. But its central principles of collaboration and the unrestricted sharing of information run counter not only to the hyper-individualism of chaos but also to the competitive element which was built into democracy itself from the start.

For another, it’s clear that the Hacker Ethic and the free software movement are closely tied to the technological revolution that began with the 40’s romantic break and serve as an extension of that revolution from the technological to the social sphere.

I’ve been aware of similar connections between earlier romantic breaks, but I haven’t been sure what to make of them. Late 19th century occultism, for example, was often associated with political radicalism and inherited some of its revolutionary flavor. A tech wizard of the late 40’s like Arthur M. Young might see his role in perfecting the helicopter as only a metaphor for his interest in astrology, psi powers, and the nature of consciousness.

I’m starting to think that these connections are not accidental but offer a vital key to the true nature of the romantic breaks. And it goes even deeper, because there are hints that the Hacker Ethic may also be rooted in the previous socially-based “shadow” vision — the one which came out of the French Revolution.

My evidence for that is still fairly tenuous, but one thing which strikes me as significant is that Richard Stallman lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as a child, the same as I did. In the 50’s and 60’s, that area was not the overpriced yuppie haven it has since become but was full of middle-class Jewish intellectuals, refugees from Hitler’s Germany, and old-line radicals of my parents’ generation trying to keep their heads down and not attract attention.

I’m sure I never met Stallman as a child — he’s a half dozen years younger than I am, and his family only moved into the area in 1958, three years before mine moved out — and I can’t say for sure whether he picked up the residual belief in radical social change that was still in the air. But I know that I did — and so, apparently, did Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, another child of the Upper West Side who’s half a dozen years again younger than Stallman.

That in itself might not mean much — but there’s another indication.

Although the “revolutionary mode” was effectively eradicated in the United States by the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 50’s, in much of Europe — and particularly in the Scandinavian countries — it merged peacefully with the democracy vision. And it is precisely those strongholds of social democracy that are now at the forefront of the free software and anti-copyright movement — far more so than the United States.

Linus Torvalds, developer of the free Linux operating system, is Finnish. Sweden was an early center of video game piracy and is currently the home of both the world’s best-known BitTorrent site, The Pirate Bay, and the first and most successful Pirate Party — which recently made headlines when it agreed to host the servers of the whistleblower site WikiLeaks.

Once you start to look closely, in fact, it becomes apparent that all the “shadow” visions are interconnected. There has always been a reservoir of people doggedly following a path outside the normal boundaries of society and transmitting their unorthodox skills or heretical knowledge from one romantic break to the next.

Between the end of the Industrial Revolution in the 1840’s and the start of the next technological revolution in the 1940’s, there was a long tradition of basement inventors and tinkerers. And during the previous gap, between the 1100’s and the 1600’s, there were the unsung engineers who designed the Gothic cathedrals and the medieval siege machines. They might not have been transforming the material basis of society, but the potential for doing so was being preserved and transmitted.

In a similar way, various occult practitioners — astrologers, alchemists, and tribal shamans — are always present around the edges, even during eras that are nominally committed to rationalism or religious orthodoxy. And dreams of radical social transformation persist even in eras of imperial grandeur and social stratification.

In light of all this, I’m coming to the conclusion that the “shadow” visions are not offshoots of the normal visions at all, but constitute a single, continuous underground stream that runs alongside the normal visions and breaks into public awareness only when a dominant vision begins to falter.

But where the ordinary visions are evolutionary in nature — being rooted in practical experience and the best knowledge of their era — this parallel tradition seems comparatively unchanging. It is both deeper and possibly more primitive and always presents the same coherent message about human potential, technological empowerment, and the need for a society which maximizes both.

This is all very mysterious, and I don’t yet feel that I’ve gotten a handle on it. But I’m certainly going to keep trying to figure it out.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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