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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Origins and History of the Hackers, 1961-1995 - Internet Fusion and the Free Software Movement: 1981-1991

Internet Fusion and the Free Software Movement: 1981-1991

After 1983 and the BSD port of TCP/IP, the Unix and ARPANET cultures began to fuse together. This was a natural development once the communication links were in place, since both cultures were composed of the same kind of people (indeed, in a few but significant cases the same people). ARPANET hackers learned C and began to speak the jargon of pipes, filters, and shells; Unix programmers learned TCP/IP and started to call each other “hackers”. The process of fusion was accelerated after the Project Jupiter cancellation in 1983 killed the PDP-10's future. By 1987 the two cultures had merged so completely that most hackers programmed in C and casually used slang terms that went back to the Tech Model Railroad Club of twenty-five years earlier.

(In 1979 I was unusual in having strong ties to both the Unix and ARPANET cultures. In 1985 that was no longer unusual. By the time I expanded the old ARPANET Jargon File into the New Hacker's Dictionary [Raymond96] in 1991, the two cultures had effectively fused. The Jargon File, born on the ARPANET but revised on Usenet, aptly symbolized the merger.)

But TCP/IP networking and slang were not the only things the post-1980 hacker culture inherited from its ARPANET roots. It also got Richard Stallman, and Stallman's moral crusade.

Richard M. Stallman (generally known by his login name, RMS) had already proved by the late 1970s that he was one of the most able programmers alive. Among his many inventions was the Emacs editor. For RMS, the Jupiter cancellation in 1983 only finished off a disintegration of the MIT AI Lab culture that had begun a few years earlier as many of its best went off to help run competing Lisp-machine companies. RMS felt ejected from a hacker Eden, and decided that proprietary software was to blame.

In 1983 Stallman founded the GNU project, aimed at writing an entire free operating system. Though Stallman was not and had never been a Unix programmer, under post-1980 conditions implementing a Unix-like operating system became the obvious strategy to pursue. Most of RMS's early contributors were old-time ARPANET hackers newly decanted into Unix-land, in whom the ethos of code-sharing ran rather stronger than it did among those with a more Unix-centered background.

In 1985, RMS published the GNU Manifesto. In it he consciously created an ideology out of the values of the pre-1980 ARPANET hackers — complete with a novel ethico-political claim, a self-contained and characteristic discourse, and an activist plan for change. RMS aimed to knit the diffuse post-1980 community of hackers into a coherent social machine for achieving a single revolutionary purpose. His behavior and rhetoric half-consciously echoed Karl Marx's attempts to mobilize the industrial proletariat against the alienation of their work.

RMS's manifesto ignited a debate that is still live in the hacker culture today. His program went way beyond maintaining a codebase, and essentially implied the abolition of intellectual-property rights in software. In pursuit of this goal, RMS popularized the term “free software”, which was the first attempt to label the product of the entire hacker culture. He wrote the General Public License (GPL), which was to become both a rallying point and a focus of great controversy, for reasons we will examine in Chapter16. You can learn more about RMS's position and the Free Software Foundation at the GNU website.

The term “free software” was partly a description and partly an attempt to define a cultural identity for hackers. On one level, it was quite successful. Before RMS, people in the hacker culture recognized each other as fellow-travelers and used the same slang, but nobody bothered arguing about what a ‘hacker’ is or should be. After him, the hacker culture became much more self-conscious; value disputes (often framed in RMS's language even by those who opposed his conclusions) became a normal feature of debate. RMS, a charismatic and polarizing figure, himself became so much a culture hero that by the year 2000 he could hardly be distinguished from his legend. Free as in Freedom [Williams] gives us an excellent portrait.

RMS's arguments influenced the behavior even of many hackers who remained skeptical of his theories. In 1987, he persuaded the caretakers of BSD Unix that cleaning out AT&T's proprietary code so they could release an unencumbered version would be a good idea. However, despite his determined efforts over more than fifteen years, the post-1980 hacker culture never unified around his ideological vision.

Other hackers were rediscovering open, collaborative development without secrets for more pragmatic, less ideological reasons. A few buildings away from Richard Stallman's 9th-floor office at MIT, the X development team thrived during the late 1980s. It was funded by Unix vendors who had argued each other to a draw over the control and intellectual-property-rights issues surrounding the X windowing system, and saw no better alternative than to leave it free to everyone. In 1987–1988 the X development prefigured the really huge distributed communities that would redefine the leading edge of Unix five years later.

X was one of the first large-scale open-source projects to be developed by a disparate team of individuals working for different organizations spread across the globe. E-mail allowed ideas to move rapidly among the group so that issues could be resolved as quickly as necessary, and each individual could contribute in whatever capacity suited them best. Software updates could be distributed in a matter of hours, enabling every site to act in a concerted manner during development. The net changed the way software could be developed.

-- Keith Packard

The X developers were no partisans of the GNU master plan, but they weren't actively opposed to it, either. Before 1995 the most serious opposition to the GNU plan came from the BSD developers. The BSD people, who remembered that they had been writing freely redistributable and modifiable software years before RMS's manifesto, rejected GNU's claim to historical and ideological primacy. They specifically objected to the infectious or “viral” property of the GPL, holding out the BSD license as being “more free” because it placed fewer restrictions on the reuse of code.

It did not help RMS's case that, although his Free Software Foundation had produced most of the rest of a full software toolkit, it failed to deliver the central piece. Ten years after the founding of the GNU project, there was still no GNU kernel. While individual tools like Emacs and GCC proved tremendously useful, GNU without a kernel neither threatened the hegemony of proprietary Unixes nor offered an effective counter to the rising problem of the Microsoft monopoly.

After 1995 the debate over RMS's ideology took a somewhat different turn. Opposition to it became closely associated with both Linus Torvalds and the author of this book.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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