Richard Stallman : Last of The True Hackers? (MONDO 2000 flashback 1989)

When Richard Stallman first arrived at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab there were no officially sanctioned users of the equipment, no passwords, no security, no special privileges. Stallman liked it that way. But the retrenchment that was the 70s hit the MIT lab a few years after Stallman’s arrival. Passwords were assigned to Officially Sanctioned Users. So Stallman broke the computer’s encryption code and was able to get to the protected file that held people’s passwords. Stallman started sending people messages which would appear on the screen when they logged onto the system: “I see your password is (such and such). I suggest that you switch to the password ‘carriage return.’ It’s much easier to type, and also it stands up to the principle that there should be no passwords.”

Stallman is the inventor of the original, much-imitated EMACS editor. He also worked on the Lisp operating system and has worked extensively on compilers, editors, debuggers, command interpreters and the Incompatible Timesharing System. His current project is GNU “What’s GNU? GNU’s Not Unix. It’s a complete Unixcompatible software system that’s being written to give away free to everyone who can use it.”

R.U. Sirius



MONDO 2000:
We are talking to the last of the hackers.

RICHARD STALLMAN: My name is Richard Stallman, my rank is general nuisance, my cereal is frosted flakes. The term hackers was invented by Steve Levy. According to him, the true hackers were the ones at universities in the mid 60’s and into the early 70’s —they were working on large computers. Then the hardware hackers who designed the personal computers in the 70’s —they’re second generation. The third generation is the game hackers of the late 70’s and 80’s. So when he calls me last of the true hackers he means the last of that generation, the last person carrying on the attitudes and spirit of that generation.

M2: Would you agree that you’re the last holdout from that generation in terms of staying true to the hacker’s ethic ?

RS: It’s certainly true that a lot of them sold out. I don’t know if there actually is a hacker’s ethic as such but there sure was an MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab ethic. This was that bureaucracy should not be allowed to get in the way of doing anything useful. Rules did not matter —results mattered. Rules, in the form of computer security or locks on doors, were held in total, absolute disrespect. We would be proud of how quickly we would sweep away whatever little piece of bureaucracy was getting in the way, how little time it forced you to waste. Anyone who dared to lock a terminal in his office, say because he was a professor and thought he was more important than other people, would likely find his door left open the next morning. I would just climb over the ceiling or under the floor, move the terminal out, or leave the door open with a note saying what a big inconvenience it is to have to go under the floor . . . “so please do not inconvenience people by locking the door any longer.” Even now, there is a big wrench at the AI lab which is entitled “the 7th floor master key” to be used in case anyone dares to lock up one of the more fancy terminals.


The original hackers didn’t break security just to be naughty.

M2: So the ethic, to some extent, lives on. Would you say it permeates the computer industry, or a large portion of it ?

RS: The basic desire is widespread. But most people just think, “Boy, this company is stupid. They pay me a lot of money and then arrange for me to waste a lot of my time. Aren’t they silly? Well, it is their money.” So they’re bought and no longer have the morale to say, “Shit —I am not going to put up with this bureaucracy.”

The term hacker has come to be associated exclusively with breaking security. That isn’t what it is at all, but hackers were willing to state their total contempt for security people, because security was one form of bureaucracy.

First generation hackers would break security because it was in the way of doing something useful. Now a lot of kids do it ’cause it’s naughty. Though it is true that showing that you can break security that’s said to be unbreakable is a nice hack, the original hackers did not break security just to be naughty. We broke security if somebody had locked up a tool that you needed to use.

M2: A lot of kids who break security think of it as a challenge to get into a system.

RS: They’re caught up in playing a game where they and a system administrator are trying to show who’s more powerful. Which is a waste of time, and that’s the exact opposite of the original hackers’ intention. What happens is a system administrator puts in more security measures, and then the security breaker tries to beat those. It’s a waste of time and energy. A tedious, sick game.

System administrators don’t realize that by playing the game they keep it going. Most security measures don’t provide security. They simply raise the level of sophistication at which the game is played. The game gets in the way of people trying to do any work. Read more “Richard Stallman : Last of The True Hackers? (MONDO 2000 flashback 1989)”