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.


If you’re a hacker, you don’t want to sit there collecting pay, you want to get work done. So you don’t wait around for permission or consult some authority if you can fix something yourself and go back to work. This, to me, actually defines a person of high moral values. A person of low morals just follows orders and thinks, “It’s their money.” I don’t think that’s a happy way to live —even if you do get money for it. So the hacker ethic is perhaps a little bit like the hippy ethic, not wanting what you do to get money to be separated from the things you care about. The idea is to have the enjoyment present in everything.


The hackers at MIT who designed and built their own timeframe system decided they wouldn’t have any security. So they designed a system where there was just no way to set up controls on what anybody else could do. While you were logged in, you could do whatever you wanted to. And if anyone else logged in they could do other things, but there was no way to project your influence beyond your actual presence. Tire results were very nice. There were never any system administrators and you could always fix things if they were broken.

M2: In a community where all users are competent and ethical that would work.

RS: We educated users to become competent and ethical by having this system! By designing a system that worked and sustained itself, we showed people what it was to be autonomous and a good member of society. People saw that something interesting was going on. We educated people to be competent, encouraged them. We pushed people to learn how to fix things, do things for themselves. We would let just about anybody come and use the computer, give anybody a chance.

We had lots of guests. Our idea of a good guest was somebody who would work on improving the operating system. This is a totally outrageous and subversive idea now. But to us, it meant becoming a contributing member of the society. And the most useful thing for any guest to do was to learn to program, and learn about the operating system, and be able to improve it, because this system was not a static entity. What seems most extraordinary about it today, of course, is that there could be that much trust. It worked!

M2: Why did it change ?

RS: A company deliberately hired away as many of the hackers as it could.


M2: Why did the people leave ?

RS: They were offered the chance to get rich.

M2: Or perhaps they had a system that they wanted to get out and they thought this was the most effective way.

RS: That’s a rationalization. I think they did permanent harm by destroying the hacker society in the AI lab. Now there is no longer an example to open the eyes of people who think that bureaucratic control has to be. Before, we could show people, give people that unique experience.

M2: The sad thing is that people in the industry are unable to share —unable to be free and open about everything they do.

RS: That’s right. I’d say that they’ve hurt themselves spiritually. They’ve decided to obey orders that, essentially, make them unfriendly to the rest of the world . . . “We’re going to withhold information from you.” Of course, this is considered normal but it is really a very sad thing.


 RS: In the hacker community, software was always available to share. Any program that anyone wrote —if you wanted to get it and adapt it to your own needs —of course that’s what you should do. Then people discovered that by becoming obstructive, they could get rich. Imagine any other industry where one of the rules is that I won’t sell my product to you if you’re going to share it with anyone. It’s ridiculous. And the sad thing is, good programs are going to waste because not enough people get to use them. If only half as many people get to use a program, it’s half wasted.

Software is very different from material objects where, you grow a certain amount of wheat, it makes a certain number of slices of bread. Whether you sell it for five cents a slice or 5 dollars a slice, it still only makes so many sandwiches. That is not true with programs. You can copy a program and you cannot, in the same sense, copy a loaf of bread. So anyone who tries to stop you from copying a program is doing real harm to society —setting up scarcity where there isn’t any. They’re also poisoning the spirit of scientific cooperation and the free interchange of ideas. People use pieces of all sorts of programs because that is, by far, the easiest way to get the new programs written. Now we’re losing the ability to take a program and improve one aspect of it without having to redo the whole thing, the ability to adapt programs in new ways so you can use them, the ability to fix it yourself if it is broken —we’re losing years in wasted time. Same old bullshit.

Making people feel guilty about something as natural and loving as sharing a program with your neighbor is a sad thing.

M2: Isn’t it true that no matter how hard people try to have control over software and to be proprietary about it, most people wind up getting a hold of the stuff anyway ?

RS: Getting a hold of it, yes. But being able to change it is very difficult if the sources are kept secret. No one gets to fix it, or adapt it, or build on it. And many people are prevented from having copies of programs because they are scared. This may seem foreign to you, but some people obey the letter of the law. Making people feel guilty about something as natural and loving as sharing a program with your neighbor is a sad thing. People are being taught that sharing is wrong. Imagine if food at the supermarket were sold subject to a license that you could not let anyone else taste of the things you prepared from it.

M2: If you could buy one can of beans and pass it around and have everyone wind up with their own can of beans, then you probably would have a law like that.

RS: Of course. Businesses that are unnecessary want to survive anyway


M2: The consequence of this new technology is to make the whole proprietary thing obsolete. Right now, the society that we are stuck in has a lot of people running around hustling just to get by. But doesn’t the very nature of the technology ensure that you’ll inevitably win ?

RS: Not necessarily. I don’t see that. The people who are wealthy control the government. They’re going to continue making laws and using the police to enforce them. They can go on for a very long time because the ownership of information is self-perpetuating. If the information is free, everyone gets it. Everyone is equal. When information is hoarded, the ones who are wealthy get it and the ones who aren’t don’t. And it’s ephemeral. If you’re without food, you know it. But if you’re getting ersatz information, you can’t always tell the difference.

The usual justification for hoarding information is to reward people for generating it. My response is that we should reward making information available to use. Generating or compiling information and then hoarding it does not deserve as much reward as generating and compiling information and letting people use it.

M2: Also, sharing information leads in a synergistic fashion to more knowledge.

RS: Absolutely Things are done ten times, fifty times, by different groups of people without the benefit of seeing how it was done before. One software patent actually makes the outrageous claim that you are not allowed to type the commands into your computer to make it do a certain thing. Imagine that! Free software isn’t a matter of price, it’s a matter of freedom. Free software is about the freedom you have in using it and sharing it. I refuse to buy commercial software, but I would refuse to buy it even if the guy gave it to me at zero price because I won’t agree to the conditions. I won’t agree not to share it with someone who would like a copy. And I won’t agree to not have the sources and be helplessly at the mercy of the hoarder of the information. What I have decided is that rather than surrender to those terms, I will reject them and I will write myself the software I need. That is why I launched the GNU project.


M2: The idea of information being free is a metaphor for an ideal society ?

RS: No. Again, we can separate material goods from information. We have linguistic prejudices from the domain of material goods that are built into our social system. You own a material object because you don’t want to be deprived of it. You don’t want anyone to take it away. That’s because material objects can’t be just trivially copied. You would probably be upset if your car were stolen but if, while your car was parked, somebody drove up with a car copier and made a copy and drove the copy away, your car would still be there when you came back . . . and you probably wouldn’t care.

M2: When someone spends their lifetime designing a specific piece of software and then anyone can come in and copy it, how do they get paid ? This would take some restructuring.

RS: Well, first we need to question three popular ideas. One is that people will only program if they can make money at it. Second, that there are only two choices —making no money or making a lot of money. Third, that the only way people can get paid money to program is through the system of ownership.

As far as incentive goes, you have to remember that programming is addictive. Ten years ago, there were articles about people who had $100 a week habits —they were mainlining every day! Recently there have been articles about what to do if you are losing your spouse to a computer. And then they want us to believe that no one will program unless he is getting paid? It’s a bluff.


M2: What do you think about the myth of the third generation hackers who can get into just about anything ?

RS: I think it’s just that —a myth. They can get into lots of places that do not bother to have any security or who accept a machine from the manufacturer with field accounts for service and who never change the password. It is pretty straightforward how you can make getting into a computer impossible. It is just that there are many places which do not bother to do it. Most of the people breaking security are not able to get past anything that is the least sophisticated. I understand that the Defense Department really does use very sophisticated security measures.

M2: So in other words, when a hacker penetrates, they’ve decided to let that stuff be penetrated ?

RS: Or nobody thought to protect that particular bit.


M2: Your value system would not necessarily prevent you from taking from people who are trying to be proprietary, from grabbing it, using it, and making your own changes.

RS: Right. Software hoarding is a crime. If I can thwart that crime successfully, protect its victims, then I will do it. All the people who sell software are guilty of this crime.

M2: Given that there are these financial incentives for people to hoard and not share software, do you see any hope for a shift back to the hacker ethic ?

RS: Young people. Each generation produces people who see the emptiness of it all. They have the energy to try to do something about it. For the most part, they’ve all felt isolated.

M2: This idea that information should be free, is this something that is specific to computers? What about works of art or bootlegging records . . .

RS: I would say that whenever something can be copied by the general public, the general public has a right to do so. The more society becomes information instead of material objects, this question of whether a person can copy things will make the difference between a world of universal prosperity or a world of constant rat race. You can create so much artificial scarcity by owning information. Once the great bulk of the things we value is information, the only thing to do is eliminate ownership.

Richard Is Still Around!


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