From The Hacker Crackdown
, by Bruce Sterling
See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release
for copying info
The city of Boston has always been one of the major intellectual centers of the American republic. It is a very old city by American standards, a place of skyscrapers overshadowing seventeenth-century graveyards, where the high-tech start-up companies of Route 128 co-exist with the hand-wrought pre-industrial grace of "Old Ironsides," the USS *Constitution.*
The Battle of Bunker Hill, one of the first and bitterest armed clashes of the American Revolution, was fought in Boston's environs. Today there is a monumental spire on Bunker Hill, visible throughout much of the city. The willingness of the republican revolutionaries to take up arms and fire on their oppressors has left a cultural legacy that two full centuries have not effaced. Bunker Hill is still a potent center of American political symbolism, and the Spirit of '76 is still a potent image for those who seek to mold public opinion.
Of course, not everyone who wraps himself in the flag is necessarily a patriot. When I visited the spire in September 1991, it bore a huge, badly-erased, spray-can grafitto around its bottom reading "BRITS OUT -- IRA PROVOS." Inside this hallowed edifice was a glass-cased diorama of thousands of tiny toy soldiers, rebels and redcoats, fighting and dying over the green hill, the riverside marshes, the rebel trenchworks. Plaques indicated the movement of troops, the shiftings of strategy. The Bunker Hill Monument is occupied at its very center by the toy soldiers of a military war-game simulation.
The Boston metroplex is a place of great universities, prominent among the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the term "computer hacker" was first coined. The Hacker Crackdown of 1990 might be interpreted as a political struggle among American cities: traditional strongholds of longhair intellectual liberalism, such as Boston, San Francisco, and Austin, versus the bare-knuckle industrial pragmatism of Chicago and Phoenix (with Atlanta and New York wrapped in internal struggle).
The headquarters of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is on 155 Second Street in Cambridge, a Bostonian suburb north of the River Charles. Second Street has weedy sidewalks of dented, sagging brick and elderly cracked asphalt; large street-signs warn "NO PARKING DURING DECLARED SNOW EMERGENCY." This is an old area of modest manufacturing industries; the EFF is catecorner from the Greene Rubber Company. EFF's building is two stories of red brick; its large wooden windows feature gracefully arched tops and stone sills.
The glass window beside the Second Street entrance bears three sheets of neatly laser-printed paper, taped against the glass. They read: ON Technology. EFF. KEI.
"ON Technology" is Kapor's software company, which currently specializes in "groupware" for the Apple Macintosh computer. "Groupware" is intended to promote efficient social interaction among office-workers linked by computers. ON Technology's most successful software products to date are "Meeting Maker" and "Instant Update."
"KEI" is Kapor Enterprises Inc., Kapor's personal holding company, the commercial entity that formally controls his extensive investments in other hardware and software corporations.
"EFF" is a political action group -- of a special sort.
Inside, someone's bike has been chained to the handrails of a modest flight of stairs. A wall of modish glass brick separates this anteroom from the offices. Beyond the brick, there's an alarm system mounted on the wall, a sleek, complex little number that resembles a cross between a thermostat and a CD player. Piled against the wall are box after box of a recent special issue of *Scientific American,* "How to Work, Play, and Thrive in Cyberspace," with extensive coverage of electronic networking techniques and political issues, including an article by Kapor himself. These boxes are addressed to Gerard Van der Leun, EFF's Director of Communications, who will shortly mail those magazines to every member of the EFF.
The joint headquarters of EFF, KEI, and ON Technology, which Kapor currently rents, is a modestly bustling place. It's very much the same physical size as Steve Jackson's gaming company. It's certainly a far cry from the gigantic gray steel-sided railway shipping barn, on the Monsignor O'Brien Highway, that is owned by Lotus Development Corporation.
Lotus is, of course, the software giant that Mitchell Kapor founded in the late 70s. The software program Kapor co-authored, "Lotus 1-2-3," is still that company's most profitable product. "Lotus 1-2-3" also bears a singular distinction in the digital underground: it's probably the most pirated piece of application software in world history.
Kapor greets me cordially in his own office, down a hall. Kapor, whose name is pronounced KAY-por, is in his early forties, married and the father of two. He has a round face, high forehead, straight nose, a slightly tousled mop of black hair peppered with gray. His large brown eyes are wideset, reflective, one might almost say soulful. He disdains ties, and commonly wears Hawaiian shirts and tropical prints, not so much garish as simply cheerful and just that little bit anomalous.
There is just the whiff of hacker brimstone about Mitch Kapor. He may not have the hard-riding, hell-for-leather, guitar-strumming charisma of his Wyoming colleague John Perry Barlow, but there's something about the guy that still stops one short. He has the air of the Eastern city dude in the bowler hat, the dreamy, Longfellow-quoting poker shark who only *happens* to know the exact mathematical odds against drawing to an inside straight. Even among his computer-community colleagues, who are hardly known for mental sluggishness, Kapor strikes one forcefully as a very intelligent man. He speaks rapidly, with vigorous gestures, his Boston accent sometimes slipping to the sharp nasal tang of his youth in Long Island.
Kapor, whose Kapor Family Foundation does much of his philanthropic work, is a strong supporter of Boston's Computer Museum. Kapor's interest in the history of his industry has brought him some remarkable curios, such as the "byte" just outside his office door. This "byte" -- eight digital bits -- has been salvaged from the wreck of an electronic computer of the pre-transistor age. It's a standing gunmetal rack about the size of a small toaster-oven: with eight slots of hand-soldered breadboarding featuring thumb-sized vacuum tubes. If it fell off a table it could easily break your foot, but it was state-of-the-art computation in the 1940s. (It would take exactly 157,184 of these primordial toasters to hold the first part of this book.)
There's also a coiling, multicolored, scaly dragon that some inspired techno-punk artist has cobbled up entirely out of transistors, capacitors, and brightly plastic-coated wiring.
Inside the office, Kapor excuses himself briefly to do a little mouse-whizzing housekeeping on his personal Macintosh IIfx. If its giant screen were an open window, an agile person could climb through it without much trouble at all. There's a coffee-cup at Kapor's elbow, a memento of his recent trip to Eastern Europe, which has a black-and-white stencilled photo and the legend CAPITALIST FOOLS TOUR. It's Kapor, Barlow, and two California venture-capitalist luminaries of their acquaintance, four windblown, grinning Baby Boomer dudes in leather jackets, boots, denim, travel bags, standing on airport tarmac somewhere behind the formerly Iron Curtain. They look as if they're having the absolute time of their lives.
Kapor is in a reminiscent mood. We talk a bit about his youth -- high school days as a "math nerd," Saturdays attending Columbia University's high-school science honors program, where he had his first experience programming computers. IBM 1620s, in 1965 and '66. "I was very interested," says Kapor, "and then I went off to college and got distracted by drugs sex and rock and roll, like anybody with half a brain would have then!" After college he was a progressive-rock DJ in Hartford, Connecticut, for a couple of years.
I ask him if he ever misses his rock and roll days -- if he ever wished he could go back to radio work.
He shakes his head flatly. "I stopped thinking about going back to be a DJ the day after Altamont."
Kapor moved to Boston in 1974 and got a job programming mainframes in COBOL. He hated it. He quit and became a teacher of transcendental meditation. (It was Kapor's long flirtation with Eastern mysticism that gave the world "Lotus.")
In 1976 Kapor went to Switzerland, where the Transcendental Meditation movement had rented a gigantic Victorian hotel in St-Moritz. It was an all-male group -- a hundred and twenty of them -- determined upon Enlightenment or Bust. Kapor had given the transcendant his best shot. He was becoming disenchanted by "the nuttiness in the organization." "They were teaching people to levitate," he says, staring at the floor. His voice drops an octave, becomes flat. "*They don't levitate.*"
Kapor chose Bust. He went back to the States and acquired a degree in counselling psychology. He worked a while in a hospital, couldn't stand that either. "My rep was," he says "a very bright kid with a lot of potential who hasn't found himself. Almost thirty. Sort of lost."
Kapor was unemployed when he bought his first personal computer -- an Apple II. He sold his stereo to raise cash and drove to New Hampshire to avoid the sales tax.
"The day after I purchased it," Kapor tells me, "I was hanging out in a computer store and I saw another guy, a man in his forties, well-dressed guy, and eavesdropped on his conversation with the salesman. He didn't know anything about computers. I'd had a year programming. And I could program in BASIC. I'd taught myself. So I went up to him, and I actually sold myself to him as a consultant." He pauses. "I don't know where I got the nerve to do this. It was uncharacteristic. I just said, 'I think I can help you, I've been listening, this is what you need to do and I think I can do it for you.' And he took me on! He was my first client! I became a computer consultant the first day after I bought the Apple II."
Kapor had found his true vocation. He attracted more clients for his consultant service, and started an Apple users' group.
A friend of Kapor's, Eric Rosenfeld, a graduate student at MIT, had a problem. He was doing a thesis on an arcane form of financial statistics, but could not wedge himself into the crowded queue for time on MIT's mainframes. (One might note at this point that if Mr. Rosenfeld had dishonestly broken into the MIT mainframes, Kapor himself might have never invented Lotus 1-2-3 and the PC business might have been set back for years!) Eric Rosenfeld did have an Apple II, however, and he thought it might be possible to scale the problem down. Kapor, as favor, wrote a program for him in BASIC that did the job.
It then occurred to the two of them, out of the blue, that it might be possible to *sell* this program. They marketed it themselves, in plastic baggies, for about a hundred bucks a pop, mail order. "This was a total cottage industry by a marginal consultant," Kapor says proudly. "That's how I got started, honest to God."
Rosenfeld, who later became a very prominent figure on Wall Street, urged Kapor to go to MIT's business school for an MBA. Kapor did seven months there, but never got his MBA. He picked up some useful tools -- mainly a firm grasp of the principles of accounting -- and, in his own words, "learned to talk MBA." Then he dropped out and went to Silicon Valley.
The inventors of VisiCalc, the Apple computer's premier business program, had shown an interest in Mitch Kapor. Kapor worked diligently for them for six months, got tired of California, and went back to Boston where they had better bookstores. The VisiCalc group had made the critical error of bringing in "professional management." "That drove them into the ground," Kapor says.
"Yeah, you don't hear a lot about VisiCalc these days," I muse.
Kapor looks surprised. "Well, Lotus.... we *bought* it."
"Oh. You *bought* it?"
"Sort of like the Bell System buying Western Union?"
Kapor grins. "Yep! Yep! Yeah, exactly!"
Mitch Kapor was not in full command of the destiny of himself or his industry. The hottest software commodities of the early 1980s were *computer games* -- the Atari seemed destined to enter every teenage home in America. Kapor got into business software simply because he didn't have any particular feeling for computer games. But he was supremely fast on his feet, open to new ideas and inclined to trust his instincts. And his instincts were good. He chose good people to deal with -- gifted programmer Jonathan Sachs (the co-author of Lotus 1-2-3). Financial wizard Eric Rosenfeld, canny Wall Street analyst and venture capitalist Ben Rosen. Kapor was the founder and CEO of Lotus, one of the most spectacularly successful business ventures of the later twentieth century.
He is now an extremely wealthy man. I ask him if he actually knows how much money he has.
"Yeah," he says. "Within a percent or two."
How much does he actually have, then?
He shakes his head. "A lot. A lot. Not something I talk about. Issues of money and class are things that cut pretty close to the bone."
I don't pry. It's beside the point. One might presume, impolitely, that Kapor has at least forty million -- that's what he got the year he left Lotus. People who ought to know claim Kapor has about a hundred and fifty million, give or take a market swing in his stock holdings. If Kapor had stuck with Lotus, as his colleague friend and rival Bill Gates has stuck with his own software start-up, Microsoft, then Kapor would likely have much the same fortune Gates has -- somewhere in the neighborhood of three billion, give or take a few hundred million. Mitch Kapor has all the money he wants. Money has lost whatever charm it ever held for him -- probably not much in the first place. When Lotus became too uptight, too bureaucratic, too far from the true sources of his own satisfaction, Kapor walked. He simply severed all connections with the company and went out the door. It stunned everyone -- except those who knew him best.
Kapor has not had to strain his resources to wreak a thorough transformation in cyberspace politics. In its first year, EFF's budget was about a quarter of a million dollars. Kapor is running EFF out of his pocket change.
Kapor takes pains to tell me that he does not consider himself a civil libertarian per se. He has spent quite some time with true-blue civil libertarians lately, and there's a political-correctness to them that bugs him. They seem to him to spend entirely too much time in legal nitpicking and not enough vigorously exercising civil rights in the everyday real world.
Kapor is an entrepreneur. Like all hackers, he prefers his involvements direct, personal, and hands-on. "The fact that EFF has a node on the Internet is a great thing. We're a publisher. We're a distributor of information." Among the items the eff.org Internet node carries is back issues of *Phrack.* They had an internal debate about that in EFF, and finally decided to take the plunge. They might carry other digital underground publications -- but if they do, he says, "we'll certainly carry Donn Parker, and anything Gail Thackeray wants to put up. We'll turn it into a public library, that has the whole spectrum of use. Evolve in the direction of people making up their own minds." He grins. "We'll try to label all the editorials."
Kapor is determined to tackle the technicalities of the Internet in the service of the public interest. "The problem with being a node on the Net today is that you've got to have a captive technical specialist. We have Chris Davis around, for the care and feeding of the balky beast! We couldn't do it ourselves!"
He pauses. "So one direction in which technology has to evolve is much more standardized units, that a non-technical person can feel comfortable with. It's the same shift as from minicomputers to PCs. I can see a future in which any person can have a Node on the Net. Any person can be a publisher. It's better than the media we now have. It's possible. We're working actively."
Kapor is in his element now, fluent, thoroughly in command in his material. "You go tell a hardware Internet hacker that everyone should have a node on the Net," he says, "and the first thing they're going to say is, 'IP doesn't scale!'" ("IP" is the interface protocol for the Internet. As it currently exists, the IP software is simply not capable of indefinite expansion; it will run out of usable addresses, it will saturate.) "The answer," Kapor says, "is: evolve the protocol! Get the smart people together and figure out what to do. Do we add ID? Do we add new protocol? Don't just say, *we can't do it.*"
Getting smart people together to figure out what to do is a skill at which Kapor clearly excels. I counter that people on the Internet rather enjoy their elite technical status, and don't seem particularly anxious to democratize the Net.
Kapor agrees, with a show of scorn. "I tell them that this is the snobbery of the people on the *Mayflower* looking down their noses at the people who came over *on the second boat!* Just because they got here a year, or five years, or ten years before everybody else, that doesn't give them ownership of cyberspace! By what right?"
I remark that the telcos are an electronic network, too, and they seem to guard their specialized knowledge pretty closely.
Kapor ripostes that the telcos and the Internet are entirely different animals. "The Internet is an open system, everything is published, everything gets argued about, basically by anybody who can get in. Mostly, it's exclusive and elitist just because it's so difficult. Let's make it easier to use."
On the other hand, he allows with a swift change of emphasis, the so-called elitists do have a point as well. "Before people start coming in, who are new, who want to make suggestions, and criticize the Net as 'all screwed up'.... They should at least take the time to understand the culture on its own terms. It has its own history -- show some respect for it. I'm a conservative, to that extent."
The Internet is Kapor's paradigm for the future of telecommunications. The Internet is decentralized, non-heirarchical, almost anarchic. There are no bosses, no chain of command, no secret data. If each node obeys the general interface standards, there's simply no need for any central network authority.
Wouldn't that spell the doom of AT&T as an institution? I ask.
That prospect doesn't faze Kapor for a moment. "Their big advantage, that they have now, is that they have all of the wiring. But two things are happening. Anyone with right-of-way is putting down fiber -- Southern Pacific Railroad, people like that -- there's enormous 'dark fiber' laid in." ("Dark Fiber" is fiber-optic cable, whose enormous capacity so exceeds the demands of current usage that much of the fiber still has no light-signals on it -- it's still 'dark,' awaiting future use.)
"The other thing that's happening is the local-loop stuff is going to go wireless. Everyone from Bellcore to the cable TV companies to AT&T wants to put in these things called 'personal communication systems.' So you could have local competition -- you could have multiplicity of people, a bunch of neighborhoods, sticking stuff up on poles. And a bunch of other people laying in dark fiber. So what happens to the telephone companies? There's enormous pressure on them from both sides.
"The more I look at this, the more I believe that in a post-industrial, digital world, the idea of regulated monopolies is bad. People will look back on it and say that in the 19th and 20th centuries the idea of public utilities was an okay compromise. You needed one set of wires in the ground. It was too economically inefficient, otherwise. And that meant one entity running it. But now, with pieces being wireless -- the connections are going to be via high-level interfaces, not via wires. I mean, *ultimately* there are going to be wires -- but the wires are just a commodity. Fiber, wireless. You no longer *need* a utility."
Water utilities? Gas utilities?
Of course we still need those, he agrees. "But when what you're moving is information, instead of physical substances, then you can play by a different set of rules. We're evolving those rules now! Hopefully you can have a much more decentralized system, and one in which there's more competition in the marketplace.
"The role of government will be to make sure that nobody cheats. The proverbial 'level playing field.' A policy that prevents monopolization. It should result in better service, lower prices, more choices, and local empowerment." He smiles. "I'm very big on local empowerment."
Kapor is a man with a vision. It's a very novel vision which he and his allies are working out in considerable detail and with great energy. Dark, cynical, morbid cyberpunk that I am, I cannot avoid considering some of the darker implications of "decentralized, nonhierarchical, locally empowered" networking.
I remark that some pundits have suggested that electronic networking -- faxes, phones, small-scale photocopiers -- played a strong role in dissolving the power of centralized communism and causing the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
Socialism is totally discredited, says Kapor, fresh back from the Eastern Bloc. The idea that faxes did it, all by themselves, is rather wishful thinking.
Has it occurred to him that electronic networking might corrode America's industrial and political infrastructure to the point where the whole thing becomes untenable, unworkable -- and the old order just collapses headlong, like in Eastern Europe?
"No," Kapor says flatly. "I think that's extraordinarily unlikely. In part, because ten or fifteen years ago, I had similar hopes about personal computers -- which utterly failed to materialize." He grins wryly, then his eyes narrow. "I'm *very* opposed to techno-utopias. Every time I see one, I either run away, or try to kill it."
It dawns on me then that Mitch Kapor is not trying to make the world safe for democracy. He certainly is not trying to make it safe for anarchists or utopians -- least of all for computer intruders or electronic rip-off artists. What he really hopes to do is make the world safe for future Mitch Kapors. This world of decentralized, small-scale nodes, with instant global access for the best and brightest, would be a perfect milieu for the shoestring attic capitalism that made Mitch Kapor what he is today.
Kapor is a very bright man. He has a rare combination of visionary intensity with a strong practical streak. The Board of the EFF: John Barlow, Jerry Berman of the ACLU, Stewart Brand, John Gilmore, Steve Wozniak, and Esther Dyson, the doyenne of East-West computer entrepreneurism -- share his gift, his vision, and his formidable networking talents. They are people of the 1960s, winnowed-out by its turbulence and rewarded with wealth and influence. They are some of the best and the brightest that the electronic community has to offer. But can they do it, in the real world? Or are they only dreaming? They are so few. And there is so much against them.
I leave Kapor and his networking employees struggling cheerfully with the promising intricacies of their newly installed Macintosh System 7 software. The next day is Saturday. EFF is closed. I pay a few visits to points of interest downtown.
One of them is the birthplace of the telephone.
It's marked by a bronze plaque in a plinth of black-and-white speckled granite. It sits in the plaza of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, the very place where Kapor was once fingerprinted by the FBI.
The plaque has a bas-relief picture of Bell's original telephone. "BIRTHPLACE OF THE TELEPHONE," it reads. "Here, on June 2, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson first transmitted sound over wires.
"This successful experiment was completed in a fifth floor garret at what was then 109 Court Street and marked the beginning of world-wide telephone service."
109 Court Street is long gone. Within sight of Bell's plaque, across a street, is one of the central offices of NYNEX, the local Bell RBOC, on 6 Bowdoin Square.
I cross the street and circle the telco building, slowly, hands in my jacket pockets. It's a bright, windy, New England autumn day. The central office is a handsome 1940s-era megalith in late Art Deco, eight stories high.
Parked outside the back is a power-generation truck. The generator strikes me as rather anomalous. Don't they already have their own generators in this eight-story monster? Then the suspicion strikes me that NYNEX must have heard of the September 17 AT&T power-outage which crashed New York City. Belt-and-suspenders, this generator. Very telco.
Over the glass doors of the front entrance is a handsome bronze bas-relief of Art Deco vines, sunflowers, and birds, entwining the Bell logo and the legend NEW ENGLAND TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH COMPANY -- an entity which no longer officially exists.
The doors are locked securely. I peer through the shadowed glass. Inside is an official poster reading:
"New England Telephone a NYNEX Company
"All persons while on New England Telephone Company premises are required to visibly wear their identification cards (C.C.P. Section 2, Page 1).
"Visitors, vendors, contractors, and all others are required to visibly wear a daily pass. "Thank you. Kevin C. Stanton. Building Security Coordinator."
Outside, around the corner, is a pull-down ribbed metal security door, a locked delivery entrance. Some passing stranger has grafitti-tagged this door, with a single word in red spray-painted cursive: