This article originally appeared at:
Open Season at Upside Magazine
Zope is mentioned on Page 2 of the article.
The Conscientious Objector
by Sam Williams
September 08, 1999
If you're looking for controversy in the world of open source software, look no further than Bruce Perens.
As the former head of the Debian Project and the former co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, Perens has cultivated a David Lee Roth-like image in recent years, forging a symbiotic relationship with news reporters through a steady stream of snappy quotes and an unrestrained willingess to depart projects in a well-publicized huff.
Perens' latest project, however, seems like the perfect calling. Dubbed Technocrat.net, it is a Slashdot-style Web site dedicated to building stronger ties between the online hacker community and the inside-the-Beltway world of Washington, D.C. policy wonks.
Needless to say, for a man used to voicing his opinion online, Technocrat offers the perfect home field forum. Still, Perens has hopes that, like Slashdot, readers will soon take over much of the workload, leaving him to select the best stories and provide the editorial direction.
Recently, Open Season met with Bruce Perens to discuss the motives and messages behind Technocrat.
Open Season: If Technocrat took off the way you want it to, what do you see it becoming? A news source? An open source political action committee?
BP: Technocrat is a way to mobilize a grass roots effort on various issues--education probably being one of the most important ones, because the United States' primary education system just stinks. We're very lucky that we've got good colleges here, because kids that are coming out of high school aren't ready. Whereas in some parts of Europe it's the exact opposite: The colleges aren't that great, but their primary schools are excellent. So, first of all, get the next generation ready and get them to be leaders rather than followers. Get technology into the hands of the technologists.
There's just tons of awful public policy just because the technologists didn't have enough input: Look at caller ID; look at radio spectrum management; computer licensing law is going to be a big deal as far as copyright licenses. There's a new effort to make collections of data proprietary, where right now they can't be copyrighted. Those are things that we should be working on more.
Actually, I think some of these issues are what the Electronic Frontier Foundation was formed to work on. I'm actually kind of disappointed in them. They're not maintaining a very big presence. OK, they're all busy. Once in a while they get to testify before Congress. For the most part, I think they could mobilize people a lot more effectively than they do.
OS: It seems that the open source software movement represents a changing of the guard. You're getting a new generation of hacker voices replacing the various "digerati" who dominated the tech media over the first half of the decade. What's your assessment?
BP: I think there's a lot more "do" vs. "talk" in the late '90s than in the late '80s and early '90s. I like Eric Drexler, the nanotechnology guy, but so far Eric mostly talks about nanotechnology. He doesn't build it, because he can't--not because he's not trying.
Contrast him with Linus Torvalds who doesn't talk about it. He just goes off and writes an operating system kernel in his spare time and releases it over the Internet. Within a couple of years, it's challenging Windows NT.
Right now, we're looking for something that leverages the momentum of the last few years, something that shows people that computer programming is not the only area where a group of individuals can make a difference. With the Internet, we're as powerful as political lobbies used to be. We have the power of the press. We don't need the New York Times to print something to get people to hear about it. Let's build on it.
I'm just trying to turn that power onto things that hackers don't traditionally like. They don't like politics. They hate the idea of lawyers and working with lawyers. Well, I'm a hacker and I've worked with lawyers. Lawyers are mostly nice people who want to do the right thing, but you have to be brought into their world before you understand that. And that's the kind of thing I'm trying to do.
In some ways we are our own enemies. We've alienated ourselves. We have to stop it or we will be managed.
OS: On the About Technocrat page, you say the site's primary mission is "to encourage technically-litererate people to participate in the determination of technology policy." The one thing I notice with the Web site, though, is a real do-it-yourself ethic: amateur radio, software hacking, "kitchen table science," etc. How does that fit with the "technocrat" theme?
BP It's actually a component. It's all about individuals taking control of technology, rather than having scientific development all happen in some big corporate lab. Some of the most important developments over history have been people working in basements.
I'm trying to foster that, saying "Look around guys, there's a lot of scientific research that you can do."
The other angle is education. Because it looks like Slashdot, a lot of the readers are going to be pretty young. I would prefer to take these young people and get their heads firmly on science than have them end up being creationists, for example. [laughs]
OS: The site does have a Slashdot look and feel. Did you use Slashdot's software in putting the site together?
BP: No, I used an open source product called Squishdot. In fact, I liked the product so much, I bought them a domain, which is called squishdot.org. I have that running on top of Zope. Zope is a Web hosting environment sort of like Frontier, but open source. It has a lot of object-oriented dynamic Web stuff. Somewhat more advanced than (scripting language) PHP.
OS: Aside from the underlying technology, how would you contrast Technocrat with Slashdot?
BP: There was a point where I had the highest score on Slashdot. In other words, I'd been moderated up more than any other person. At the same time, although my comments were very well received, I found that I could not get stories on Slashdot about the things that interested me--for example, electronics and amateur radio. They're willing to handle politics, but I think they have different format than mine. Mine is really, "Here's a political situation. Here's your political representative to call." That's worked out reasonably well for me.
The other thing is I'd like to get a somewhat more adult audience than what they get on Slashdot. I think Slashdot would like that too.
OS: You mentioned kids and science. Your site seems to be nostalgic for the post-Sputnik days when it was assumed every American kid knew how to fix a radio or read a schematic diagram. Nowadays, opening any consumer electronic product--excluding the PC, of course--is considered the ultimate sin.
BP: I actually resent it when I see "No user serviceable parts inside" on a piece of equipment. These days it's all surface-mount electronics, where there aren't even leads on the components anymore. It's hard--but not impossible--to work on that kind of stuff at home.
Some of the ham radio magazines have been doing features on how to work with surface mount, because you have to do it. Otherwise we're not going to be able to experiment at all, given that the best components don't come in any other form.
These are the sort of things that I like to feature when people are doing innovative technical stuff on their own.
OS: Which seems to be a unique niche. Instead of raving about the new G4, Technocrat seems more interested in encouraging kids to take apart their old TV sets, experiment with rockets, hack software, risk brush ins with the law, etc. The usual good, clean fun, in other words.
BP: Sounds kind of like my childhood. I was a phone hacker back when phone hacking was what people did. I used to be able to whistle 2600 Hz and could, for a time, nullify the long distance charges. They smartened up pretty quickly, though.
OS: Was that how you got into programming?
BP: I never took computer classes. Back in high school, you had to take calculus before you could take BASIC. Everyone would laugh about that today, but that was the rule then. When I got to college, all people were doing with computers at that point was sending bills, so I took television, media-communications arts instead.
I went to New York Tech on Long Island, where they had the computer graphics lab that was the predecessor of Pixar. A lot of people went from there to go work for George Lucas. The only way to learn Unix, computer graphics, etc., was to work in one of these labs. There were no classes. What happened was I went to be an operator, a disk operator. I screwed the packs into the drives, back when a 300 MB disk was about 50 pounds. Your arms just got around it.
So while I was a disk operator, I read the two books. One was Kernighan and Ritchie, "The C Programming Language," (Prentice Hall, 1988) and the other was the manual that came with Unix. It was about a foot thick. I don't know if it was laser printer but similar printing, all of the documentation that came with Unix. And since those were the only two books on C and Unix, having read those, I was an expert. So I got a job there as an operating systems programmer and wrote device drivers for five or six years. Then I came out to Pixar, worked for Pixar for a total of 12 years, made some money. And now I'm on my own, just sort of having fun, making a little money here and there. No big debts. Starting up a couple of businesses. Technocrat is just one of them. The others I can't talk about yet.
OS: You mention the calculus requirement for BASIC. It's interesting because it parallels a lot of the other things you typically rail against--the Morse Code requirement for novice amateur radio licenses, for example. It's an old truism that the best technology tends to attract the fiercest gatekeepers. You seem to have had bad experiences with educational gatekeepers literally from day one.
BP:You've touched on one of the fundamental things I do, which is learning without teachers. I did have a bad experience with teachers very early. Probably hadicapped me for life as far as math is concerned. And since then, one of the thrusts of my work has been, "Hey guy, pick up a book, conduct experiments. Teach yourself." And that is actually the only way that we can really stay on the leading edge. By the time there's already a class on what you're doing, it's too late.
No Code International is about that, because I want amateur radio to be a tool for education. It's had a lot of different missions. It was very important to the military until the end of World War II. It really takes time to teach people Morse Code. They had these people who could go work the radios. In fact, my dad was a ham and he worked in the Signal Corps. Now, we've got cell phones. We've got satellite phones. Ham radio still has a mission in the locality. Like here in Berkeley they can't possibly have enough communications for a disaster. So there's a reason to keep it going for that. The other reason is let's teach people analog electronics with it, and digital too. Because you can put together really cool networks on the air. And actually do more networking infrastructure than you would do just by being a client of the Internet.
OS: Do you ever watch the show "Futurama"?
OS: I'm just asking, because there's a scientist character on the show. He's 140 years old and calls all the 120-year-old scientists "kids." Apparently, the running gag is that in the future, it will take 100-plus years to become a fully respected "scientist." Technocrat reminds me a lot of that character, because they're both reactions to the current mindset that says you need a Ph.D or need to comprehend a certain level of arcana to gain membership into the "scientific community." Where do you think that mindset comes from?
BP: I think there a lot of large companies, particularly within the United States, that would like to be seen as the sole providers of technology and have created this impression that if you want to do high tech, you go to the very best college that you can possibly get into. If you don't get straight "A" grades, forget it. If you do, then you can go work for us, because the resources you need are so expensive, that you could not possibly do them even with a small company.
Well that's bunk. One of the things we've seen in the last few years is people like Linux Torvalds who start revolutions from their college office. But there's only so far we can go doing that kind of thing with the computer. It's time to get a little solder under your fingernails, or the equivalent of car-grease today.