August 14, 2009

1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I Study F/OSS

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Debian,F/OSS,Free Speech,Hackers — Biella @ 6:03 am

Update: Geek feminism blog has a great entry with a collection of personal reflections on what transpired during the course of 1998.

Cultural Anthropology has published a supplemental section for my articlee, one that not only has some nifty images, but gives a nice overview of the article. I have also received some feedback via email and blogs, which have been helpful and have already made their way into the book manuscript–the first draft of which is almost done (I am sending it to some folks very soon for comments).

Fred Benenson, Free Culture rabble rouser, wrote a retrospective, noting how DeCSS radicalized him, with apologies to MLK (you sill just have to read to see why he is apologizing, it is amusing).

James Vasile from the SFLC wrote a blog entry asking me to make some linkages between free speech and the freedom to associate, which is an excellent, excellent point, elaborated in his own words:

My point of departure from Biella is that she doesnít go far enough. Code is speech, but itís also very much more important than that. Itís community. The first amendment protects three areas of freedom: belief, speech and association. The first two are just examples of the third; free speech and religion are meaningless in the absence of community

Don Marti wrote an interesting email highlighting the importance of 1998, which I could not agree with more (bits from his email provided below). It was a pivotal year that really stirred the pot, so much so, that was the year I ditched my other project and decided to go with F/OSS for my dissertation. The problems was at the time my dissertation committee did not bite (they loved the idea, but were understandably concerned about my job prospects). I let the idea go for a few weeks, possibly months until one Very Important Conversation over coffee transpired with an Irish classmate who riveted me, in part with her accent, to press on if that is what I wanted to study. Given I have a real real real soft spot for Irish accents (like everything sounds so important, even revolutionary when an Irish person speaks), I was swayed, went back to my committee and well, here I am a decade later. And now you know how to convince me of something: get an Irish person to do the arguing.

So I encourage folks to take a read, it is readable, or so I think. Or maybe I should say far less jargony than some of my other stuff. I still welcome comments!

Here are some of Don’s thoughts about 1998:

1998 was a really weird year.

The intellectua lproprietarians got the DMCA — 98
to nothing in the Senate, voice vote in the House.
The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act passed
the same year. The IT industry was rapidly giving
up on the bickering, greedy Unix vendors, and Unix’s
non-fungible admins with a sort of literary tradition,
and moving instead to standardized certified MSCEs.
(A co-worker at the time told me that the main selling
point for Windows NT was that it didn’t have “cheeky
Unix geeks”.)

1998 was the apparent high-water mark for the
de-hackerification of the industry. Even long-time
hackerish companies were getting a haircut and
a shave. SGI introduced the Visual Workstation,
running Microsoft Windows NT, and O’Reilly and
Associates was pushing the company’s first and only
shrink-wrap software, a web server for Windows NT.
The spring 1998 O’Reilly catalog had all Windows books
on the cover, and all the Unix stuff was in back.
Netscape was on its way down in flames.

But all this stuff happened too.

Oracle for Linux. VC investment for Red Hat.
Open-source releases for Mozilla, Qt, and IBM Secure
Mailer (now Postfix). Linus Torvalds on the cover
of _Forbes_. It was also the first year that Linux
kernel developers got full-time jobs doing just
kernel work.

So there was all this fascinating news and code for
recruiting new hackers at the same time that there
was a huge power grab intended to drive hackers out.
It was a recipe for a political debate.

The Stallmanite incarnation of Free Software often
talks about recapturing a pre-EULA state of innocence
– not just the fabled environment of the MIT AI Lab,
where Stallman developed his code-sharing habits,
but a lot of early science and business computing.
Copyleft, a tool for defending Free Software,
is Stallman’s brainchild. (I remember seeing
a (Sperry?) ad at the Computer History Museum,
advertising a large software sharing community as
a feature of the company’s hardware line. Need to
find this again.)

Is copyright law a constitutional mandate? It’s in
the section with Letters of Marque and Reprisal, all
things that Congress is allowed, but not required,
to do.

Why do free software developers act as their own
lawyers? Maybe for the same reason they act as
their own testers, PR people, documenters, sysadmins,
whatever. Developers do their own law the same way
they do their own logos. When you get the processes,
connectivity, and tools to increase a development
organization’s tooth/tail ratio, any necessary
“tail” (context) tasks get picked up by “tooth”
(core) people.


  1. [...] Biella Coleman just posted “1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I Study F/OSS”. She quotes a rumination by Don Marti on 1998 as a crucial and strange year in tech: …there [...]

    Pingback by When it changed (1998?) | Geek Feminism Blog — August 14, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  2. Biella, just wanted to let you know that your post inspired some geek gals to share our memories of 1998 over at Geek Feminism.

    Comment by Sumana Harihareswara — August 14, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

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