It was an inherited trait that would take several decades to emerge, however. For the first few years of his life, Stallman lived in what he now admits was a “political vacuum.”1 Like most Americans during the Eisenhower age, the Stallman family spent the 50s trying to recapture the normalcy lost during the wartime years of the 1940s.
“Richard’s father and I were Democrats but happy enough to leave it at that,” says Lippman, recalling the family’s years in Queens. “We didn’t get involved much in local or national politics.”
That all began to change, however, in the late 1950s when Alice divorced Daniel Stallman. The move back to Manhattan represented more than a change of address; it represented a new, independent identity and a jarring loss of tranquility.
“I think my first taste of political activism came when I went to the Queens public library and discovered there was only a single book on divorce in the whole library,” recalls Lippman. “It was very controlled by the Catholic church, at least in Elmhurst, where we lived. I think that was the first inkling I had of the forces that quietly control our lives.”
Returning to her childhood neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lippman was shocked by the changes that had taken place since her departure to Hunter College a decade and a half before. The skyrocketing demand for post-war housing had turned the neighborhood into a political battleground. On one side stood the pro-development city-hall politicians and businessmen hoping to rebuild many of the neighborhood’s blocks to accommodate the growing number of white-collar workers moving into the city. On the other side stood the poor Irish and Puerto Rican tenants who had found an affordable haven in the neighborhood.
At first, Lippman didn’t know which side to choose. As a new resident, she felt the need for new housing. As a single mother with minimal income, however, she shared the poorer tenants’ concern over the growing number of development projects catering mainly to wealthy residents. Indignant, Lippman began looking for ways to combat the political machine that was attempting to turn her neighborhood into a clone of the Upper East Side.
Lippman says her first visit to the local Democratic party headquarters came in 1958. Looking for a day-care center to take care of her son while she worked, she had been appalled by the conditions encountered at one of the city-owned centers that catered to low-income residents. “All I remember is the stench of rotten milk, the dark hallways, the paucity of supplies. I had been a teacher in private nursery schools. The contrast was so great. We took one look at that room and left. That stirred me up.”
The visit to the party headquarters proved disappointing, however. Describing it as “the proverbial smoke-filled room,” Lippman says she became aware for the first time that corruption within the party might actually be the reason behind the city’s thinly disguised hostility toward poor residents. Instead of going back to the headquarters, Lippman decided to join up with one of the many clubs aimed at reforming the Democratic party and ousting the last vestiges of the Tammany Hall machine. Dubbed the Woodrow Wilson/FDR Reform Democratic Club, Lippman and her club began showing up at planning and city-council meetings, demanding a greater say.
“Our primary goal was to fight Tammany Hall, Carmine DeSapio and his henchman,”2 says Lippman. “I was the representative to the city council and was very much involved in creating a viable urban-renewal plan that went beyond simply adding more luxury housing to the neighborhood.”
Such involvement would blossom into greater political activity during the 1960s. By 1965, Lippman had become an “outspoken” supporter for political candidates like William Fitts Ryan, a Democratic elected to Congress with the help of reform clubs and one of the first U.S. representatives to speak out against the Vietnam War.
It wasn’t long before Lippman, too, was an outspoken opponent of U.S. involvement in Indochina. “I was against the Vietnam war from the time Kennedy sent troops,” she says. “I had read the stories by reporters and journalists sent to cover the early stages of the conflict. I really believed their forecast that it would become a quagmire.”
Such opposition permeated the Stallman-Lippman household. In 1967, Lippman remarried. Her new husband, Maurice Lippman, a major in the Air National Guard, resigned his commission to demonstrate his opposition to the war. Lippman’s stepson, Andrew Lippman, was at MIT and temporarily eligible for a student deferment. Still, the threat of induction should that deferment disappear, as it eventually did, made the risk of U.S. escalation all the more immediate. Finally, there was Richard who, though younger, faced the prospect of choosing between Vietnam or Canada when the war lasted into the 1970s.
“Vietnam was a major issue in our household,” says Lippman. “We talked about it constantly: what would we do if the war continued, what steps Richard or his stepbrother would take if they got drafted. We were all opposed to the war and the draft. We really thought it was immoral.”
For Stallman, the Vietnam War elicited a complex mixture of emotions: confusion, horror, and, ultimately, a profound sense of political impotence. As a kid who could barely cope in the mild authoritarian universe of private school, Stallman experienced a shiver whenever the thought of Army boot camp presented itself.
“I was devastated by the fear, but I couldn’t imagine what to do and didn’t have the guts to go demonstrate,” recalls Stallman, whose March 18th birthday earned him a dreaded low number in the draft lottery when the federal government finally eliminated college deferments in 1971. “I couldn’t envision moving to Canada or Sweden. The idea of getting up by myself and moving somewhere. How could I do that? I didn’t know how to live by myself. I wasn’t the kind of person who felt confident in approaching things like that.”
Stallman says he was both impressed and shamed by the family members who did speak out. Recalling a bumper sticker on his father’s car likening the My Lai massacre to similar Nazi atrocities in World War II, he says he was “excited” by his father’s gesture of outrage. “I admired him for doing it,” Stallman says. “But I didn’t imagine that I could do anything. I was afraid that the juggernaut of the draft was going to destroy me.”
Although descriptions of his own unwillingness to speak out carry a tinge of nostalgic regret, Stallman says he was ultimately turned off by the tone and direction of the anti-war movement. Like other members of the Science Honors Program, he saw the weekend demonstrations at Columbia as little more than a distracting spectacle.3 Ultimately, Stallman says, the irrational forces driving the anti-war movement became indistinguishable from the irrational forces driving the rest of youth culture. Instead of worshiping the Beatles, girls in Stallman’s age group were suddenly worshiping firebrands like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. To a kid already struggling to comprehend his teenage peers, escapist slogans like “make love not war” had a taunting quality. Not only was it a reminder that Stallman, the short-haired outsider who hated rock ’n’ roll, detested drugs, and didn’t participate in campus demonstrations, wasn’t getting it politically; he wasn’t “getting it” sexually either.
“I didn’t like the counter culture much,” Stallman admits. “I didn’t like the music. I didn’t like the drugs. I was scared of the drugs. I especially didn’t like the anti-intellectualism, and I didn’t like the prejudice against technology. After all, I loved a computer. And I didn’t like the mindless anti-Americanism that I often encountered. There were people whose thinking was so simplistic that if they disapproved of the conduct of the U.S. in the Vietnam War, they had to support the North Vietnamese. They couldn’t imagine a more complicated position, I guess.”
Such comments alleviate feelings of timidity. They also underline a trait that would become the key to Stallman’s own political maturation. For Stallman, political confidence was directly proportionate to personal confidence. By 1970, Stallman had become confident in few things outside the realm of math and science. Nevertheless, confidence in math gave him enough of a foundation to examine the anti-war movement in purely logical terms. In the process of doing so, Stallman had found the logic wanting. Although opposed to the war in Vietnam, Stallman saw no reason to disavow war as a means for defending liberty or correcting injustice. Rather than widen the breach between himself and his peers, however, Stallman elected to keep the analysis to himself.
In 1970, Stallman left behind the nightly dinnertime conversations about politics and the Vietnam War as he departed for Harvard. Looking back, Stallman describes the transition from his mother’s Manhattan apartment to life in a Cambridge dorm as an “escape.” Peers who watched Stallman make the transition, however, saw little to suggest a liberating experience.
“He seemed pretty miserable for the first while at Harvard,” recalls Dan Chess, a classmate in the Science Honors Program who also matriculated at Harvard. “You could tell that human interaction was really difficult for him, and there was no way of avoiding it at Harvard. Harvard was an intensely social kind of place.”
To ease the transition, Stallman fell back on his strengths: math and science. Like most members of the Science Honors Program, Stallman breezed through the qualifying exam for Math 55, the legendary “boot camp” class for freshman mathematics “concentrators” at Harvard. Within the class, members of the Science Honors Program formed a durable unit. “We were the math mafia,” says Chess with a laugh. “Harvard was nothing, at least compared with the SHP.”
To earn the right to boast, however, Stallman, Chess, and the other SHP alumni had to get through Math 55. Promising four years worth of math in two semesters, the course favored only the truly devout. “It was an amazing class,” says David Harbater, a former “math mafia” member and now a professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s probably safe to say there has never been a class for beginning college students that was that intense and that advanced. The phrase I say to people just to get it across is that, among other things, by the second semester we were discussing the differential geometry of Banach manifolds. That’s usually when their eyes bug out, because most people don’t start talking about Banach manifolds until their second year of graduate school.”
Starting with 75 students, the class quickly melted down to 20 by the end of the second semester. Of that 20, says Harbater, “only 10 really knew what they were doing.” Of that 10, 8 would go on to become future mathematics professors, 1 would go on to teach physics.
“The other one,” emphasizes Harbater, “was Richard Stallman.”
Seth Breidbart, a fellow Math 55 classmate, remembers Stallman distinguishing himself from his peers even then.
“He was a stickler in some very strange ways,” says Breidbart. There is a standard technique in math which everybody does wrong. It’s an abuse of notation where you have to define a function for something and what you do is you define a function and then you prove that it’s well defined. Except the first time he did and presented it, he defined a relation and proved that it’s a function. It’s the exact same proof, but he used the correct terminology, which no one else did. That’s just the way he was.”
It was in Math 55 that Richard Stallman began to cultivate a reputation for brilliance. Breidbart agrees, but Chess, whose competitive streak refused to yield, says the realization that Stallman might be the best mathematician in the class didn’t set in until the next year. “It was during a class on Real Analysis, which I took with Richard the next year,” says Chess, now a math professor at Hunter College. “I actually remember in a proof about complex valued measures that Richard came up with an idea that was basically a metaphor from the calculus of variations. It was the first time I ever saw somebody solve a problem in a brilliantly original way.”
Chess makes no bones about it: watching Stallman’s solution unfold on the chalkboard was a devastating blow. As a kid who’d always taken pride in being the smartest mathematician the room, it was like catching a glimpse of his own mortality. Years later, as Chess slowly came to accept the professional rank of a good-but-not-great mathematician, he had Stallman’s sophomore-year proof to look back on as a taunting early indicator.
“That’s the thing about mathematics,” says Chess. “You don’t have to be a first-rank mathematician to recognize first-rate mathematical talent. I could tell I was up there, but I could also tell I wasn’t at the first rank. If Richard had chosen to be a mathematician, he would have been a first-rank mathematician.”
For Stallman, success in the classroom was balanced by the same lack of success in the social arena. Even as other members of the math mafia gathered to take on the Math 55 problem sets, Stallman preferred to work alone. The same went for living arrangements. On the housing application for Harvard, Stallman clearly spelled out his preferences. “I said I preferred an invisible, inaudible, intangible roommate,” he says. In a rare stroke of bureaucratic foresight, Harvard’s housing office accepted the request, giving Stallman a one-room single for his freshman year.
Breidbart, the only math-mafia member to share a dorm with Stallman that freshman year, says Stallman slowly but surely learned how to interact with other students. He recalls how other dorm mates, impressed by Stallman’s logical acumen, began welcoming his input whenever an intellectual debate broke out in the dining club or dorm commons.
“We had the usual bull sessions about solving the world’s problems or what would be the result of something,” recalls Breidbart. “Say somebody discovers an immortality serum. What do you do? What are the political results? If you give it to everybody, the world gets overcrowded and everybody dies. If you limit it, if you say everyone who’s alive now can have it but their children can’t, then you end up with an underclass of people without it. Richard was just better able than most to see the unforeseen circumstances of any decision.”
Stallman remembers the discussions vividly. “I was always in favor of immortality,” he says. “I was shocked that most people regarded immortality as a bad thing. How else would we be able to see what the world is like 200 years from now?”
Although a first-rank mathematician and first-rate debater, Stallman shied away from clear-cut competitive events that might have sealed his brilliant reputation. Near the end of freshman year at Harvard, Breidbart recalls how Stallman conspicuously ducked the Putnam exam, a prestigious test open to math students throughout the U.S. and Canada. In addition to giving students a chance to measure their knowledge in relation to their peers, the Putnam served as a chief recruiting tool for academic math departments. According to campus legend, the top scorer automatically qualified for a graduate fellowship at any school of his choice, including Harvard.
Like Math 55, the Putnam was a brutal test of merit. A six-hour exam in two parts, it seemed explicitly designed to separate the wheat from the chaff. Breidbart, a veteran of both the Science Honors Program and Math 55, describes it as easily the most difficult test he ever took. “Just to give you an idea of how difficult it was,” says Breidbart, “the top score was a 120, and my score the first year was in the 30s. That score was still good enough to place me 101st in the country.”
Surprised that Stallman, the best student in the class, had passed on the test, Breidbart says he and a fellow classmate cornered him in the dining common and demanded an explanation. “He said he was afraid of not doing well,” Breidbart recalls.
Breidbart and the friend quickly wrote down a few problems from memory and gave them to Stallman. “He solved all of them,” Breidbart says, “leading me to conclude that by not doing well, he either meant coming in second or getting something wrong.”
Stallman remembers the episode a bit differently. “I remember that they did bring me the questions and it’s possible that I solved one of them, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t solve them all,” he says. Nevertheless, Stallman agrees with Breidbart’s recollection that fear was the primary reason for not taking the test. Despite a demonstrated willingness to point out the intellectual weaknesses of his peers and professors in the classroom, Stallman hated the notion of head-to-head competition.
“It’s the same reason I never liked chess,” says Stallman. “Whenever I’d play, I would become so consumed by the fear of making a single mistake that I would start making stupid mistakes very early in the game. The fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Whether such fears ultimately prompted Stallman to shy away from a mathematical career is a moot issue. By the end of his freshman year at Harvard, Stallman had other interests pulling him away from the field. Computer programming, a latent fascination throughout Stallman’s high-school years, was becoming a full-fledged passion. Where other math students sought occasional refuge in art and history classes, Stallman sought it in the computer-science laboratory.
For Stallman, the first taste of real computer programming at the IBM New York Scientific Center had triggered a desire to learn more. “Toward the end of my first year at Harvard school, I started to have enough courage to go visit computer labs and see what they had. I’d ask them if they had extra copies of any manuals that I could read.”
Taking the manuals home, Stallman would examine machine specifications, compare them with other machines he already knew, and concoct a trial program, which he would then bring back to the lab along with the borrowed manual. Although some labs balked at the notion of a strange kid coming off the street and working on the lab machinery, most recognized competence when they saw it and let Stallman run the programs he had created.
One day, near the end of freshman year, Stallman heard about a special laboratory near MIT. The laboratory was located on the ninth floor an off-campus building in Tech Square, the newly built facility dedicated to advanced research. According to the rumors, the lab itself was dedicated to the cutting-edge science of artificial intelligence and boasted the cutting-edge machines and software programs to match.
Intrigued, Stallman decided to pay a visit.
The trip was short, about 2 miles on foot, 10 minutes by train, but as Stallman would soon find out, MIT and Harvard can feel like opposite poles of the same planet. With its maze-like tangle of interconnected office buildings, the Institute’s campus offered an aesthetic yin to Harvard’s spacious colonial-village yang. The same could be said for the student body, a geeky collection of ex–high school misfits known more for its predilection for pranks than its politically powerful alumni.
The yin-yang relationship extended to the AI Lab as well. Unlike Harvard computer labs, there was no grad-student gatekeeper, no clipboard waiting list for terminal access, no explicit atmosphere of “look but don’t touch.” Instead, Stallman found only a collection of open terminals and robotic arms, presumably the artifacts of some A.I. experiment.
Although the rumors said anybody could sit down at the terminals, Stallman decided to stick with the original plan. When he encountered a lab employee, he asked if the lab had any spare manuals it could loan to an inquisitive student. “They had some, but a lot of things weren’t documented,” Stallman recalls. “They were hackers after all.”
Stallman left with something even better than a manual: a job. Although he doesn’t remember what the first project was, he does remember coming back to the AI Lab the next week, grabbing an open terminal and writing software code.
Looking back, Stallman sees nothing unusual in the AI Lab’s willingness to accept an unproven outsider at first glance. “That’s the way it was back then,” he says. “That’s the way it still is now. I’ll hire somebody when I meet him if I see he’s good. Why wait? Stuffy people who insist on putting bureaucracy into everything really miss the point. If a person is good, he shouldn’t have to go through a long, detailed hiring process; he should be sitting at a computer writing code.”
To get a taste of “bureaucratic and stuffy,” Stallman need only visit the computer labs at Harvard. There, access to the terminals was doled out according to academic rank. As an undergrad, Stallman usually had to sign up or wait until midnight, about the time most professors and grad students finished their daily work assignments. The waiting wasn’t difficult, but it was frustrating. Waiting for a public terminal, knowing all the while that a half dozen equally usable machines were sitting idle inside professors’ locked offices, seemed the height of illogic. Although Stallman paid the occasional visit to the Harvard computer labs, he preferred the more egalitarian policies of the AI Lab. “It was a breath of fresh air,” he says. “At the AI Lab, people seemed more concerned about work than status.”
Stallman quickly learned that the AI Lab’s first-come, first-served policy owed much to the efforts of a vigilant few. Many were holdovers from the days of Project MAC, the Department of Defense–funded research program that had given birth to the first time-share operating systems. A few were already legends in the computing world. There was Richard Greenblatt, the lab’s in-house Lisp expert and author of MacHack, the computer chess program that had once humbled A.I. critic Hubert Dreyfus. There was Gerald Sussman, original author of the robotic block-stacking program HACKER. And there was Bill Gosper, the in-house math whiz already in the midst of an 18-month hacking bender triggered by the philosophical implications of the computer game LIFE.4
Members of the tight-knit group called themselves “hackers.” Over time, they extended the “hacker” description to Stallman as well. In the process of doing so, they inculcated Stallman in the ethical traditions of the “hacker ethic.” To be a hacker meant more than just writing programs, Stallman learned. It meant writing the best possible programs. It meant sitting at a terminal for 36 hours straight if that’s what it took to write the best possible programs. Most importantly, it meant having access to the best possible machines and the most useful information at all times. Hackers spoke openly about changing the world through software, and Stallman learned the instinctual hacker disdain for any obstacle that prevented a hacker from fulfilling this noble cause. Chief among these obstacles were poor software, academic bureaucracy, and selfish behavior.
Stallman also learned the lore, stories of how hackers, when presented with an obstacle, had circumvented it in creative ways. Stallman learned about “lock hacking,” the art of breaking into professors’ offices to “liberate” sequestered terminals. Unlike their pampered Harvard counterparts, MIT faculty members knew better than to treat the AI Lab’s terminal as private property. If a faculty member made the mistake of locking away a terminal for the night, hackers were quick to correct the error. Hackers were equally quick to send a message if the mistake repeated itself. “I was actually shown a cart with a heavy cylinder of metal on it that had been used to break down the door of one professor’s office,”5 Stallman says.
Such methods, while lacking in subtlety, served a purpose. Although professors and administrators outnumbered hackers two-to-one inside the AI Lab, the hacker ethic prevailed. Indeed, by the time of Stallman’s arrival at the AI Lab, hackers and the AI Lab administration had coevolved into something of a symbiotic relationship. In exchange for fixing the machines and keeping the software up and running, hackers earned the right to work on favorite pet projects. Often, the pet projects revolved around improving the machines and software programs even further. Like teenage hot-rodders, most hackers viewed tinkering with machines as its own form of entertainment.
Nowhere was this tinkering impulse better reflected than in the operating system that powered the lab’s central PDP-6 minicomputer. Dubbed ITS, short for the Incompatible Time Sharing system, the operating system incorporated the hacking ethic into its very design. Hackers had built it as a protest to Project MAC’s original operating system, the Compatible Time Sharing System, CTSS, and named it accordingly. At the time, hackers felt the CTSS design too restrictive, limiting programmers’ power to modify and improve the program’s own internal architecture if needed. According to one legend passed down by hackers, the decision to build ITS had political overtones as well. Unlike CTSS, which had been designed for the IBM 7094, ITS was built specifically for the PDP-6. In letting hackers write the systems themselves, AI Lab administrators guaranteed that only hackers would feel comfortable using the PDP-6. In the feudal world of academic research, the gambit worked. Although the PDP-6 was co-owned in conjunction with other departments, A.I. researchers soon had it to themselves.6
ITS boasted features most commercial operating systems wouldn’t offer for years, features such as multitasking, debugging, and full-screen editing capability. Using it and the PDP-6 as a foundation, the Lab had been able to declare independence from Project MAC shortly before Stallman’s arrival.6
As an apprentice hacker, Stallman quickly became enamored with ITS. Although forbidding to most newcomers, the program contained many built-in features that provided a lesson in software development to hacker apprentices such as himself.
“ITS had a very elegant internal mechanism for one program to examine another,” says Stallman, recalling the program. “You could examine all sorts of status about another program in a very clean, well-specified way.”
Using this feature, Stallman was able to watch how programs written by hackers processed instructions as they ran. Another favorite feature would allow the monitoring program to freeze the monitored program’s job between instructions. In other operating systems, such a command would have resulted in half-computed gibberish or an automatic systems crash. In ITS, it provided yet another way to monitor the step-by-step performance.
“If you said, ‘Stop the job,’ it would always be stopped in user mode. It would be stopped between two user-mode instructions, and everything about the job would be consistent for that point,” Stallman says. “If you said, ‘Resume the job,’ it would continue properly. Not only that, but if you were to change the status of the job and then change it back, everything would be consistent. There was no hidden status anywhere.”
By the end of 1970, hacking at the AI Lab had become a regular part of Stallman’s weekly schedule. From Monday to Thursday, Stallman devoted his waking hours to his Harvard classes. As soon as Friday afternoon arrived, however, he was on the T, heading down to MIT for the weekend. Stallman usually timed his arrival to coincide with the ritual food run. Joining five or six other hackers in their nightly quest for Chinese food, he would jump inside a beat-up car and head across the Harvard Bridge into nearby Boston. For the next two hours, he and his hacker colleagues would discuss everything from ITS to the internal logic of the Chinese language and pictograph system. Following dinner, the group would return to MIT and hack code until dawn.
For the geeky outcast who rarely associated with his high-school peers, it was a heady experience, suddenly hanging out with people who shared the same predilection for computers, science fiction, and Chinese food. “I remember many sunrises seen from a car coming back from Chinatown,” Stallman would recall nostalgically, 15 years after the fact in a speech at the Swedish Royal Technical Institute. “It was actually a very beautiful thing to see a sunrise, ’cause that’s such a calm time of day. It’s a wonderful time of day to get ready to go to bed. It’s so nice to walk home with the light just brightening and the birds starting to chirp; you can get a real feeling of gentle satisfaction, of tranquility about the work that you have done that night.”7
The more Stallman hung out with the hackers, the more he adopted the hacker worldview. Already committed to the notion of personal liberty, Stallman began to infuse his actions with a sense of communal responsibility. When others violated the communal code, Stallman was quick to speak out. Within a year of his first visit, Stallman was the one breaking into locked offices, trying to recover the sequestered terminals that belonged to the lab community as a whole. In true hacker fashion, Stallman also sought to make his own personal contribution to the art of lock hacking. One of the most artful door-opening tricks, commonly attributed to Greenblatt, involved bending a stiff wire into a cane and attaching a loop of tape to the long end. Sliding the wire under the door, a hacker could twist and rotate the wire so that the long end touched the door knob. Provided the adhesive on the tape held, a hacker could open the doorknob with a few sharp twists.
When Stallman tried the trick, he found it good but wanting in a few places. Getting the tape to stick wasn’t always easy, and twisting the wire in a way that turned the doorknob was similarly difficult. Stallman remembered that the hallway ceiling possessed tiles that could be slid away. Some hackers, in fact, had used the false ceiling as a way to get around locked doors, an approach that generally covered the perpetrator in fiberglass but got the job done.
Stallman considered an alternative approach. What if, instead of slipping a wire under the door, a hacker slid away one of the panels and stood over the door jamb?
Stallman took it upon himself to try it out. Instead of using a wire, Stallman draped out a long U-shaped loop of magnetic tape, fastening a loop of adhesive tape at the base of the U. Standing over the door jamb, he dangled the tape until it looped under the doorknob. Lifting the tape until the adhesive fastened, he then pulled on the left end of the tape, twisting the doorknob counterclockwise. Sure enough, the door opened. Stallman had added a new twist to the art of lock hacking.
“Sometimes you had to kick the door after you turned the door knob,” says Stallman, recalling the lingering bugginess of the new method. “It took a little bit of balance to pull it off.”
Such activities reflected a growing willingness on Stallman’s part to speak and act out in defense of political beliefs. The AI Lab’s spirit of direct action had proved inspirational enough for Stallman to break out of the timid impotence of his teenage years. Breaking into an office to free a terminal wasn’t the same as taking part in a protest march, but it was effective in ways that most protests weren’t. It solved the problem at hand.
By the time of his last years at Harvard, Stallman was beginning to apply the whimsical and irreverent lessons of the AI Lab back at school.
“Did he tell you about the snake?” his mother asks at one point during an interview. “He and his dorm mates put a snake up for student election. Apparently it got a considerable number of votes.”
Stallman verifies the snake candidacy with a few caveats. The snake was a candidate for election within Currier House, Stallman’s dorm, not the campus-wide student council. Stallman does remember the snake attracting a fairly significant number of votes, thanks in large part to the fact that both the snake and its owner both shared the same last name. “People may have voted for it, because they thought they were voting for the owner,” Stallman says. “Campaign posters said that the snake was ‘slithering for’ the office. We also said it was an ‘at large’ candidate, since it had climbed into the wall through the ventilating unit a few weeks before and nobody knew where it was.”
Running a snake for dorm council was just one of several election-related pranks. In a later election, Stallman and his dorm mates nominated the house master’s son. “His platform was mandatory retirement at age seven,” Stallman recalls. Such pranks paled in comparison to the fake-candidate pranks on the MIT campus, however. One of the most successful fake-candidate pranks was a cat named Woodstock, which actually managed to outdraw most of the human candidates in a campus-wide election. “They never announced how many votes Woodstock got, and they treated those votes as spoiled ballots,” Stallman recalls. “But the large number of spoiled ballots in that election suggested that Woodstock had actually won. A couple of years later, Woodstock was suspiciously run over by a car. Nobody knows if the driver was working for the MIT administration.” Stallman says he had nothing to do with Woodstock’s candidacy, “but I admired it.”8
At the AI Lab, Stallman’s political activities had a sharper-edged tone. During the 1970s, hackers faced the constant challenge of faculty members and administrators pulling an end-run around ITS and its hacker-friendly design. One of the first attempts came in the mid-1970s, as more and more faculty members began calling for a file security system to protect research data. Most other computer labs had installed such systems during late 1960s, but the AI Lab, through the insistence of Stallman and other hackers, remained a security-free zone.
For Stallman, the opposition to security was both ethical and practical. On the ethical side, Stallman pointed out that the entire art of hacking relied on intellectual openness and trust. On the practical side, he pointed to the internal structure of ITS being built to foster this spirit of openness, and any attempt to reverse that design required a major overhaul.
“The hackers who wrote the Incompatible Timesharing System decided that file protection was usually used by a self-styled system manager to get power over everyone else,” Stallman would later explain. “They didn’t want anyone to be able to get power over them that way, so they didn’t implement that kind of a feature. The result was, that whenever something in the system was broken, you could always fix it.”9
Through such vigilance, hackers managed to keep the AI Lab’s machines security-free. Over at the nearby MIT Laboratory for Computer Sciences, however, security-minded faculty members won the day. The LCS installed its first password-based system in 1977. Once again, Stallman took it upon himself to correct what he saw as ethical laxity. Gaining access to the software code that controlled the password system, Stallman implanted a software command that sent out a message to any LCS user who attempted to choose a unique password. If a user entered “starfish,” for example, the message came back something like:
I see you chose the password “starfish.” 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.10
Users who did enter “carriage return”—that is, users who simply pressed the Enter or Return button, entering a blank string instead of a unique password—left their accounts accessible to the world at large. As scary as that might have been for some users, it reinforced the hacker notion that Institute computers, and even Institute computer files, belonged to the public, not private individuals. Stallman, speaking in an interview for the 1984 book Hackers, proudly noted that one-fifth of the LCS staff accepted this argument and employed the blank-string password.11
Stallman’s null-string crusade would prove ultimately futile. By the early 1980s, even the AI Lab’s machines were sporting password-based security systems. Even so, it represents a major milestone in terms of Stallman’s personal and political maturation. To the objective observer familiar with Stallman’s later career, it offers a convenient inflection point between the timid teenager afraid to speak out even on issues of life-threatening importance and the adult activist who would soon turn needling and cajoling into a full-time occupation.
In voicing his opposition to computer security, Stallman drew on many of the forces that had shaped his early life: hunger for knowledge, distaste for authority, and frustration over hidden procedures and rules that rendered some people clueless outcasts. He would also draw on the ethical concepts that would shape his adult life: communal responsibility, trust, and the hacker spirit of direct action. Expressed in software-computing terms, the null string represents the 1.0 version of the Richard Stallman political worldview—incomplete in a few places but, for the most part, fully mature.
Looking back, Stallman hesitates to impart too much significance to an event so early in his hacking career. “In that early stage there were a lot of people who shared my feelings,” he says. “The large number of people who adopted the null string as their password was a sign that many people agreed that it was the proper thing to do. I was simply inclined to be an activist about it.”
Stallman does credit the AI Lab for awakening that activist spirit, however. As a teenager, Stallman had observed political events with little idea as to how a single individual could do or say anything of importance. As a young adult, Stallman was speaking out on matters in which he felt supremely confident, matters such as software design, communal responsibility, and individual freedom. “I joined this community which had a way of life which involved respecting each other’s freedom,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that that was a good thing. It took me longer to come to the conclusion that this was a moral issue.”
Hacking at the AI Lab wasn’t the only activity helping to boost Stallman’s esteem. During the middle of his sophomore year at Harvard, Stallman had joined up with a dance troupe that specialized in folk dances. What began as a simple attempt to meet women and expand his social horizons soon expanded into yet another passion alongside hacking. Dancing in front of audiences dressed in the native garb of a Balkan peasant, Stallman no longer felt like the awkward, uncoordinated 10-year-old whose attempts to play football had ended in frustration. He felt confident, agile, and alive. For a brief moment, he even felt a hint of emotional connection. He soon found being in front of an audience fun, and it wasn’t long thereafter that he began craving the performance side of dancing almost as much as the social side.
Although the dancing and hacking did little to improve Stallman’s social standing, they helped him overcome the feelings of weirdness that had clouded his pre-Harvard life. Instead of lamenting his weird nature, Stallman found ways to celebrate it. In 1977, while attending a science-fiction convention, he came across a woman selling custom-made buttons. Excited, Stallman ordered a button with the words Chapter 4 emblazoned on it.
For Stallman, the “Impeach God” message worked on many levels. An atheist since early childhood, Stallman first saw it as an attempt to set a “second front” in the ongoing debate on religion. “Back then everybody was arguing about God being dead or alive,” Stallman recalls. “‘Impeach God’ approached the subject of God from a completely different viewpoint. If God was so powerful as to create the world and yet do nothing to correct the problems in it, why would we ever want to worship such a God? Wouldn’t it be better to put him on trial?”
At the same time, “Impeach God” was a satirical take on America and the American political system. The Watergate scandal of the 1970s affected Stallman deeply. As a child, Stallman had grown up mistrusting authority. Now, as an adult, his mistrust had been solidified by the culture of the AI Lab hacker community. To the hackers, Watergate was merely a Shakespearean rendition of the daily power struggles that made life such a hassle for those without privilege. It was an outsized parable for what happened when people traded liberty and openness for security and convenience.
Buoyed by growing confidence, Stallman wore the button proudly. People curious enough to ask him about it received the same well-prepared spiel. “My name is Jehovah,” Stallman would say. “I have a special plan to save the universe, but because of heavenly security reasons I can’t tell you what that plan is. You’re just going to have to put your faith in me, because I see the picture and you don’t. You know I’m good because I told you so. If you don’t believe me, I’ll throw you on my enemies list and throw you in a pit where Infernal Revenue Service will audit your taxes for eternity.”
Those who interpreted the spiel as a word-for-word parody of the Watergate hearings only got half the message. For Stallman, the other half of the message was something only his fellow hackers seemed to be hearing. One hundred years after Lord Acton warned about absolute power corrupting absolutely, Americans seemed to have forgotten the first part of Acton’s truism: power, itself, corrupts. Rather than point out the numerous examples of petty corruption, Stallman felt content voicing his outrage toward an entire system that trusted power in the first place.
“I figured why stop with the small fry,” says Stallman, recalling the button and its message. “If we went after Nixon, why not going after Mr. Big. The way I see it, any being that has power and abuses it deserves to have that power taken away.”
Carmine DeSapio holds the dubious distinction of being the first Italian-American boss of Tammany Hall, the New York City political machine. For more information on DeSapio and the politics of post-war New York, see John Davenport, “Skinning the Tiger: Carmine DeSapio and the End of the Tammany Era,” New York Affairs (1975): 3:1.
Chess, another Columbia Science Honors Program alum, describes the protests as “background noise.” “We were all political,” he says, “but the SHP was imporant. We would never have skipped it for a demonstration.”
Levy devotes about five pages to describing Gosper’s fascination with LIFE, a math-based software game first created by British mathematician John Conway. I heartily recommend this book as a supplement, perhaps even a prerequisite, to this one.
I apologize for the whirlwind summary of ITS’ genesis, an operating system many hackers still regard as the epitome of the hacker ethos. For more information on the program’s political significance, see Simson Garfinkel, Architects of the Information Society: Thirty-Five Years of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT (MIT Press, 1999).
In an email shortly after this book went into its final edit cycle, Stallman says he drew political inspiration from the Harvard campus as well. “In my first year of Harvard, in a Chinese History class, I read the story of the first revolt against the Chin dynasty,” he says. “The story is not reliable history, but it was very moving.”
See Steven Levy, Hackers (Penguin USA [paperback], 1984): 417. I have modified this quote, which Levy also uses as an excerpt, to illustrate more directly how the program might reveal the false security of the system. Levy uses the placeholder “[such and such].”