Hacking as critique: In and against

A selected literature review

As I mentioned in my first post of this series, most histories of Hacking begin at MIT in 1961 and make only cursory mention of anything prior to this date. I am interested in what the institutional, political and social conditions were, which gave birth to hacking at that particular time and place. Why MIT? Why 1961? In this series of posts (notes for a journal article), I am focusing on the role of ‘the university’ (i.e. institutionalised academia) in the development of hacker culture. Previously, I suggested that we can take Richard Stallman’s departure from MIT in 1984 as the moment hacker culture became independent from its academic origins and so for two decades, hackers were very much (although not exclusively), part of academic culture and dependent on and subject to the conditions of their institutions. In my last post, I focused on the commercialisation of scientific research and the gradual trend, over many decades, of US universities to valorise their research activity often at the encouragement of government funding agencies. This process took place over a long period as academics and their institutions shifted from an ethos of “communism” or the “communal character of science” (Merton, 1973) to a more entrepreneurial approach to science (Etzkowitz 1998, 2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2002, 2003).

Periods in history do not have clean start and end dates. The conditions which gave rise to moments like the arrival at MIT of the PDP-1 computer (1961) or the departure of Richard Stallman (1984) are, in my view, more important than the mythic “heroes” and “wizards” and “real programmers” if we want to understand why movements and sub-cultures came to exist, why they may have died, and how we can ensure their longevity. Rosenzweig, (1998) provides a useful review of four different approaches to writing the history of the Internet: biographic, bureaucratic, ideological, and social, arguing that

the full story will only be told with a fully contextualised social and cultural history. The rise of the Net needs to be rooted in the 1960s – in both the “closed world” or the Cold War and the open and decentralised world of the antiwar movement and the counterculture. Understanding these dual origins enables us to better understand current controversies over whether the Internet will be “open” or “closed” – over whether the New will foster democratic dialogue or centralised hierarchy, community of capitalism, or some mixture of both (Rosenzweig, 1998, 1531).

Although writing about the history of the Internet and not specifically about hacker culture, the same point can still be made. In my first post, I listed a number of books and articles which discuss hackers and hacking in different ways. Here, I reflect on five of them.

Stephen Levy’s (1984) Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution takes the biographical approach. It is the classic text on hackers and the the only attempt to develop a coherent (albeit brief) history. Its weakness is that it is a journalistic account of those ‘heroes’, making only cursory mention of the institutional, economic and political conditions they were working in. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating account of the motivations of the individuals involved and includes an epilogue which describes the events surrounding the commercialisation of the AI Lab’s Lisp Machines and consequently Stallman’s departure from MIT.

Himanen’s (2001) The Hacker Ethic takes a sociological approach, examining the work of hackers and their values in light of the Protestant work ethic. It is a useful attempt to develop Levy’s chapter on the Hacker Ethic and makes a clear connection between hacker cultures and scientific research culture within academia. However, his description of that academic culture remains inadequate and draws on Merton’s idealised account of the ‘scientific ethos’, which I mentioned in my previous post. As I have already discussed, the outcomes of scientific research have been the objects of proprietary control (patents and licensing), property (copyright) and valorisation since the early twentieth century in the USA. It is the achievement of hackers like Richard Stallman, who subverted these controls with the development of the General Public License, that distinguishes hackers from the scientific culture they grew out of and more recently is forcing the scientific community to re-evaluate the value of “the communal character of science”, as can be seen in the growth of the Open Access movement and recent ‘Science as an open enterprise‘ report.

Tim Jordan’s 2008 book, Hacking, is a short, general introduction to hacker and cracker culture and provides an insightful and useful discussion around hacking and technological determinism. Like Himanen, Tim Jordan is also a sociologist and presents a positive account of hacking as a social and political project. The weakness of Jordan’s book is that is draws largely on literature written by hackers themselves and as such presents them as heroic “warriors” and “hacktivists”, in the same tradition as Levy and Himanen. What makes Jordan’s book particularly valuable is his argument that “hacking both refutes and demands technological determinism”. That is, hackers both promote the idea of technological determinism and provide a critique of that view.

To me, this suggests that hackers work both in and against a society that appears to be determined by technology but provide an example of how that often overwhelming feeling can be challenged and subverted. From this position, hacker culture can be seen as one of the most successful counter-culture movements in recent history, yet one which continues to struggle within a liberal, capitalist world view, dominated by money/value, property and the legal system.

In a similar way, E. Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2012) is especially useful in identifying hackers and hacking as a liberal critique of liberalism. Coleman’s book is an anthropological study of hackers, in particular the free software hackers of the Debian Linux/GNU operating system and points towards a methodological approach of examining hacker culture and other counter-cultures that are ‘in and against’ a dominant discourse. One particular instrument that hackers employ is Stallman’s ‘copyleft‘ GPL license, which uses the existing law of copyright against itself. Similarly, Creative Commons and the Free Culture movement extend this approach beyond the software domain to all cultural artefacts. By examining the hacker culture in this way, we can reveal its limits and the opportunities that the movement presents within liberal capitalist society.

Johan Soderberg’s (2008) Hacking Capitalism is a study of hacking as a political project. In the first chapter, Soderberg offers a ‘background of the hacker movement’ but only briefly mentions the ‘pre-history’ which I am concerned with. He rightly mentions the development of the telephone infrastructure, Norbert Wiener’s theory of Cybernetics and its application in war-time funded research projects, which would eventually go on to develop the Internet. He also identifies the anti-war and appropriate technologies movements as examples of how  personal computing grew out of 1960s counter-culture (Turner and Markoff provide full accounts of this). However, much of Soderberg’s book is an examination of hacking using the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy (class, value, labour, commodities, etc.). In doing so, it is the only book-length study of hacking which attempts to methodologically examine hacking from the point of view of a critique of liberalism, rather than starting from a naturalised liberal understanding of categories such as property, work, production and exchange. For this reason, it is an important book (in need of a good editor!).

This very brief survey of five key books about hacker culture demonstrates that Rosenzweig’s remark about histories of the Internet can equally be applied to hacking. Taken together, they reveal that in addition to the substantive body of biographical, social and institutional history, the history of hacking can be approached methodologically in two critically different ways: The first (embodied in Levy and Himanen’s books) offers a view of hacker culture from a liberal perspective. Despite being mischievous, playful and meritocratic it’s ethic is grounded in laissez-faire liberal ideals of property, markets and freedom. The conclusion to Jordan’s book offers a methodological bridge to that which Coleman develops more broadly and Soderberg develops more fully. That is, a study of hacker culture can reveal to us an immanent critique of liberal capitalism: it is a culture that is both in and against; it is complicit but points to a way out through the development of intellectual and practical tools such as Copyleft and the sharing and co-production of open source software. The development of this more critical approach to the study of hackers and hacking is overdue and should result in a much stronger defence of free software and hacker culture as it is increasingly incorporated and subsumed into neo-liberal policy and methods of valorisation.

My next post in this series will be about hackers and war.

Hacking and the commercialisation of scientific research

I began this series of blog posts (my notes for a journal article), first outlining what might be considered the ‘flight of hackers’ from the university in the early 1980s, with the aim to then work backwards and establish the role of ‘the university’ (e.g. academia) in the development of hacker culture.  My second post began to focus on the role of MIT in particular, as a model of the ‘entrepreneurial university’ which other US universities copied and the generalisation of this model through the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980s. Next, I had intended to move on to discuss the role of military funding which underwrote the AI lab at MIT where Richard Stallman, “the last of the true hackers”, worked (Levy, 1984). However, I will leave that blog post for another day as there is more to say on the commercialisation of scientific research up to 1980, which I would argue played a significant role in the birth of hacking in academia (often regarded as 1961) and its agonising split when Stallman left his ‘Garden of Eden’ at MIT in 1984.

Until now, I have been drawing heavily on the work of Etzkowitz (2004), who has written about the rise of ‘entrepreneurial science’ at MIT and then Stanford. He draws upon the work of Mowery et al (2004) who provide an excellent account of the growth of patenting up to and in light of the Bayh-Dole Act. My interest is in their discussion of patenting prior to the 1980 Act, just four years before Stallman left MIT. As I wrote in my previous post, Stallman does not think that the Bahy-Dole Act had a direct impact on the “software war of 1982/83″, which makes sense in light of both Etzkowitz’s and Mowery’s accounts. By the time of the Bayh-Dole Act, MIT had been gradually internalising the commercialisation of its academic endeavours for decades, as had many other large research universities in the US, and Mowery concludes that the effect of the Act has been “exaggerated”  and that “much of the post-1980 upsurge in university patenting and licensing, we believe, would have occurred without the Act and reflects broader developments in federal policy and academic research.”

In this post, I want to highlight those broader developments in order to provide a richer account of the development of hacker culture, which although took flight from the university in 1984, has very much returned in the last decade with the growth of the ‘openness’ agenda and the development of initiatives such as open education, OER, MOOCs and open data.

Of course, hackers never left the university entirely, but the early 1980s does seem to mark a point where hacker culture assumed an independence from academic culture, a division we might relate to the later tension between ‘free software’ and ‘open source’ hackers. This tension between ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’ has been described by Stallman as a conflict in emphasis between the “ideas of freedom, community, and principle” (free software) and “the potential to make high quality, powerful software” (open source). Although the free software hackers have never wholly shunned the support of business, it is clear that Stallman believes the primary focus should be a moral and ethical one and that an emphasis on business concerns “can be disastrous” to the ideals of the free software movement.

This value-based conflict over the relationship between hackers and business is also found among academics today, with some resisting the gradual move to an ‘entrepreneurial university’ model, while others welcome it (see Etzkowitz 1998, 2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2002, 2003). In the US, the rise of ‘entrepreneurial science’ can be traced right back to the founding of the Land Grant universities, which I mentioned in my earlier post. Here, I want to focus specifically on the key instrument by which the commercialisation of science takes place: patents and their use in ‘technology transfer’ to industry. I should note that terms such as ‘entrepreneurial university’ and ‘technology transfer’ are not value-free and through discussing their historical development we might subject the development of hacker culture to a similar critique that Slaughter and Leslie have applied to ‘Academic Capitalism‘. In this post, I am developing the basis for that critique.

Patents as public good

Chapters 2-4 of Mowery’s book covers the history of patenting by US universities in great detail, pointing to the Morrill Act (1862) and the remit of Land Grant universities to serve their local regions by supporting agriculture and engineering (the ‘mechanical arts’). The book’s authors point to key “structural characteristics” of US higher education which laid the groundwork for later commercialisation of scientific research. First, with the introduction of the land grants, US high education has been notable for its scale and the autonomy of its institutions, devolving the responsibility of administering federal funds to the respective state governments. However, this autonomy came with a keenly felt responsibility to the local region and the founders and later Presidents of Land Grant universities, like MIT, understood their obligation to meet the needs of their local communities. This is evident in the land grant universities’ “utilitarian orientation to science” (10) and tendency to provide vocational education, combining training with research in methods to improve agriculture (12). Finally, US higher education was characterised by “the emergence of a unified national market for faculty at US research universities.” (13) Compared to other national systems of higher education, the departmental structures of US universities and the corresponding division into disciplinary degree programmes meant that academics focused on their contribution to their discipline over and above their institution. This resulted in a greater inter-institutional movement among academics and therefore a greater diffusion of ideas and research practices. Combined with the tendency to applied science and vocational education, this also led to a “rapid dissemination of new research findings into industrial practice – the movement of graduates into industrial employment.” (13) Mowery argues that these characteristics of US higher education

“created powerful incentives for university researchers and administrators to establish close relationships with industry. They also motivated university researchers to seek commercial applications for university developed inventions, regardless of the presence or absence of formal patent protection.” (13).

In effect, the discipline of engineering and the practice of applied science became institutionalised within US higher education, with MIT, founded in 1865, being one of the first universities to offer engineering courses. By offering its first electrical engineering course in 1882, “schools like MIT had become the chief suppliers of electrical engineers” (p 15, Mowery quoting Wildes and Lingren) in the US by the 1890s, meeting a national need by an emerging electricity-based industries. I will address the growth of Engineering as a discipline and the political tension within the discipline in a later post as it seems to me that a counter-culture among Engineers can be found in hackers today.

The moral dilemma that Stallman faced during the “software wars of 1982/83″ is familiar to many academics and the “patent problem” has been the subject of much heated debate throughout the history of the modern university (see Mowery, ch. 3). In the US, although universities have worked in collaboration with industry since the founding of the land grant institutions, they remained sensitive to the handling of commercial contracts until the early 1970s, when the commercialisation of science was internalised in the structures and processes of university research administration. Debates often focused around the pros and cons of patenting inventions derived from research, with some academics believing that patents were necessary to protect the reputation of the institutions, for fear that the invention might be “wrongfully appropriated” by a “patent pirate” (Mowery, p. 36). Thus, the argument for patenting research inventions was based on the necessity of ‘quality control’, thereby preventing the “incompetent exploitation of academic research that might discredit the research results and the university.” (37). This view saw patents as a way to “enhance the public good” and “advance social welfare” by protecting the invention from “pirates” who might otherwise patent the invention themselves and charge extortionate prices. Within the early pre-WWII debates around the use of patents by US universities, it was this moral argument of protecting a public good that led to patents being licensed widely and for low or no royalties. In fact, the few universities that began to apply for patents on their inventions did so through the Research Corporation, rather than directly themselves, so as to publicly demonstrate that their work was not corrupted by money.

The Research Corporation

The Research Corporation (see Mowery, ch. 4) was established by Frederick Cottrell of the University of California at Berkeley in 1912. Cottrell had received six patents for his work on the electrostatic precipitator and felt strongly that his research would receive more widespread utility if it were patented than if it were provided to the public for free. His view was that research placed in the public domain was not exploited effectively: “what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business.” (Mowery, quoting Cottrell, p. 59). However, Cottrell did not wish to involve university administrators in the management of the patents as he also believed that this would set a dangerous precedent of too closely involving non-academics in the scientific endeavours of researchers. He worried that it would place an expectation on academics to continue to produce work of commercial value, increasing the “possibility of growing commercialism and competition between institutions and an accompanying tendency for secrecy in scientific work.” (Mowery, quoting Cottrell, p. 60)

Cottrell’s intentions appear to have been sincere. He was not interested in any significant personal accumulation of wealth derived from his patents and believed that the scientific endeavour and the public would benefit from the protection given by patents, but they required an independent organisation to manage them. Cottrell founded the Research Corporation to meet these beliefs and donated his patents to the Corporation in the form of an endowment to manage and re-distribute income received as research grants. Cottrell regarded the formation of the Research Corporation as “a sort of laboratory of patent economics” and from its inception, states Mowery, “he envisioned the Research Corporation as an entity that would develop and disseminate techniques for managing intellectual property of research universities and similar organisations.” (60)

During its 70 year history, this “laboratory of patent economics” found it difficult to sustain its activity, despite a number of changes in approach. In its early pre-WWII period, it was an incubator for commercial applications of Cottrell’s patents, employing 45 engineers within the first five years, who not only designed applications for the use of precipitators, but installed them for clients, too. When Cottrell’s endowment to the Corporation began to run out, the organisation looked to researchers in other technology fields to donate their inventions. In effect, it seems the Corporation began to acquire patents so as they could afford to keep managing existing patents with dwindling returns and continue its philanthropic mission. The Research Corporation attracted a number of donations of patents from researchers with similar philanthropic agendas, as Mowery notes:

The expanding research collaboration between US universities and industry and the related growth of science-based industry increased the volume of commercially valuable academic research in the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in more and more requests from academic inventors to the Research Corporation for assistance in the management of patenting and licensing. (62)

So, for the first couple of decades of the Corporation, much of the income which sustained the organisation came from its work relating to Cottrell’s original precipitator inventions. As these revenues decreased, the Research Corporation looked for other sources of income. This coincided with the Great Depression and a time when universities were struggling to remain solvent, which was the situation at MIT. Rather than merge with Harvard, its President, Karl Compton, charged Vannevar Bush, then Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering, with developing a patent policy for the university. With this, MIT asserted an institutional claim on any invention resulting from research funded by the university. However, the patent committee recommended that MIT should be relieved “of all responsibility in connection with the exploitation of inventions while providing for a reasonable proportionate return to the Institute in all cases in which profit shall ensue.” (Mowery, 64) To undertake this, MIT drew up an ‘Invention Administration Agreement’ (IAA) with the Research Corporation, which not only created a precedent for other universities, but also marked a clear shift from the individual ownership of research inventions, many of which were donated to the Corporation by philanthropic academics, to institutional ownership, which anticipated an income from that research (a 60/40 split between MIT and the Corporation). As a result, Cottrell’s original vision of creating an independent charitable organisation that turned patent income into grants for further scientific work, had to meet the challenges of the Depression and the the unpredictable nature of successfully exploiting research.

MIT institutionalised the relationship with Research Corporation, using it to exclusively manage its patents from 1937 to 1946, eventually cancelling its contract with the Corporation in 1963, by which time concerns about directly managing the commercial exploitation of its research had largely disappeared and the in-house skills to undertake the necessary administration had been developed over the course of their relationship with the Research Corporation. The partnership between MIT and the Research Corporation was never very profitable, with the Corporation making net losses during the decade that it exclusively managed MIT’s patents. However, during and following WWII, the scale of research activity in US universities markedly increased. Mowery notes that

the expansion of military and biomedical research conducted in US universities during and after the war had increased the pool of potentially patentable academic inventions, and federal funding agencies compelled universities to develop formal patent policies during the early post-war period. The Research Corporation negotiated IAAs, modelled on the MIT agreement, with several hundred other US universities during the 1940s and 1950s. (66)

The history of the Research Corporation, as told by Mowery et al, is a fascinating one, pointing to the difficulties in successfully commercialising research through the licensing of patents. During 1945 to 1980 the top five patents held by the Corporation accounted for the majority of its income and “although its portfolio of institutional agreements, patents, and licenses grew during the 1950s, growth in net revenues proved elusive.” (69)

The latter years of the Research Corporation were spent trying to build relationships with university staff in an effort to develop the necessary skills to identify potentially commercial inventions across different research disciplines. Ironically, in its attempt to off-load some of the administrative costs to institutions the Corporation effectively trained university administrators to manage without its assistance, eroding the competitive advantage that the Corporation previously held. During the 1970s, universities were also ‘cherry picking’ inventions to patent themselves, rather than the Research Corporation, in an effort to benefit from all of the potential revenue rather than a cut of it. “The Research Corporation’s 1975 Annual Report noted that many universities were beginning to withhold valuable inventions.” (Mowery, 77) This can be seen as a clear indication that the earlier concerns about universities directly exploiting their research had been largely overcome, and that during the 1960s and 1970s, the institutional structures and skills within the larger research universities like MIT, had been put in place, partly with the assistance of the Research Corporation.

Conclusion

The institutionalised commercialisation of research at MIT began in the 1930s, when MIT had developed one of the first university patent policies, clearly indicating that the institution had a claim to the profits deriving from its research activity. Richard Stallman joined the DARPA-funded AI Lab at MIT as a Research Assistant in 1971, eight years after MIT had cancelled its Agreement with the Research Corporation and fully internalised the process of identifying and managing patents. In this respect, MIT was at the forefront of a movement among US universities to systematically commercialise their research – to engage in ‘entrepreneurial science’ – where research groups are run as de facto firms (Etkowitz 2003). The military-funded work in Artificial Intelligence during the 1970s, which Stallman contributed to, can be understood within the context of the academy’s role in supporting the Cold War effort (Leslie, 1994; Chomsky et al, 1997; Simpson, 1998). This programme of funded research across a number of disciplines consequently increased the number of commercial opportunities (‘technology transfers’), not least in the fields of electronics, engineering and the emerging discipline of computer science. Indeed, Symbolics, the company which was spun off from the AI Lab in the early 1980s, attracting most of Stallman’s fellow hackers, produced Lisp Machines for the Cold War military market in Artificial Intelligence, eventually going bust when the Cold War ended.

My point in discussing the rise in the use of patents to exploit government funded research in US universities during the twentieth century is to show how the split that took place in the AI Lab in the early 1980s, devastating Stallman and compelling him to leave, was a result of a long process of US universities, led by MIT, internalising the idea, skills and processes by which to make money from research. Just as the development of Land Grant universities and the practice of applied science, patronised by vast sums of government funding, gave birth to hacker culture in the early 1960s, that culture remained tied to structural changes taking place within US higher education during the 1960s and 1970s and a shift towards entrepreneurialism. Stallman’s ‘Garden of Eden’ was, I think, always going to be a short-lived experience as he joined MIT at the beginning of a decade where government funding from the three defence, space and energy agencies was on the decline from a peak of 80% of all federal funding in 1954 to 30% in 1970. As funding in these areas was on the decline and the licensing of patents and overall share of research funding coming from industry was on the rise (see Mowery et al 23-27), it seems inevitable that the institution which had given birth to hacking in the early 1960s would try to valorise the work of these researchers as optimally as it could. Stallman has said that he and his colleagues did not object to the commercialisation of their work, but the instruments of this advancing entrepreneurialism (patents, copyright, licenses) were at odds with at least one of the long established “institutional imperatives” of scientific practice: “Communism” (Merton, 1973).

In a sincere yet novel way, Frederick Cottrell recognised this in 1912, when he established the Research Corporation as a charity and donated his patents so as to benefit public social welfare and provide philanthropic grants for further scientific work. However, twenty years later, in the midst of the Depression, MIT asserted institutional interest in the ‘intellectual property’ of its researchers and sought a majority cut of the income deriving from its patents. It took a further three decades or so for MIT to relinquish the use of the Research Corporation altogether and fully institutionalise the commercial exploitation of scientific research. Writing in 1973, Merton’s “communism” as a foundation of the scientific ethos seems both an ironic use of the term given that most scientific research in the US was being funded through the Cold War agencies, and removed from the reality of what was happening within institutions as they advanced ‘entrepreneurial science’. Merton understood this, and his description of the “communal character of science” (Merton, 274) surely refers more to a liberal ideal than actual practice, just as Stallman’s characterisation of ‘freedom’ draws heavily on liberal political philosophy but is continuously confronted with the reality of capitalist valorisation. A blog post for another day…

The ‘MIT model’ and the history of hacker culture

Lisp Machines Inc. brochure

Lisp Machines Inc. brochure

In my previous post from this series, I outlined a period in the early 1980s when the work of hackers at MIT was commercialised through the use of venture capital and as a result, those hackers stopped sharing code. As a response to this, Richard Stallman left MIT to start the GNU project and within a few years had created the GPL ‘copyleft’ license, the most popular open source license in use today.

I concluded by pointing to the Bayh-Dole Act (1980) as an event that is worth understanding when examining the role of universities in the history of hacker culture. In this post, I want to outline what I mean by this and throw out a few ideas that, I admit, need to be more fully explored.

The Bayh-Dole Act

The Bayh-Dole Act was enacted by US Congress in December 1980 to clarify title of ownership and encourage universities to freely exploit the IP they generated through government funded research. Until that time IP arising from research that was federally funded was, by default, owned by the government and it was left to each federal agency to determine IP arrangements. Since WWII, the majority of research taking place in US universities was (and remains) government funded and in the midst of the industrial downturn of the 1970s, IP resulting from research was recognised as an under-exploited source of national economic potential.1

As an aside, in the UK, the Patent Act of 1977 gave employers the legal entitlement to employees’ inventions, but it wasn’t until the Department of Trade and Industry’s White Paper, Realising our Potential (1993), that universities were encouraged to pursue patents arising from their research. Similarly, other countries followed the Bayh-Dole Act in the 1990s and 2000s.2 Until that time, the title to IP generated by publicly funded research in UK universities was usually controlled by the National Research Development Corporation (1948-1981), the National Enterprise Board (1975-1981) or the British Technology Group (under public ownership from 1981-1991).

Similarly, prior to the Bayh-Dole Act in the US, federally funded IP was first controlled by the National Defence Research Committee (NDRC) (1940-1947), then the Office for Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) (1941-1947), and then by several organisations: the NSF, NIH, DOD, NASA, DOE, USDA and others.3 Etzkowitz has noted that despite significant levels of federal funding to US universities since WWII, in 1978, less than 4% of government-owned patents had been licensed. By creating a mechanism for universities to own the title to their research, the Bayh-Dole Act provided an incentive and driver for institutional change and whereas “previously only very few universities had the interest and capabilities to patent and license technology invented on campus”, during 1980-1990, the number of universities with technology transfer offices went from 25 to 200. Etzkowitz argues that this played a role in the development of Silicone Valley and made research universities “an explicit part of the US innovation system by restructuring the relationship among university, industry and government.” Out of the Bayh-Dole Act, arose incubators, research parks, technology transfer arrangements and other entrepreneurial features of modern universities.

When I began to think about the Bayh-Dole Act, I wondered what effect it might have had on Richard Stallman, who around the same time as the Act was in place, saw hackers leaving the AI Lab and joining two start-up companies (Lisp Machines Inc. and Symbolics Inc.) which were pursuing the exploitation of government-funded research and development that originated at MIT.  Was the Bayh-Dole Act a catalyst in the development of the GNU project? The answer was, no, not really. In pursuing this line of inquiry I contacted Stallman who said that he wasn’t aware of the Bayh-Dole Act at that time.

“In 1980 we all supported commercial fabrication of Lisp machines, because we wanted people to be able to buy them.  Thus, no pressure on us was needed on that particular point. Only the details were controversial.  And we did not foresee the consequences. It could be that MIT’s method of releasing the source code to the two competing companies, which both made it proprietary and set the stage for the software war of 82/83, was facilitated in some way by Bayh-Dole. But I don’t know whether that is so.”4

Stallman’s reply is a consistent reminder that his work has never been in opposition to the commercial exploitation of software, but rather the prevention of restrictions on freedom. Although there were clearly differences of opinion among MIT hackers about the way in which Lisp Machines should be commercialised, with a minority opposed to VC funding, the culture of MIT in 1980 was such that the Bayh-Dole Act was following MIT, rather than imposing anything significantly different onto its technology transfer processes. The Act was certainly one of several instruments that provided clarity around the ownership and commercial potential of software and other IP during that period (others were the Copyright Act of 1976 and two amendments in 1980), and by requiring all US universities to consider ways in which government funded research could be commercially exploited, research was to some extent marketised, creating a more intensive environment for technology transfer in which MIT and other universities found themselves competing. Etzkowitz summarises this as follows:

“Starting from practices developed early in the twentieth century at MIT, university technology transfer had become [with the Bayh-Dole Act] a significant input into industrial development. William Barton Roger’s mid-nineteenth-century vision of a university that would infuse industry with new technology has become universalied from a single school to the entire US academic research system. Greatly expanded with federal research funding, the US academic enterprise has become a key element of an indirect US industrial policy, involving university, industry and government. The origins and effects of the Bayh-Dole Act are a significant chapter in the spread of the MIT model and the rise of entrepreneurial science.” (Etzkowitz, 113)

The question then, is not about what effect the Bayh-Dole Act had on Stallman and his fellow hackers in 1980, but rather what was the ‘MIT model’, which was later universalised by the Bayh-Dole Act, and what unique role did the ‘MIT model’ play in the history of hacker culture?

The MIT model

MIT began as a ‘Land Grant’ university, partially funded by a government grant to establish science-based universities which would “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”5 while undertaking research to improve agriculture. Land Grants were provided under the Morrill Act of 1862 and were a response to many years of campaigning by farmers and agriculturalists for research institutions that would contribute to the improvement of US farming. The Act led to States being allocated federal land which was to be sold or donated in order to establish such universities. The European Polytechnic movement was also gaining popularity in the US and seen as a model for new applied science universities in contrast to the largely teaching universities that existed at that time. Following the Morrill Act, the Hatch Act (1867) and Smith Lever Act (1918) again encouraged applied research in US universities as well as building capacity for technology transfers, again with a specific focus on the needs of agriculture.

Until the Land Grant universities of the late 19th century, there were no ‘research universities’ in the US and even academic staff dedicated to research were rare.6 Founded as both a teaching and research university with a remit to undertake applied science that could be transferred to industry, MIT has always had close contact with private enterprise; from early on in its history MIT had employed engineers from industry as members of its academic faculty. By the 1920s, these academics were noted for their consulting activities to the extent that there was tension within MIT between academics who felt that it was their job to focus on teaching and the needs of students, and those who spent a significant portion of their time focusing on the needs of industry. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, MIT was forced to confront this issue as it was accused by private consultants of effectively subsidizing academics to consult, amounting to unfair competition. As a result, a policy was established called the ‘one fifth rule’, whereby MIT academics could spend a day a week using MIT resources to undertake consulting services. “Such activities as providing advice, testing materials in university laboratories and solving problems at company sites had become so much a part of the work of academic engineering professors that it proved impossible to disentangle them from the academic role. Prominent professors felt that their connection to the industrial world through consultation was essential to their research and teaching.”7 The role of academics acting as consultants is now commonplace in universities but in the US, it was at MIT where the practice was first formalised.

To protect and further exploit the industrial research undertaken, the first patent policy at MIT was developed in 1932.  Such a policy allowed MIT to assert ownership of its research, which at that time was mostly internally funded, rather than it being freely exploited by industry partners. With a patent policy in place, MIT could license its research to industry and control its intellectual property.

To support this academic-industrial partnership, MIT was one of the first universities to establish a department to handle its commercial contracts and its Division of Industrial Cooperation (DIC) later became the model by which the government provided research funding for all other universities. Being unique among universities in having such a department, MIT was in an advantageous position when the US entered WWII. Between 1940 and 1942, MIT’s research funding increased from $105,000 to $5.2M (c. x50!) thanks to its foresight in starting internally-funded military research early and having bureaucratic processes in place to handle the large increase in research contracts. Prior to WWII, there was little government funding of research outside of the land-grant interests of agriculture with around 5% of university funding coming from government and 40% of that relating to agriculture. Since 1946 federal funding to US universities has risen to between 12% and 26% of income, settling, on average, at around 15% in the 1980s; this funding is dispersed very unevenly and MIT is always one of the top recipients.8

There is much to say (in a later post) about what gave MIT the privileged position as a centre for government research during WWII, which led to the formation of military-funded Labs such as that which Stallman worked in during the 1970s.  By 1940, through its entrepreneurial efforts, which I have just skimmed over here, MIT had become the model for the military-industrial-academic relationship which has continued to this day.

An entrepreneurial environment

In 1978, the AI Lab received additional DARPA funding for Lisp Machines and in 1979 discussions began taking place within the Lab about the commercialisation of Lisp Machines. Differences emerged between Noftsker and Greenblatt around the form that commercialisation should take and this delayed the enterprises until 1981. It would be interesting to know whether the Bayh-Dole Act did help crystallise decision-making among AI Lab management at that time, although more likely it was the knowledge that Xerox had developed a Lisp Machine in 1979 that caused Noftsker and Greenblatt to consider commercialising their work. Tom Knight, who with Greenblatt was the original designer of MIT’s Lisp Machine, has said that in the late 1970s, “MIT was not in the business of making computers for other labs, and was not about to build them”9 but as external demand for them grew, Noftsker and Greenblatt developed their own responses in the form of Symbolics Inc. and Lisp Machines Inc. and Stallman’s hacker community began to crumble.

Stallman worked to keep the Lisp Machine source code free to share until 1983, when, presumably, he saw little hope of reforming the community of hackers that he longed for and could see that academic culture and the intellectual property regime had changed in ways that were no longer compatible with sharing software. MIT’s long history of entrepreneurialism and the more recent obligation to commercialise government-funded research suggests to me that the writing was on the wall for Stallman and the free sharing of source code within academia until the late 1980s when responses from within academia to this new regime were created: The GPL (GNU), BSD (University of California, Berkeley) and MIT licenses.

The ‘MIT model’, later universalised within the US as the Bayh-Dole Act, provided universities with the legal means and obligation to exploit federally-funded research. In doing so, it established not just a mechanism for patenting but an academic environment that was overall more entrepreneurial as it allowed universities to create partnerships with individual academics who would themselves profit from their research. Researchers working at MIT in the 1970s, were encouraged and well-supported to look for commercial opportunities deriving from their work. What the Bayh-Dole Act did for MIT and other universities, was provide clarification and incentives for exploiting government-funded R&D, which were previously absent. As Etzkowitz states: “In addition to rationalising and legitimsing university patenting and licensing, the law induced a phsychological change in attitudes towards technology transfer as well as an organisational change in encouraging the creation of offices for this purpose.” (p.114)

In my next post, I shall address the role of military funding in the development of hacker culture and the Labs which became playgrounds for hacking.

  1. In 2004 it was 62% of all university research. See AAU (2006) University Research: The Role of Government Funding []
  2. Rigby and Ramlogan outline this in the 2012 report, Compendium of Evidence on the Effectiveness of Innovation Policy Intervention: Support Measures for Exploiting Intellectual Property. []
  3. See Mowery, (2004) Ivory Tower and Industrial Innovation: University-Industry Technology Transfer Before and After the Bayh-Dole Act. []
  4. Email from Stallman, 19th December 2012 []
  5. Read a transcript of the Morrill Act []
  6. Richard C. Atkinson, William A. Blanpied (2008), Research Universities: Core of the US science and technology system []
  7. Etzkowitz, 37 []
  8. See Lewontin in The Cold War and the University []
  9. If It Works, It’s Not AI: A Commercial Look at Artificial Intelligence Startups []

The role of the university in the development of hacker culture

PDP-10

A PDP-10 computer from the 1970s.

The picture above is of a PDP-10 computer similar to that found in universities during the 1970s. The PDP-10 was developed between 1968-1983 by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and is a useful point of reference for looking backwards and forwards through the history of hacking.  The PDP-10 (and its predecessor the PDP-6) were two of the first ‘time-sharing‘ computers, which among other significant technological developments, increased access to computers at MIT. Hackers working in the MIT Artifical Intelligence Lab (AI Lab) wrote their own operating system for the PDP-6 and PDP-10 called ITS, the Incompatible Timesharing System, to replace the Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS) developed by MIT’s Computation Centre. Richard Stallman, who Levy describes as “the last true hacker”, was a graduate student and then AI Lab staff system hacker who devoted his time to improving ITS and writing applications to run on the computer. Stallman describes the Lab during the 13 years he worked there as “like the Garden of Eden”, a paradise where a community of hackers shared their work.

However, this period came to a bitter end in 1981, when most of the hackers working with Stallman left to join two companies spun off from the Lab. Four left to join Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI), led by Stallman’s mentor, the ‘hacker’s hacker’, Richard Greenblatt, while 14 of the AI Lab staff left to join Symbolics, Inc. a company led by Russell Noftsker, who was Head of the AI Lab for eight years and had hired Stallman. (Noftsker had taken over from the original Director, Marvin Minsky, who worked on MIT’s DARPA-funded Project MAC, which later became the AI Lab). For a while in 1979, Noftsker and Greenblatt discussed setting up a company together that sold Lisp Machines, but they disagreed on how to initially fund the business. Greenblatt wanted to rely on reinvesting early customer orders and retain full control over the company while Noftsker was keen to use a larger amount of venture capital, accepting that some control of the company would be given up to the investors. Greenblatt and Noftsker couldn’t agree and so set up companies independent of each other, attracting most of the ITS hackers in the AI Lab to the extent that Stallman’s beloved community collapsed. With maintenance and development of ITS decimated, administrators of the AI Lab decided to switch to TOPS-20, DEC’s proprietary operating system when a new PDP-10 was purchased in 1982. A year later, DEC ceased production of the PDP-10 which Stallman described as “the last nail in the coffin of ITS; 15 years of work went up in smoke.”

Lisp Machines went bankrupt in 1985 while Symbolics remained active until the end of the Cold War when the military’s appetite for AI technologies slowed down and subsequently the company declined. One more thing worth noting about these two AI Lab spin-offs is that within a year of doing business, Stallman and Symbolics clashed over matters of sharing code. Having been deserted by his fellow hackers, Stallman made efforts to ensure that everyone continued to benefit from Symbolics enhancements to the Lisp Machine code, regularly merging Symbolics code with MIT’s version, which Greenblatt’s company used. Stallman was acting as a middle-man between the two code bases and the split community of hackers. Like other MIT customers, Symbolics licensed the Lisp Machine code from MIT and began to insist that their changes to the source code could not be redistributed beyond MIT, thereby cutting off Greenblatt’s Lisp Machines, Inc. and other MIT customers. Stallman’s efforts to keep the old AI Lab hacker community together through the sharing of distributed code came to an end.

In an essay by Stallman, he writes about how this was a defining moment in his life from which he resolved to start the GNU Project and write his own ‘free’ operating system. In 1984, Stallman left his job at MIT so as to ensure that the university didn’t have any claim to the copyright of his work, however he remained as a guest of the AI Lab at the invitation of the Director, Patrick Winston, and still does so today. If you are at all familiar with the history of free software and the open source movement, you will know that Stallman went on to develop the General Public License in the late 1980s, which has become the most popular open source license in use today. Advocates of open education will know that the GPL was the inspiration for the development of Creative Commons licenses in 2001. Arguably, the impact of spinning off Lisp Machines and Symbolics from the AI Lab in 1981 is still being felt and the 18 hackers that left to join those divergent startups can be considered as paradigmatic for many hackers since, conscious of whether they are working on shared, open source software or proprietary software.

Everything I have described above can be easily pieced together in a few hours from existing sources. What is never discussed in the literature of hacking is the institutional, political and legal climate during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and indeed the decades prior to this period that led to that moment for Stallman in 1984. In fact, most histories of hacking begin at MIT in 1961 with the Tech Model Railroad Club and, understandably, concentrate on the personalities and development of an ethic within the hacker community. What is never mentioned is what led to Greenblatt and Noftsker deciding to leave that ‘Garden of Eden’ and establish firms. What instruments at that time encouraged and permitted these men to commercialise their work at MIT? Much of what I have written above can be unravelled several decades to show how instrumental the development of higher education in the USA during the 20th century was to the creation of a hacker culture. The commercialisation of applied research; the development of Cybernetic theory and its influence on systems thinking, information theory and Artificial Intelligence; the vast sums of government defense funding poured into institutions such as MIT since WWII; the creation of the first venture capital firm by Harvard and MIT; and most recently, the success of Y-Combinator, the seed investment firm that initially sought to fund student hackers during their summer break, are all part of the historiography of hacking and the university.

Over the next few blog posts I will attempt to critically develop this narrative in more detail, starting with a discussion of the Bayh-Dole Act, introduced in 1980.

References

I’ve linked almost exclusively to Wikipedia articles in this blog post. It’s a convenient source that allows one to quickly sketch an idea. Much needs to be done to verify that information. There are a few books worth pointing out at this introductory stage of the narrative I’m trying to develop.

The classic journalistic account of the history of hacking is by Stephen Levy (1984) Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution. I found this book fascinating, but it begins in 1958 with the Tech Model Railroad Club (chapter 1) and doesn’t offer any real discussion about the institutional and political cultures of the time which allowed a ‘hacker ethic’ (chapter 2) to emerge.

Eric Raymond’s writings are also worth reading. Raymond is a programmer and as a member of the hacker tradition has made several attempts to document it, including the classic account of the Linux open source project, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and as Editor of the Jargon File, a glossary of hacker slang. Again, Raymond’s Brief History of Hackerdom, begins in the early 1960s with the Tech Model Railroad Club and does not reflect on the events leading up to that moment in history.

Another useful and influential book on hackers and hacking is Himanen (2001) The Hacker Ethic. Himanen is a sociologist and examines the meaning of the work of hackers and their values in light of the Protestant work ethic.

Tim Jordan’s 2008 book, Hacking, is a general introduction to hacker and cracker culture and provides an insightful and useful discussion around hacking and technological determinism. Like Himanen, Tim Jordan is also a sociologist.

Stallman’s book, Free Software Free Society (2002), offers a useful direct account of his time at MIT in chapter 1.

Sam Williams’ biography of Stallman, Free as In Freedom (2002), later revised by Stallman in collaboration with Williams (2010), is essential reading. Chapter 7 ‘A Stark Moral Choice’, offers a good account of the break up of Stallman’s hacker paradise in the early 1980s.

E. Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2012) is an anthropological study of hackers, in particular the free software hackers of the Debian Linux/GNU operating system. Coleman’s book is especially useful as she identifies hackers and hacking as a liberal critique of liberalism. This might then be usefully extended to other movements that hackers have influenced such as Creative Commons.

The Student as Producer

We were recently unsuccessful in an application to JISC for a Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant. Nevertheless, the project is one that we’re keen on pursuing in some shape or form, so I thought I post the details here and invite comment.

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