MIT, LSD, & OSS: A look at the Hacker Ethos and the Battle of Business Plans in Early Silicon Valley (1/2)

“But, it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm”.[1] Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-written introduction to a 2018 questioning by the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees echoed across the Dirksen Senate office building. Zuckerberg shifted his weight, before succinctly listing the top complaints officials held with his own company, Facebook, as well as broader technology giants today: “fake news… foreign interference in elections… hate speech… and data privacy.”[2] Internet companies had truly come a long way since the first one was founded in 1994. 

Perhaps the only people more shocked and horrified by such testimony than the current American public would be the early pioneers of computers, the internet, and Silicon Valley. Early visionaries intended to make technology w a tool, but one of a different kind. Profits were not an ultimate goal for the early internet leaders who came from a subset of counterculture known as the New Communalists. And the infrastructure and business models to exploit ubiquitous access to computer power. 

This paper will begin by tracing the cultural, ideological, and philosophical foundations of the hacker ethic — which will later be defined as a flow of free information and ideas — beginning in World War II at its origins in MIT labs. These first workplaces demonstrate how early computing ushered in a technological era defined by collaborative teamwork for hardware. Next, this paper will travel across the country to examine the New Communalist branch of counterculture in the 1960s, a subset focused on the internal ability to reach a higher consciousness via non-technical tools such as drugs and music. Originally two distinct worlds, these New Communalists sought the same freedom and liberation from capitalism, government, and bureaucracy that hackers at MIT labs found on computers. 

These spheres combined when a unique set of this first generation of research institute hackers became entrenched in the New Communalist movement of the 60s. Those people, such as Lee Felsenstein and Stewart Brand, were able to bring together adherents of the hacker ethic and members of the LSD communes together through a series of publications and computing clubs started in the 1970s around the Bay Area. Through these club meetings, ideas were shared across these worlds to advance not only computer hardware — the physical devices humans touch — but also software applications, the lines of code that humans do not see, but actually power the widgets and tools embedded on these hardware devices.

As computer-usage became more affordable and widespread, some second generation hacker members of these original clubs — those who did not grow up inundated with counterculture influence — began to see business opportunities in the devices. One such business model, Open Source, was founded on the model of making source code viewable and shareable to essentially anyone. Open Source attracted strict adherents to the hacker ethic, and found success in companies such as Bill Joy’s Berkeley Software Distribution and eventually Linux, the open source code that today powers web browsers, smartphones, and gaming consoles. 

Simultaneously, however, other companies which sold proprietary, undecipherable software code for a one-time, upfront fee were becoming popular amongst many Silicon Valley companies in the late 70s and early 80s, such as Microsoft. By exploring some of these business plans towards the end of the paper, this paper will demonstrate how dominant of a business model keeping proprietary source code in-house became. These models highlight the inherent contrast within the technological community: though first-generation hackers built technology as a tool for liberation from capitalism, conditions were always present in the innovation to afford closed businesses to profit. 

Finally, this paper will explain how by a widely attended conference at Fort Cronkhite in 1984, the scripts of Silicon Valley were already in full development: though first-generation hackers and Open Source advocates eagerly clung to their utopian technological notions, the advancements they helped pioneer had already afforded closed-off business models.[3] While one of these, Microsoft, had by 1984 essentially disavowed the hacker ethic, Apple’s marketing material at the time suggests the company either still clung to the utopian hacker ethos, or realized appearing to do so would help the company sell products. In 1984 Facebook’s 2018 congressional testimony would still have been unimaginable, but the foundation had already been laid to make it conceivable. While early pioneers of the internet intended it to serve their utopian vision as a tool to help people seek liberation from bureaucratic government arms, they simultaneously built the tools that would afford later people the chance to use such tools to create the largest capitalist companies in history. 

“The Spiritual Necessity”: Collaborative WWII Research

         Beginning in World War II and extending into the Cold War, the software that ran early computers was pioneered at Universities flooded with government money, with MIT serving as the early epicenter. In 1941, one year after MIT administrator Vannevar Bush urged Franklin Roosevelt to create it, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) began pumping $450 million dollars into research throughout  the duration of WWII, of which MIT received the largest grant of $117 million.[4] In this euphoria of access to revolutionary technology, those with access to the MIT labs aimed to eliminate barriers for others who were interested in computing to join their teams. As Fred Turner writes in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, “Even though [the MIT Rad Lab] operated with the support of large bureaucracies…[it] was a site of flexible, collaborative work and a distinctly nonhierarchical management style”.[5]

Office walls came down, and new ways of thinking emerged as top programmers worked in teams and began to conceptualize the world in terms of cybernetics: systems of networks which could control themselves. Norbert Weiner, an MIT professor at the time, remarked that the researchers “had dreamed for years of an institution of independent scientists, working together… not as subordinates of some great executive officer,” but rather “joined by the desire, indeed by the spiritual necessity…to lend one another the strength of that understanding”.[6] This was a revolutionary office setup, as before these wartime government grants computer scientists would work individually, lacking the infrastructure to work in teams that could enjoy a free flow of information. It was in these new collaborative teams that the flow of information was not hoped for, but expected, as researchers simply sought understanding of how computers could be tools for a better tomorrow. 

MIT in the late 50s: The Hacker Ethic

Equally important to the collaborative culture fostered at the MIT labs was the mere fact that they provided programmers access to prodigious and expensive computing devices. Early computers would take up full rooms, and cost thousands of dollars for an hour of usage. The prohibitive charge of exploring computers rendered those with access in the 50s far more curious on how to democratize access than to monetize a machine that less than one percent of the population could even utilize. Steven Levy writes in Hackers that hackers in the TX-0 building of MIT resented “any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from” accessing computers, a line of thinking which would evolve into what he describes as the hacker ethic: “Access to computers—and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total”.[7] While there were other interpretations— Richard Stallmann, Levy’s last true hacker who defied an MIT policy to restrict computer use by passwords by asking all scientists to use the same password (empty string) — says the hacker ethic  means “that knowledge should be shared with other people who can benefit from it, and that important resources should be utilized rather than wasted”— it regardless shapes a narrative that the early interactions between humans and computers was meant to utilize tools to decentralize access to free ideas.[8]

At MIT, these hackers decided that making their systems open to allow easy editing and understanding by others was the best way to approach this task. True to their word, when beta versions of the game Spacewar was created in TX-0 in the 1950s, coders would leave thumbdrives of the game design in a known drawer in the lab, encouraging its replication.[9] Embodying the hacker ethic, by the end of the 1950s, Levy describes the fascinating common-place meals on which the software designers would embark, where hackers would discuss their codes at local restaurants. Levy, however, focuses his narrative attention on what was not discussed over food: “the social and political implications of computers in society…  sports… personal lives—as far as they had any… .”[10] Tellingly, as computers enthusiasts finished their final decade based on the East Coast, their hobby was not meant to generate profit. Rather, the goal was to allow as many people as possible to gain access to their own machine, a dream which continued in Silicon Valley in the 1960s. 

Whole Earth Movement: Hacker Ethic in the Valley

         The stretch from San Francisco to San Jose was itself enjoying radical movements working toward the dismantlement of societal and governmental hierarchies, rendering it a promising area to become the new home to the hacker ethic. Historiographies clearly state that the Bay Area in the 1960s was home to conventionally defined counterculture, anti-governmental leftists who rejected and rebelled against the sociopolitical expectations of their parents’ generation. However, counterculture had multiple factions, as students radicalized by protesting the Vietnam War turned their attention to different causes. While subsections of the New Left warrant its own essay, it is salient to note the New Communalist faction. As Turner writes, “this wing turned inward, toward questions of consciousness and interpersonal intimacy, and toward small-scale tools such as LSD or rock music as ways to enhance both.”[11] The same cybernetic rhetoric that was spoken in the labs of MIT were recreated a decade later in the New Communalist movement, though these counter culturalists chose LSD rather than hacking as their self-liberating tools of choice. . Seed, an underground San Francisco newspaper, published a poem in 1967 which declared “What the system calls organization- linear organization- is a systematic cage, arbitrarily limiting the possible. It’s never worked before. It always produced the present.”[12] But it wasn’t until Stewart Brand — a Stanford graduate, veteran, and LSD test participant in Menlo Park — became entrenched in the Bohemian art scene of first New York and then San Francisco in the 1960s, that New Communalists turned from drugs to other tools of self-liberation. 

As the inhabitant of separate spheres, Brand was uniquely positioned to transfer the conversations happening at MIT and later Stanford to the New Communalist movement. Stewart Brand used his community-building talent to bring these worlds together when he launched the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968.[13] Writers came from research labs, psychedelic art scenes, communes, and the government: a grouping unlikely to be interested in the same subject. However, all in a sense shared the same utopian vision. While Whole Earth New Communalists readers shared love, drugs, and a near-nostalgic view of the Western frontier within their communes, Whole Earth hacker readers shared self-regulatory online systems with the power to allow people to disengage from bureaucratic arms, for free. In the 1970s, Whole Earth  published cybernetic models to “link these existing technologies and visions of the user under the New Communalist rubric of “personal” tool use”.[14] The counterculture as a whole was proudly anti-government (and in 1968, anti-Vietnam); the hackers that read Whole Earth would eventually build companies such as Apple, which would market itself as an anti-bureaucratic company providing tools for self-liberation that the government could not take away. While the Whole Earth Catalog would cease publication in 1971, its ideas would permeate into two vital movements around the Bay in the 1970s: hobbyist and hacker computing clubs, and the Open Source movement.

Computer Bulletins 

New Communalist ideas of allowing the permeation of information across a decentralized system was gospel to the first computer hobbyist clubs in the Bay Area, which in the 1970s spread the hacker ethic to future tech founders. The People’s Computer Club, created in 1972 Menlo Park, Community Memory, founded in Berkeley in 1973, and the Homebrew Computing Club, started two years later in Menlo Park, were all created by New Communalist members. 

It is easy to see the influence of these first generation hackers, born in the 1930-1940s, who grew up surrounded by government-funded research in the 1950s and counterculture in the 1960s. People’s Computer Company,founded by Lee Felsenstein, was named after a rock group, (yet another community in which Stewart Brand was magically intertwined). The cover of the first issue of People’s Computer Company the publication featured a poem that trumpeted: 

COMPUTERS ARE MOSTLY

USED AGAINST PEOPLE INSTEAD OF FOR PEOPLE

USED TO CONTROL PEOPLE INSTEAD OF TO

FREE THEM[15]

The way computing clubs strove in this direction of liberation, however, was through their continuing to preaching cybernetics: humans are free in nature, and computes could mimic natural systems to be the tools to make this freedom journey possible. Another People’s Computer Company poem dreamed “of a cybernetic ecology/ where we are free of our labors/ and joined back to nature… .”[16]

The New Communalist elements of these clubs clearly had long sought refuge in free communities that would return individuals to their natural state. The great contribution that men like Stewart Brand and Lee Felsenstein were able to bring was introducing hackers who also longed for liberation into the New Communalist fold. At a time decades before the now famous Burning Man festival, this introduction of seemingly different communities that in reality shared many thoughts was powerful. 

The Homebrew Computing Club was an inclusive transparent organization, inviting all types of people to its meetings, and hoping people would share all advances and discoveries. A series of pamphlets advertising club meetings sheds light on the topics of the weekly three-hour meetings held in Jordan Quad at Stanford University. Though meetings took place before 1984, the available 1984 pamphlets and the subject matter contained therein presumably reflect similar ideology to the original 1976 meetings. Meeting topics included a cost analysis of “Integrated Software Packages” such as Multiplane and Lotus, and a discussion led by Lee Felsenstein, titled “The Hacker’s Mac,” in which Felsenstein was to reason that “hackers have had a tremendous influence of the computer industry of today… the influence can and should continue” as “everyone will benefit by the ease with which the hackers can “run ahead”.[17] It is worth noting that these technical discussions, even if led by these first-generation hackers such as Felsenstein, wished to promote the hacker ethic, their presentations could have been interpreted differently by the various attendees of the meetings. Levy explains that for people like Felsenstein and his friend Bob Marsh, their work at Homebrew was“ looking for a way to finance their vocation of playing with electronics … the fun was… designing and building stuff, expressing themselves”.[18] Hacking for the sake of hacking is certainly an extension from the hackers who went to the MIT labs in the 50s to expand computer access; however, while in the 50s, hackers met to build the computers themselves, now, the same utopian mindset was applied to build more functional applications requiring less hardware expertise for computers. 

The more tools hackers added to computing interfaces, the more potential there was for non-technical individuals to access these anti-bureaucratic tools. Levy explains in Hackers that through these clubs, members would see how “computer technology could be used as guerrilla warfare for people against bureaucracies.”[19]For example, now instead of escaping the real world to build hardware and microchips, hackers could now share a plethora of computer games to transport them to a truly new environment. Additionally, while much attention is devoted to the link of Whole Earth to the computing clubs, it is salient to not neglect that the same New Communalist magazine was also read by for-profit researchers. 

Even if Brand wanted tools to liberate people, the technology he wanted to spread to ubiquity still afforded ideas of how to create business models around this new technology. Because companies did not begin to seize on this affordance until the end of this decade, it is worth exploring how idealistic, and in a way naive, these gatherings of the computer specialist of the early Valley were in nature, as the first generation of hackers passed the torch to a second. 

Business Models Emerge 

The paths of Bill Joy, born in 1954, and Bill Gates, born just one year later, demonstrate the central dichotomy of second generation hackers. Both men, icons of the internet of today, found themselves in the Homebrew Hacker scene in the 1970s, though for drastically different reasons. Bill Gates penned a series of open letters in the Homebrew Computing Club newsletters which, to put it mildly, angrily and strongly asked the hackers — who Gates viewed as computer “hobbyists” and enthusiasts — to stop sharing his code in their meetings.[20] Gates spent just one year at a post-Vietnam Harvard. As a second-gen hacker, Gates did not grow up enmeshed in the counterculture that envisioned as tools for utopia; his vision for computer use should not mark him as a perverse individual. As he wrote in one such letter in May 1976, “Whether this is legal or not, the marketability of software to hardware companies is questionable when software is so freely shared among hobbyists”.[21] Sharing, integral to early hackers, and embedded in the hacker ethic, was instead a roadblock to Gates. 

To Bill Joy, however, sharing was paramount. Joy arrived at Berkeley in 1975 as a graduate student, where he would become a key member in the Open Source movement, a community of hackers who built the foundations of for-profit companies that still maintained the hacker ethic within its key principles. By 1978, Joy sent 30 free copies of what would become Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), a predecessor to the Unix Kernel.[22] The Unix Kernel was itself was arguably parent to Linux, one of the largest Open Source code collections in the world, which still powers millions of devices today. So, while by 1978, Gates had both disavowed the hacker community and physically was living in a different state, Joy had “the essential elements of a collaborative culture as well as a primitive mechanism for software sharing and creation,” sure to make Brand proud. Neither man was right per se, nor did they have claim to lead a new generation of hackers and enthusiasts.[23] But their paths illuminate a clear split in software creation by the end of the 1970s, the effects of which helped shape part of the internet corporation ecosystem we still have today.

For part two of two of this topic, please click here.

Post written by Eli Wachs.  


[1] Bloomberg Government, “Transcript of Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing”, New York Times (April 10 2018).

[2] Ibid 

[3] Steven Levy’s book Hackers, frequently cited in this essay, was also published in 1984. The book can be used as a historical source now but was very much a contextual history read by key players in this essay when it came out. 

[4]Fred Turner, From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network,and the rise of digital utopianism, (University of Chicago Press 2010), 18.

[5] Turner, 19. 

[6] Ibid, 20.

[7] Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution-25th Anniversary, online O’Reilly Edition (2010), 23. 

[8] David S. Bennahum. The Matrix: MEME 2.04, 197, http://memex.org/meme2-04.html.

[9] Spacewar’s almost haphazard creation was the perfect embodiment of a first generation hacker community which viewed their creations as rebellion against a government system built around precise numbers, troop deployments, and bureaucratic dismay.

[10] Levy, 62.

[11] Turner, 31.

[12] San Francisco Seed, 1967, quoted in Breines, Community and Organization in the New Communalist, 36.

[13] Turner.

[14]  Ibid, 246.

[15] People’s Computer Company. Menlo Park, CA. Volume 1 Number 1. October 1972. 

[16] Richard Brautigan, “All watched over by machines of loving grace.” (1967).

[17] Flyers for Homebrew Computer Club Meetings, in “Silicon Valley Ephemeral Collection”, 1984, MO443, Box 9, Folder 33, Stanford Special Collections, Stanford University Archives, Stanford, California.

[18] Levy, 175.

[19]Levy, 128.

[20] Bill Gates Open Letter to Enthusiast, Homebrew Computing Club, “Liza Loop Papers 1972-1986”, January 31 1976, M1141, Box 1, Folder 10, Stanford, Special Collections, Stanford University Archives, Stanford, California.

[21] Bill Gates Open Letter to Enthusiast.

[22] Steven Weber,  The Success of Open Source, (Harvard University Press: 2004), 31.

[23] Ibid.

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