Richard Stallman page 2
MG: Did you have any other cultural interests at that point?
RS: Somewhat in music.
MG: But you weren't going to the Fillmore?
RS: No, not that kind of music. I was interested in Classical Music at the time. I've never understood the tendency to pick up tastes because they are popular. In fact, I think it is foolish to do that. I mean, don't you know what you like? People who are so weak that they will take their tastes from people around them in the desperate desire to be accepted, I think of them as cowards.
MG: You graduated high school when?
RS: In 1970.
MG: Did you ever skip a grade?
RS: I did. And when I moved away to college, I escaped.
MG: Where did you go?
MG: Had being smart kept you separate from your peers until then?
RS: It did. And I have to admit that at the time I was arrogant about it. I looked down at other people for their inability to think clearly. Now I think that that's wrong, partly because I've been humiliated because I can't think as clearly, can't concentrate as effectively as I used to.
MG: Were you in a dorm?
RS: Yes, I was. But fortunately, I had a single room. They asked "What kind of roommate do you want?" and I said, "Well, I'd prefer an invisible, inaudible, intangible roommate."
MG: What did you study at Harvard?
RS: Math and physics.
MG: Did you participate in the social life there?
RS: No. I had no way to. I was a social reject. Almost no one would ever go out with me.
MG: Were you still into computers?
RS: Yes. At the end of my freshman year, I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, which was founded by DARPA [the Defense Department's advanced projects agency, which created the Internet]. The people there were very embarrassed about this, because for the most part they were against the Vietnam War. The problem is, being against the Vietnam War was one thing. The Vietnam War was to defend a dictator and keep him in power, and it was an unjust war, and it was fought with horrible cruelty. But to generalize from that to anything related to the military as fundamentally wrong is an irrationality. I'd seen and read a lot about World War Two. I had the example of my father, who prepared to more effectively fight the Nazis -- because they were evil, and it was necessary to fight them.
MG: Had your father died? Was he just out of the picture?
RS: No, they split up. I saw him on weekends.
MG: My sense is that you found your place once you found the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT.
RS: For the first time in my life, I felt I had found a home at Harvard. Then they kicked me out after four years for passing too many classes.
RS: Yes, they have a rule that after you pass too many classes they give you a diploma and they tell you to get lost.
MG: And you wanted to stay. Why couldn't you just go to grad school?
RS: It wouldn't have been the same. The dorms for grad students are not at all like the undergraduate dorms in their spirit. I looked at that option.
MG: So you end up at MIT's Artificial Intelligence lab?
RS: During my Freshman year I was very interested in finding places where they had various different kinds of computers I'd never seen, so that I could ask for manuals about the systems, and that way I could about the variety of computers. I'd heard that the AI Lab at MIT had a big computer, and so I went there and asked them, "Do you have documentation I can read?" And it turns out they didn't have a lot of documentation, but they hired me instead.
MG: Did you need to demonstrate skill or interest? I presume you didn't simply knock on the door, were ushered in, and "Here, play with our machines."
RS: Well, it was more or less like that, yeah. That's what the old Hacker Culture was like. It was obvious that I was a good hacker in the making. And I was hired that day for the summer. But it continued.
MG: Was it different from Harvard?
RS: Harvard was bureaucratic and stuffy. The professors were more important than you, and a professor could have a terminal going to waste in his office and that was more important than having it where you could use it.
So very often I couldn't work, or somebody else couldn't work because some professor was using a terminal to sit in his office, because that professor was so important that it was more important that there be a terminal he could use once in a while, when he wanted to, than that other people be able to use a terminal when they were there. Actually, there was one professor I spoke with somewhat, because I wrote a piece of code that he wanted written. I just wanted something to program on.
MG: MIT was different?
RS: What I saw when I went to MIT was a different attitude, which is, "We're here to get some things done, we want to get them done, and we're mad at anybody who for ridiculous reasons stands in our way." It would be one thing if somebody were to argue, "What you're trying to do is going to hurt us." But they didn't say that. They just had their own selfish reasons to stand in the way." And the hackers at MIT didn't accept that. They didn't let it happen.
I immediately got put to work writing parts of the system. It had an editor. A text editor [for writing computer code]. I started improving it. Eventually I improved it to the point where the original thing was just the sort of inside core that you'd never see.
MG: And it gets called EMACS, right? What does that stand for?
RS: It stands for Editing Macros.
MG: Were you aware of their whole history? Were you made aware of it?
RS: I learned about it over the subsequent years. At MIT in those days, if a professor had locked a terminal in his office, it wouldn't stay locked. In one case, one of the programmer staff built a battering ram to open the door, and others learned to pick locks. What I learned to do was to use the false ceilings or the false floors. So I many times picked up some floor tiles, crawled into a room, and opened the door, and I discovered a convenient method for using magnetic tape with some sticky tape put onto it, and I could reach over, let that down, snag the doorknob, and then twist the doorknob with it. Then once the doorknob was twisted, I would use my leg to push the door open. So in this way, I could just lift up a few ceiling tiles but not actually have to climb up there, which was really unpleasant, and you could get fiberglass in your skin, which would make you itch for a while -- and I didn't want that to happen. But with this method I didn't actually have to climb. I'd just have to push the tiles out of the way.
MG: Did you have a sense of yourselves as being subversive?
RS: Well, mildly so. But see, we weren't trying to subvert the mission of the lab. We were trying to do our job. But we were trying to subvert the people who were trying to bureaucratize and thus subvert the lab we worked for.
MG: What was your job?
RS: I immediately got put to work writing parts of the system. We had an Editor. I started improving it. Eventually I improved it to the point where the original thing was just the sort of inside core that you'd never see. We had a text editor called TECO. I started adding features to TECO just as I added features to all the other programs in the system. TECO stood for Text Editor and Corrector.
MG: At some point, the access to the computer lab and to the system becomes an issue. Right? Because the hackers had originally designed the system leaving out any kind of security features, and the reason was they had observed that security features were used by administrators to control the users.
RS: To control them in all sorts of ways. Tell them what they're allowed to do. Keep them in line. They're the boss. So the hackers said, "We don't want anybody to do that to us." So they designed a system which didn't have those features. It was a group of people who said, "We want to have anarchy, because we can work together, and we don't want anyone dominating us, pushing us around." Because if somebody is the operator, and the operator can do things which you can't, then you constantly need to suck up to the operator. If you don't do what the operator wants, then the operator will refuse to do the things for you that you can't do, and it's the operator who decides what you're allowed to do.
MG: How many of you were there?
RS: Hackers? Around ten-ish, although there were many more users than that. And then these anonymous visitors (the tourists, we called them), they were probably in the hundreds. So it was a community.
MG: But it was also a commune, in a sense. Because it was separate from the outside world. You all had the same goal in mind.
RS: Yes. But unlike the impression that the word "commune" might give, we didn't exclude anyone who wanted to help. If some outsider wanted to get involved and wanted to work on the software or work on the system, anyone who was competent was welcome.
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