Wednesday, 31 August 2005

Life Outside the Mainframe

Refuse to Register
[Poster by Fred Moore for the National Resistance Committee, 1980]

My essay on Fred Moore and his historical significance, Life Outside the Mainframe, is now online in the August book review issue of the AFSC's Peacework. It's in the context of a review of John Markoff's new book, in which Fred Moore is a central figure, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

Different groups of my friends will be interested in different facets of this story:

Mobilization Against the DraftFred Moore at City Hall, San Francisco
[Crowd at the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration listens to speakers including Fred Moore of the National Resistance Committee. Civic Center Plaza, San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photos by Chris Booth for Resistance News #2. Click images for larger versions.]

Life Outside the Mainframe

What the Dormouse Said: How the 60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff. Viking, 336 pp, 2005. Reviewed by Edward Hasbrouck, who is the child of a computer program (at least acording to his birth certificate, which says: "Father's occupation: computer program.") Convicted in Boston for organizing resistance to draft registration, he spent 6 months in a federal prison camp in 1984-1985. Shortly afterwards, he moved to San Francisco to take over from Fred Moore as one of the editors of Resistance News. His Web site of draft resistance information is at

There's a tendency to think of hippies and peaceniks as Luddites, not as the source of the central ideas of modern computing.

On Route 128, where I grew up, the dominant myth is that the computer and the Internet developed out of research funded by the military and the government, motivated by the goals of miniaturization for rocketry, nuclear and space weapons, and satellite surveillance.

For the last 20 years, I've lived on the fringe of Silicon Valley. Here, there's a different creation myth of personal computers and the Internet that idolizes the heroes of entrepreneurial capitalism.

"Both stories are true, but they are both incomplete," says longtime New York Times Silicon valley correspondent John Markoff at the start of his new work of historical correction, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

As Markoff tells it, many of the people working in both academic and corporate computing labs from the 1950's through the 1970's were doing so specifically to avoid the draft.

Many of those pioneering researchers were actively exploring the enhancement of human intelligence both through computing and through mind-altering drugs, spiritual inquiry, sexual experimentation, and other aspects of the political and social counterculture.

Many of the most critical contributions to what would eventually become the personal computer industry were made by people motivated not by money, but by a vision of the potential for computers to serve people as tools for networking, community building, and peacemaking.

Myths matter. Are computer networks top-down tools of centralized government and corporate power, or participatory tools for grassroots empowerment, information democracy, and independent citizen journalism?

Markoff admits to having accepted the standard myths. But once he started hearing anecdotes that made him aware of the gaps in his view of high-tech history, he set out to tell the world the missing parts of the story: "One of Silicon Valley's supreme ironies [is] that an itinerant activist who rejected material wealth ... ended up lighting the spark of what became the 'largest legal; accumulation of wealth in the 20th century'.... Indeed [Fred] Moore would also become the unrecognized patron saint of the open-source software movement."

In 1959, as a freshman at Berkeley, Fred Moore sent a letter to the attorney general informing him of his refusal to register for the draft. A few weeks later he went on a solo sit-in hunger strike on the steps of Sproul Hall against compulsory ROTC training and drills. Later, it would be recognized as one of the key precursors to the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus five years later.

Fred returned to Berkeley only after U.C. made ROTC voluntary, but eventually he left and joined the Quebec-Guantanamo Walk for Peace. It was the first in a lifetime of peace walks on several continents. Like many other draft resisters awaiting prosecution, he lived for a time at the New England Community for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) farm in Voluntown, CT. In 1965, still well before the start of mass organizing for draft resistance, he was convicted of refusal to register and sent to the federal prison camp in Allenwood, PA, for 17 months.

Eventually Fred and his older daughter Irene -- whom he raised as a single father -- made their way, in the early 1970's, to the area near Stanford University that would come to be known as Silicon Valley. There Fred got involved in community networking and educational projects associated with the Whole Earth Catalog and its founder, Stewart Brand.

Brand would later found the pioneering computer network, still active today, "The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link", the WELL, and would be one of the first to try to call public attention to the role of the counterculture in computer history with an essay in Time magazine, "We Owe it All to the Hippies: The Real Legacy of the Sixties Generation is the Computer Revolution."

Bringing together the mantra of the Whole Earth Catalog, "Access to Tools," with the emerging vision of accessible, affordable, interactive computers, Fred Moore and Free Speech Movement veteran Lee Felsenstein organized the Homebrew Computer Club as an anarchistic expression of the "Rainbow Family" value they placed on networking and sharing in the service of social change.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dozens of pioneering personal computer companies, including Apple Computer, would grow out of the small Homebrew community. Lee Felsenstein himself would found Osborne Computer and make the first portable computers.

I met Fred long after all this, in the early 1980's, through the draft registration resistance movement. Many older anti-draft activists tried to impose on my then younger generation their own interpretations of what we should do, and why. Fred was one of relatively few who supported our efforts to organize ourselves. Living his commitment to youth liberation to the fullest, Fred turned the newspaper he had helped build, Resistance News, over to a group of younger resisters, then walked away. He continued to give us his full support even as we changed the paper in ways he sometimes disapproved of.

Fred's technology work was a consistent and explicit expression of his politics. Later in life, he worked on appropriate technology projects for the global South, including more efficient wood-burning cook stoves and human-pulled carts.

He demonstrated these tools on his own peace walks. In the ultimate irony for a peace walker, Fred died in a car crash in 1997.

Like many organizers and networkers, Fred Moore did more to connect others with similar interests, and facilitate others' accomplishments, than to put himself in the spotlight. In theory, our movements celebrate cooperation and sharing. But too often, we fail to recognize those who make special contributions in networking and facilitation.

John Markoff clearly wasn't part of the movement he describes, and as an outsider he focuses on some people and events that his circle of informants told him about, while missing others. For example, he almost totally overlooks the MIT techno-Deadhead community of leftist hackers. But his book is a valuable attempt to capture a forgotten piece of movement history, and in many ways a movement victory: today a blogger with $10 a month to spend on Web hosting can reach as many people, all over the world, as the largest alternative magazine of the 1960's.

A documentary film, Walking Rainbow: Fred Moore Remembered has recently been completed and is being submitted to film festivals. For more information, contact the filmmaker, Markley Morris, <>.

[Addendum, 4 November 2005: In connection with the 30th anniversary of the Homebrew Computer Club which Fred helped form, many of the club's newsletters which Fred edited have been posted online, including one with a nice sketch of Fred and other club members. It's immediately apparent that the Homebrew newsletter was turned out with the same typesetting setup, and with many of the same stylistic features, that Fred later used for Resistance News.]

On a related note, the AFSC's San Francisco office is organizing an event on 27 October 2005, Remember The Draft: From Vietnam to Iraq: Honoring Resistance Then and Now: "Honor those who risked their lives and reputations as CO's, draft counselors and resisters during the Vietnam War. Welcome those who are resisting today." The organizers are soliciting names, stories, pictures, film footage, flyers, and artifacts of the anti-war movement "then and now". I'll be suggesting Fred Moore as one of those deserving posthumous honors. [Follow-up:: Several of the talks from that event have been posted online, including one by David Harris.

I've also posted a new set of leaflets about the military draft, draft registration, draft resistance, conscientious objection, and the medical draft. There are hardly any substantive changes, but I think I've finally fixed most of the voice recognition errors in the earlier versions. If you have suggestions for further changes, please let me know -- or just make them yourself. I've posted all the leaflets in Wordperfect and HTML form, as well as the printable PDF's, for anyone who wants to edit them.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 22:31 (10:31 PM) | TrackBack (0)

You might enjoy the the speech Markoff gave to Software Forum Distinguished Speakers series:

It made for good listening.

Posted by: Mark Mascolino, 1 September 2005, 11:04 (11:04 AM)

Not only that, but you can still run your vintage 1968 COBOL apps on the same box. And you get all of this without having to increase your datacenter rack space, power and cooling utilization, property taxes, etc.

Sounds like a winner to me!

Posted by: battery, 19 June 2008, 23:44 (11:44 PM)

More on Silicon Valley creation myths, from my San Francisco neighbor Rebecca Solnit:

My thoughts on the issues in Rebecca Solnit's article (with links to more):

"Have travelers lost the class war?":

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 16 February 2014, 08:55 ( 8:55 AM)

Due to space limitations in Peacework magazine, my originbal article omitted another chapter in Fred's activism: Before the 1990-1991 US-Iraq war, Fred travelled to Iraq and, on his return, self-published a 100-page compilation of statements, interviews, and documents giving the Iraqi government's perspective, "Iraq Speaks: Documents on the Gulf Crisis":

"Iraq Speaks" was virtually the only source in English or in the USA of most of this material.

I'm not sure if Fred was with the same group as Mohammed Ali, who travelled to Iraq around the same time. But at the time, anyone who travelled to Iraq, talked to Iraqi government officials, or tried to understand the people who the US was threatening to attack was treated as an "enemy" sympathizer in the US, regardless of whether they actually "sympathized" with the Iraqi government:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 12 June 2016, 06:23 ( 6:23 AM)
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