One of my commenters speculated as follows:
Perhaps I overestimate him, but I suspect that without Eric our choice would be Richard Stallman or Bill Gates without much in between. That isnâ€™t a pretty picture. Maybe Linus Torvalds would have help fill the vacuum, or perhaps someone else would have stepped up.
Because I think at least part of the time like a historian/anthropologist, I’ve actually spent a fair amount of effort contemplating what the world might look like if I hadn’t affected it. The more general and interesting question this touches (and what makes this particular instance actually worth thinking about) is a familiar one in historiography: to what extent the times make the man versus the man making the times.
At one extreme you get Thomas Carlyle’s view of history, in which heroic figures shape events and the whole drama is basically their psychologies and struggles writ large. In this version, the details of “ESR” (my public persona) were spectacularly important and a different culture hero would have led to a radically different outcome. At the other you get the Marxist style in which vast tides of history sweep us all along and “heroes” do what they had to do because they had to do it. In this version, I was nothing more than a conduit or focal point for changes that were going to happen anyway.
Of course, I don’t have a certain answer to this question…but in some ways I’ve been a uniquely privileged observer of the historical processes in which I was personally involved, and it has left me with some thoughts and judgments.
As appealing as it would be to be one of Carlyle’s heroes, I have to say that I come down more on the “times make the man” side. Specifically, I’m pretty sure that the hacker community was going to get a generative theory of open source similar to the one I enunciated in The Cathedral and the Bazaar sometime within five to seven years of the mainstreaming of the Internet around 1994. As it was, a couple of people (Richard Gabriel, Larry McVoy) came damn close to it before I did without quite making it to the key insights. Somebody was going to get the rest of the way if I hadn’t; it was time.
The argument that open source constituted a strictly more efficient mode of production than proprietary development that I made in The Magic Cauldron would certainly have followed on that, and a propaganda campaign aimed at selling that truth to people with lots of money would have followed at one remove. In a general sense I think all these developments were pretty much locked in as soon as the Internet began to show people what sorts of productive organization are possible when communications costs approach zero asymptotically.
So, was “ESR” unnecessary? What difference did I make? Or, to put it more precisely…if we imagine a sheaf of histories in which different hackers made that inevitable conceptual breakthrough, what’s marked about the ones in which it was me? In what ways did we (the hacker culture, civilization at large) get lucky….or unlucky?
Most days I think we did in fact get lucky. I think it was inevitable that we were going to get the theorist, and the economist, and the public propagandist. What was contingent and remarkable is that we got one person who could, during a critical transitional period, do all three of those – imagine, and then execute, a change strategy that fused software engineering theory, economic analysis, and effective public advocacy. The result, I think, is that open-source ideas have taken hold rather sooner and rather more strongly than would otherwise have been the case.
I now view the critical transitional period as having spanned roughly 1997-2003. Six years, at the end of which we’d basically booted up a set of sustaining institutions and more or less won the technical and economic argument for open source. My best guess is that without “ESR” we’d have had to grind for a decade, maybe fifteen years, for a fuzzier and more qualified victory.
“But wait…” you might ask. “Isn’t that the hero theory sneaking in the back door, with yourself conveniently cast as hero?” Might sound that way, but here’s where it gets truly interesting. I said most days I think we got lucky. Some days I think something much weirder and more interesting: that there was no real luck involved, that the hacker culture created an ESR when it needed one and because it needed one. This would take us back towards inexorable tides of history and all that.
I am an individual; nobody who’s ever met me is in any doubt about that. But I am also a carrier of culture, my mind shaped by memes. Decades ago, my mind was colonized by a set of memes that you can read about in the Jargon File. Those memes pointed at a kind of perfection – more specifically, at a kind of perfected ubergeeky self that I have been trying to achieve ever since. You could say that I am, at least in part, an invention of those memes. They made me “ESR”…
…and “ESR” happened to become exactly the theorist/economist/propagandist those memes needed to infect others most efficiently in 1997-2003. Wow, what a fortunate coincidence! Or, maybe not. “ESR” may in fact be an especially clever and self-aware memebot, shaped by the hacker culture to propagate the hacker culture. Resistance is useless! You will be assimilated!
Now we have, at least implicitly, two possible theories that bear on the original question. In one, I’m a culture hero; in the other, a sort of memebot/paladin. The practical difference is this: if I was in relevant ways invented by the hacker culture, the hacker culture can invent another paladin like me…and probably would have within a few years if I hadn’t emerged into the role around 1996.
Another way to put this is that if the “times make the man” theory is really strongly true, and the hacker culture invented me, we would not in fact have been stuck with “Richard Stallman or Bill Gates without much in between”. The in-between would have happened, just with a different set of initials.
(It wouldn’t have been Linus Torvalds, or any plausible alternate version of him. He has the brains for the role but the wrong psychology – too much the classic introverted geek, not enough performer/communicator.)
Now I’m going to admit that I fibbed a little earlier. I do not in fact believe one of those theories some days and the other the rest of the time; that was in the nature of a rhetorical flourish. I actually believe them both at the same time. The weighting coefficients in that 2-vector do fluctuate, however. Most of the time, the arrow lands on the historical-determinism side of the x=y line. But not always.
I am both inventor and invented. I mostly think a hacker culture without ESR would have grown something rather like one. But the details and the style would be different. Less Heinlein influence, probably, and fewer guns – though I do think the other-timeline versions would be mostly libertarians, because without starting from a Hayekian stance some key elements of the theory would be rather more difficult to notice. It certainly wasn’t entailed that our paladin had to be a neopagan or have cerebral palsy. On the other hand, I’d bet on at least a large minority of my other-history analogues being shadow-Tourette’s cases with an interest in martial arts; those traits contributed to my toolkit in subtle but important ways.
Sometimes I wonder, though, when the coefficients fluctuate that way. Maybe I really was a unique, heroic axis of history a la Carlyle. It’s an interesting thing to be unsure about.