Innovation without press releases.

by reestheskin on 05/07/2015

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“I think that hackers—dedicated, innovative, irreverent computer programmers—are the most interesting and effective body of intellectuals since the framers of the US constitution. … No other group that I know of has set out to liberate a technology and succeeded. They not only did so against the active disinterest of corporate America, their success forced corporate America to adopt their style in the end….. The quietest of all the ‘60s subcultures has emerged as the most innovative and powerful” Stewart Brand, in ‘Hackers’ by Steven Levy.

This has to be one of my all time favourite quotes. Brand, of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and amongst other things, ‘The Long Now Foundation’, and author of ‘How Buildings Learn’, is just the sort of intellectual and explorer that the US excels in producing. The UK not so much. And the topic itself reflects this. If you read ‘Hackers’, you cannot but marvel at the fecundity and chaos that led via the Model Railway club to modern computing. The necessary level of dissent, is something that could not have happened at any UK university, certainly not now. The closest I could imagine would be Watson, Crick, and Brenner et al, but even that burst of exploration took place within an academic setting, when there was an awareness that lone individuals or a handful of people could change the world.

This was all brought back to me via John Naughton’s column in the Observer today. Naughton himself has been a great chronicler of the history of computing, and how real innovation works. He is talking about PGP and encryption, and recalls the story surrounding RSA and the US government’s attempt to close down the use of strong encryption and, in the modest words of Eben Moglen, how the US government fought hard to ‘prohibit 3.8 trillion dollars worth of electronic commerce from coming into existence in the world’.

So public key encryption was invented by those nice people at GCHQ who kept schtum about it (remember, all is dual use), and then  independently by 3 US academics who found a way to implement it. Naughton writes:

In 1991, an American geek and activist named Phil Zimmermann implemented an open-source implementation of RSA and called it “Pretty Good Privacy” or PGP. Its significance was that, for the first time in history, it enabled citizens to protect the privacy of their communications with military-grade cryptography. The US government was not amused, defined PGP as a “munition” and prosecuted Zimmermann for exporting munitions without a licence.

With characteristic chutzpah, Zimmermann found a way round the government ban. Harnessing the power of the First Amendment, he published the entire source code of PGP in a hardback book that was distributed by MIT Press. Anyone purchasing the book could then rip off the covers and scan the code, thereby enabling him or her to build and compile their own version of PGP.

Would MIT have done this now, post Aaron Swartz? And second, how many of those making academic careers would have had the ingenuity to solve this problem? Code, on a page, you then scan, all to stay in tune with that that other sort of code, the one that lawyers use.