Michael Hart (1947 - 2011): Prophet of Abundance
Published 11:36, 08 September 11
I've never written an obituary before in these pages. Happily, that's because the people who are driving the new wave of openness are relatively young, and still very much alive. Sadly, one of the earliest pioneers, Michael Hart, was somewhat older, and died on Tuesday at the age of just 64.
What makes his death particularly tragic is that his name is probably only vaguely known, even to people familiar with the areas he devoted his life to: free etexts and the public domain. In part, that was because he modest, content with only the barest recognition of his huge achievements. It was also because he was so far ahead of his times that there was an unfortunate disconnect between him and the later generation that built on his trailblazing early work.
To give an idea of how visionary Hart was, it's worth bearing in mind that he began what turned into the free etext library Project Gutenberg in 1971 - fully 12 years before Richard Stallman began to formulate his equivalent ideas for free software. Here's how I described the rather extraordinary beginnings of Hart's work in a feature I wrote in 2006:
In 1971, the year Richard Stallman joined the MIT AI Lab, Michael Hart was given an operator's account on a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois. Since he estimated this computer time had a nominal worth of $100 million, he felt he had an obligation to repay this generosity by using it to create something of comparable and lasting value.
His solution was to type in the US Declaration of Independence, roughly 5K of ASCII, and to attempt to send it to everyone on ARPANET (fortunately, this trailblazing attempt at spam failed). His insight was that once turned from analogue to digital form, a book could be reproduced endlessly for almost zero additional cost - what Hart termed "Replicator Technology". By converting printed texts into etexts, he was able to create something whose potential aggregate value far exceeded even the heady figure he put on the computing time he used to generate it.
Hart chose the name "Project Gutenberg" for this body of etexts, making a bold claim that they represented the start of something as epoch-making as the original Gutenberg revolution.
Naturally, in preparing to write that feature for LWN.net, I wanted to interview Hart to find out more about him and his project, but he was very reluctant to answer my questions directly - I think because he was uncomfortable with being placed in the spotlight in this way. Instead, he put me on his mailing list, which turned out to be an incredible cornucopia of major essays, quick thoughts, jokes and links that he found interesting.
In one of those messages, he gave a good explanation of what he believed his Project Gutenberg would ultimately make possible:
Today we have terabyte drives for under $100 that are just about the same size as the average book.
10 years ago, in 1999, most people were using gigabytes in their systems rather than terabytes.
10 years before that, in 1989, most people used megabytes.
10 years before that, in 1979, most people used kilobytes.
My predictions run up to about 2021, which would be around the 50th anniversary of that first eBook from 1971.
I predict there will be affordable petabytes in 2021.
If there are a billion eBooks by 2021, they should fit the new petabytes just fine, as follows:
The average eBook in the plainest format takes a megabyte.
There will be a billion eBooks in 2021 or shortly after.
A billion eBooks at a megabyte each takes one petabyte.
You will be able to carry all billion eBooks in one hand.
As this makes clear, Hart was the original prophet of digital abundance, a theme that I and others are now starting to explore. But his interest in that abundance was not merely theoretical - he was absolutely clear about its technological, economic and social implications:
I am hoping that with a library this size that the average middle class person can afford, that the result will be an even greater overthrow of the previous literacy, education and other power structures than happened as direct results of The Gutenberg Press around 500 years ago.
Here are just a few of the highlights that may repeat:
1. Book prices plummet.
2. Literacy rates soar.
3. Education rates soar.
4. Old power structures crumbles, as did The Church.
5. Scientific Revolution.
6. Industrial Revolution.
7. Humanitarian Revolution.
Part of those revolutions was what Hart called the “Post-Industrial Revolution”, where the digital abundance he had created with Project Gutenberg would be translated into the analogue world thanks to more “replicators” - 3D printers such as the open source RepRap:
If we ... presume the world at large sees its first replicator around 2010, which is probably too early, given how long it took most other inventions to become visible to the world at large [usually 30 years according to thesis by Madelle Becker], we can presume that there will be replicators capable of using all the common materials some 34.5 years into the future from whatever time that may actually be.
Hence the date of 2050 for the possibility of some replicators to actually follow somebody home: if that hasn't already been made illegal by the fears of the more conservative.
Somewhere along the line there will also be demarcations of an assortment of boundaries between replicators who can only make certain products and those who can make new replicators, and a replicator that could actually walk around and follow someone, perhaps all the way home to ask if it could help.
The fact that it was ~30 years from the introduction of eBooks to those early Internet pioneers to the time Google made their big splashy billion dollar media blitz to announce their eBook project without any mention of the fact that eBooks existed in any previous incarnation, simply is additional evidence for an educated thesis mentioned above, that had previously predicted about a 30 year gap between the first public introductions and awareness by the public in general.
So, when you first start to see replicators out there set your alarm clocks for ~30 years, to remind you when you should see, if they haven't been made illegal already, replicators out for a walk in at least some neighborhoods.
Notice the comment “if that hasn't already been made illegal”. This was another major theme in Hart's thinking and writings - that copyright laws have always been passed to stop successive waves of new technologies creating abundance:
We keep hearing about how we are in "The Information Age," but rarely is any reference made to any of four previously created Information Ages created by technology change that was as powerful in the day as the Internet is today.
The First Information Age, 1450-1710, The Gutenberg Press, reduced the price of the average books four hundred times. Stifled by the first copyright laws that reduced the books in print in Great Britain from 6,000 to 600, overnight.
The Second Information Age, 1830-1831, Shortest By Far The High Speed Steam Powered Printing Press Patented in 1830, Stifled By Copyright Extension in 1831.
The Third Information Age, ~1900, Electric Printing Press Exemplified by The Sears Catalog, the first book owned by millions of Americans. Reprint houses using such presses were stifled by the U.S. Copyright Act of 1909.
The Fourth Information Age, ~1970, The Xerox Machine made it possible for anyone to reprint anything. Responded to by the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.
The Fifth Information Age, Today, The Internet and Web. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, books from A to Z are available either free of charge or at pricing, "Too Cheap To Meter" for download or via CD and DVD. Responded to by the "Mickey Mouse Copyright Act of 1998," The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, The Patriot Act and any number of other attempted restrictions/restructures.
Hart didn't just write about the baleful effect of copyright extensions, he also fought against them. The famous “Eldred v Ashcroft” case in the US that sought to have such unlimited copyright extensions declared unconstitutional originally involved Hart. As he later wrote:
Eldred v Ashcroft was previously labeled as in "Hart v Reno" before I saw that Larry Lessig, Esquire, had no intention of doing what I thought necessary to win. At that point I fired him and he picked up Eric Eldred as his current scapegoat du jour.
As this indicates, Hart was as uncompromising in his defence of the public domain as Stallman is of free software.
Most of his best writings are to be found in the emails that were sent out to his mailing list from time to time, although there is a Web page with links to a couple of dozen essays that are all well-worth reading to get a feeling for the man and his mind. There are also more of his writings on the Project Gutenberg site, as well as a useful history of the project.
However, it's hugely regrettable that Hart never published his many and wide-ranging insights as a coherent set of essays, since this has led to a general under-appreciation of the depth of his thinking and the crucial importance of his achievements. Arguably he did more for literature (and literacy) than any Nobel Prize laureate for that subject every will.
Fortunately, Project Gutenberg, which continues to grow and broaden its collection of freely-available texts in many languages, stands as a fitting and imperishable monument to a remarkable human being who not only gave the world great literature in abundance, but opened our eyes to the transformative power of abundance itself.