Michael Hart is the oft-ignored father of e-books and much else in our Internet culture besides.
In the annus mirabilis of 1971,How Michael Hart Revolutionized the Internet Articles Michael Hart conceived of electronic books (e-books), open sourcing, and of user-generated content in one stroke of genius.
Hart established Project Gutenberg: a repository of tens of thousands of public domain texts, freely available online. It is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind and has spawned numerous imitators, emulators, and mirror sites. E-books became a mainstream item with giant commercial enterprises – from Microsoft through Yahoo and Amazon to Google and Barnes and Noble – entering the fray.
Project Gutenberg relied on the contributions and input of volunteers from around the world, who digitized public domain books in accordance with an ever-evolving set of rules. The software underlying the Project was available to be modified, tinkered with, and replicated on other Websites, This model of collaboration now underlies open source software, “crowdsourcing”, and projects such as the Wikipedia.
Most pundits agree that in the history of knowledge and scholarship, e-books are as important as the Gutenberg press, invented five centuries ago. Many would say that they constitute a far larger quantum leap. As opposed to their print equivalents, e-books are public goods: cost close to nothing to produce, replicate, and disseminate. Anyone with access to minimal technology or even the oldest computers can read e-books.
Project Gutenberg eBooks were being read on iPods within a week of the latter’s introduction, not to mention cell phones and smarter variants thereof, such as the iPhone. With well over 4 billion cell (mobile) phones (according to the United Nations) compared c. 1 billion computers, the former may well turn out to be the preferred platform for reading text.Over the years, I have interviewed Michael Hart and we have corresponded prolifically on a variety of topics. I have always relished his anti-authoritarian streak. Michael is a true, unvarnished and non-compromising independent, out to empower the individual at the expense of faceless, heartless corporate and government bureaucracies.
March 8 being Michael’s 62nd birthday, we have decided to publish snippets of our exchanges.Happy Birthday, Michael!!!
Sam:Some people refer to you as “The First Citizen of the Internet” …Michael:Perhaps because I was the first person to be on the Internet’s systems without being paid to do so. Everyone else I knew of was a government employee, staff, or one of the student slave wage computer operators, their bosses, etc.I was certainly “none of the above.”I was probably the first “hitchhiker” on the Internet and that helped to give me the unique perspective that led to the creation of Project Gutenberg, Open Source, virtual communities, and a host of other things we all take for granted now.Project Gutenberg was the first “site” on the Internet, the first place people went to download materials, general information, and so on. There may have been similar things at the companies that serviced the mainframes, but certainly not the general stuff the public could download or upload that we see today.I certainly appeared to be the first to view computers as a huge communications network independent of their computing ability.I remember saying, back in 1971:”Computers Aren’t Just For Computing Anymore.”Sam:I’ve heard various versions of the events of the night of July 4th, 1971. What really happened?Michael:
I realized I had a BIG IDEA, the lightbulb went on at 1:41 AM, on July 5th.
It was a sultry night, and after the fireworks I wasn’t sure whether I’d be better off trying to find somewhere to crash on campus to save alot of hot walking right then, and the return trip in mere hours.So, I decided to see if I could get into Materials Research Lab (where I was not always welcome), where the Xerox Sigma V mainframe was (and where I was always welcome). Then, as now, there were already people who viewed me as a real threat to their hard-won positions of title and power.The fact that I “lived” behind the stainless steel window, where they had to come, praying and paying, hoping that their programs would prove worthy of the mighty machine. . .well. . .I hadn’t really realized it yet, myself, but it bothered a lot of people, and I was routinely locked out of the building with the aim of precluding me from doing my homework in the air-conditioned quarters – air-conditioning being a status symbol and one of the perks they had enjoyed.That night in particular was going to be tough, as it was late and not a school night, so the building would already be tight, and only the hardest of hardcore workers would be there, the kind, I must add, that liked me the least.So I spent nearly an hour casing the entire first floor with no luck other than to have one of the aforementioned people who thought I didn’t belong there refuse to let me in when I asked. I suggested he should call the police if that’s how he felt about my presence. He knew that the police would ask the night operator who would know it was me, and I would be let in. It was nasty, but funny.Finally, just as I was about to give it all up and snooze there on the lawn for a bit, I heard someone come out and I jumped up and ran around the building, but it was too late, the door closed and I was locked out once more. However, being a slightly forward young man, I asked in a plain up front manner if they would go back and let me in, so I would not have to walk home that night. I explained that I was NOT on the list and that technically the whole process was probably more or less illegal, but they went back to the door to do the honors of letting me in.I ran upstairs to the Sigma V, and was let in so fast it probably made the heads spin on those who thought I must not be allowed such privileged access.The first thing I found out was that my own personal account on the Sigma V had been approved. . .not that I wanted one at all.You see, the boss of the people I knew there felt there was the risk of something bad happening unintentionally as I poked in a very amateurish way around the computer. I had actually been mentioned in their meetings as a risk factor. The solution, rather than throw me out as some in there would have preferred, was to give me my own account, with a lot less power, permissions, etc. than the “operator account” I had been using all the time, having memorized my friend’s password.Thus, as of July 4, 1971, I had my own account with some staggering amount of computer money in it that I would never be able to use up, but was told there was plenty more, no worries.Now just to be honest here, I rarely, if ever, used the account I had just been given, simply because I had already memorized a very hard password, and mine was even harder. I did bill my jobs to the new account number, so the people who had been kind enough to open this legal door for me would think I was using it properly.So, after all the hoopla, I had to figure out the right thing to do with all my new found legal computing power.I didn’t have a clue. . . .I was hungry, I was tired, it had been 11PM before I even got a foot in the door, I had no ideas percolating in the wee hours. So, I decided I should pump up the blood sugar levels with some goodies I had bought on the way from the fireworks and I dumped my bookbag on the floor to get some brownie mix when out popped a faux parchment copy of The U.S. Declaration of Independence.The lightbulb literally went on over my head like in the cartoons!You see I had wanted to put something on the Internet that was going to stay there, ever since the first day I had learned we were on this new network that would let us send messages, files and whatever else to Berkeley and Harvard simultaneously and to bunches of other hotshot places in between.Apparently no one had ever done such a thing and I thought it was the perfect thing to do.I got permission and was told that if I finished by morning I could move immediately into the next step: an accessible file for anyone who wanted it. They even promised to write up a note in what would later become “comp gen” (general notes for computer users) about how to obtain the file.So, I sat up all night long typing, proofreading, typing more, proofreading more, printing, reprinting, typing, retyping, and finally, just at the deadline, I had something to send to what I believed would be a whole world of readers.I handed over my little spool of paper tape just in time for a changing of the guard to the day shift, and I was feeling just fantastic, when it turned out the person receiving it was. . . are you ready. . .my best friend! You see, I had always been there on the night shift and off to my 8AM classes before the shift change.”What are YOU doing here?!?!?” I exclaimed.”What am _I_ doing here?!?!? What are YOU doing here?!?!??””I’m always here!!! This is where I do my homework.””_I_ WORK here!!!”
“No, _I_ AM ALWAYS HERE. . .I WORK HERE!!!”Well, it was a long funny conversation sorting out all the times that we must have just missed each other. My brother’s best friend ran the midnight to 8AM shift and my best friend ran the 8AM to 5PM shift, but we never knew of each other’s existence!So, that was how the first title of Project Gutenberg got onto the Internet and why it was The Declaration of Independence.
Almost forty years later, the publishing industry, pundits, and professions still don’t know how to “digest” eBooks …Michael:
Invariably, the first thing the pundits and professionals say is that there aren’t enough eBook sales to really matter. This is, of course, one of those “category errors”.
That ebooks equal money is obviously a false statement, even in light of how much media exposure financial behemoths such a Google, Sony, and Amazon get whenever they mention their eBook programs. Yet, even when toeing the line to generate PR for these giants, the media do not give much in the way of real data to work with.
Consider Project Gutenberg:The media almost always provide the smallest possible number for Project Gutenberg of under 30,000 titles, even though the grand total of all Project Gutenberg titles available passed the 100,000 mark several years ago. On the other hand, they refuse to mention that Project Gutenberg gives away millions of eBooks per month. Admittedly, they also declined to even speculate on the total sales of Sony and Amazon readers until they reached approximately a million units between them, just recently. Think what they would write if iPods and iPhones sold only a million units combined, they would be branded a FAILURE.Another example of media corporate bias:
As I said, Project Gutenberg ebooks have been available on iPods and iPhones since their very first week of sales. Google was just rewarded by yet another round of PR for its cellphone ebooks and again there was no mention that Project Gutenberg ebooks in a number of formats have been on many cellphones for years now! In fact, we are adding another new cellphone format even as we speak.
I have been touting cellphones as the wave of the future since the days before the iPhone. . .Steve Jobs is one of the brightest, and I hope his health improves, we need people like him, desperately. Try thinking what the world would be like if there had never been a Steve Jobs. Where would the computer industry be?As for Google, the truth this, I am pretty sure they peruse articles I write in detail, as it never seems to take them too long to “invent” whatever it is I have been pushing the last few years or decades.The major statistic the pundits and professionals never mention is on what day will there be more ebooks than paper books. Then comes the obvious follow up: How many of those ebooks are available as free downloads? Governments don’t seem as interested as they should be either, perhaps because they don’t derive any tax revenue from free eBooks.
What is it about every generation that makes them think they can tell the next generation[s] how to dress, how to cut their hair, what kind of music they should listen to, etc? When it comes to ebooks it is much the same: “Your books should look as much as possible like our books”; “We want the look and feel of a real book, not of a computer”; “We want only our own favorite editions to be available, edited, of course, by our own favorite editors from days gone by but not so far gone by that copyright has expired”; “We want pages that look like pages even if there are no pages”; “We want fonts from the period rather than choose you own font.”
In other words, these people want to make all the decisions in a world in which all the decisions should belong to all readers. Any reader should be able to read ebooks in their favorite font, and there should be no opinion allowed from the peanut gallery.
Thorough control is what these people want. If, or when things get out of control, even music, hairstyle, reading, they quake in their hobnail boots for fear that they have lost control. A great number of the very wealthy are more concerned with having and maintaining CONTROL than even getting richer: they want to CONTROL what we read, to KNOW what we are reading, as in being able to tally up and record all the bookstore receipts, library cards, etc. . .but with eBooks. . .they never really know, do they?The same goes for browsing through all the Shakespeare editions rather than listening to interminable argumentation as to what should be the correct punctuation of “To be, or not to be.” When it comes to the first time you read Shakespeare, it doesn’t really matter what edition it is, that’s not what you notice, you notice the pure genius and poetry of story.”Do it right/perfectly the first time.”If I had taken that advice I’d still be back in 1971 with competing copies of “The Declaration of Independence,” since none of them agreed as to how the document should be.
You probably could never believe how often people tried to slow me down with Project Gutenberg, with the only common thread being that I should do things THEIR way, and much more SLOWLY!!! If I had waited even HALF as long as they wanted, we would not be having this conversation, and you would have never heard of ebooks, certainly not from Project Gutenberg, except as in possibly the most obscure of footnotes.The most important part is just to get started with the books; the rest are extras. Yes, you can get more out of a book by reading about it, but theprocess usually starts just by reading the book over again with nothing but your own opinion and the fact that you LIKE it. We seem to have lost track of the idea/ideal that we should actually LIKE what we are reading.
To enhance our experience, we should be able to choose the font, margins, etc., except, of course for songs and poetry, but, in general, ebooks shouldlook the way WE want them to look, not the way some ivory tower academiac decided they should look generations ago. If we read more easily in a blue or green font, that should be our choice. If we want to hear various voices “read aloud” the ebooks, those should also be OUR choices.With ebooks, at least the plain vanilla ones, all these choices belong to the reader.With paper books all those choices belong to publishers.”Power To The Reader!”
You use the phrase “eBooks Too Cheap to Meter” from time to time. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
Michael:Fifty-five years ago, Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said to the National Association of Science Writers, in New York City:”Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter” along with other such predictions, as reported in The New York Times in their September 17, 1954 issue.Of course, as we all know, electric rates never went down, quite the opposite. To a degree, this allowed brownouts, blackouts, and the entire Enron fiasco to appear to be legitimate shortages when, in fact these amounted to a scam to bilk millions of people out of billions of dollars. No matter how you look at it, nuclear power has NOT given us electricity that was too cheap to meter, or anything like it.However, since 1971, various Internet projects, originating with the e-library of Project Gutenberg, HAVE give the world all sorts of products literally for free, or at a cost too cheap to meter. For some time now, you have been able to get c. 100,000 ebooks from the library of Project Gutenberg, free for the taking, and 1,000’s more are being added every year. In addition, there are now 1.25 million somewhat less polished ebooks at the Internet Archive, many of which are being adapted and cleaned up by the likes of Project Gutenberg and others. Even without counting Google, there are plenty of ebook sites worldwide, with totals into the millions, all at no charge to the reader.This is certainly ONE promise the Internet has kept, though the professionals and pundits of the media seem to like keeping it under wraps.Every July 4, on the anniversary of the first Project Gutenberg ebook title, entire e-libraries gather to form “The World eBook Fair” (http://worldebookfair.org/). Last year, the Fair comprised over 1.25 million free ebooks from major e-libraries and over 100,000 available at a discount from various commercial eBook providers.This doesn’t sound like much compared to the figures above, simply because the growth of the number of ebooks is so fantastic that any quantity you can put in any collection in the span of one year is guaranteed to be dwarfed in a very short time. However, if we are lucky, we will see TWO million ebooks in 2009 available for any visitor to take home.The World Public Library (WorldLibrary.net) offers a half million very nicely packaged eBooks in PDF format and full price subscriptions are only$8.95 per year, with multi-tiered discounts for schools and other groups. Half a million books for under $9??? Go ahead, figure out the average price per book … Sounds like “TOO CHEAP TO METER” to me!!!Today you can buy terabyte drives for $99. I should know, I have 5 of them, plus my now antique .5T drives and smaller. 5 terabytes. 5 trillion characters. Not counting compression, or it would be 12.5 trillion characters. The first Project Gutenberg files were about 5 thousand characters each.Two hundred such files equal a megabyte. Two hundred thousand such files equal a gigabyte. Two hundred million such files equal a terabyte.My five drives could hold a BILLION such files! With compression it goes up to well over TWO BILLION such files.Ok, they are small files, particularly by today’s standards. But, let’s go for BIG files such as The Complete Shakespeare or King James Bible. Circa 5 million characters in each of those massive files. I could have about a million copies of those files in my 5 terabytes. Five terabytes that didn’t even cost as much as this laptop I am using. Do you get the idea?Anyone could add a library of a million very large books to any new computer without even doubling the price, or 2.5 million very large books if you were to use zip or rar files, or 5 million more average-sized books. LOTS of books, at a price per book literally too cheap to be worth figuring out!You can OWN YOUR OWN LIBRARY!!!Think about it for one minute right now, right here. . .please!There are only about 100 or some libra