To Appreciate a Life

Over dinner a few years ago, Kevin Kelly told me neither of us would be remembered a thousand years from now—nor would our work, even though we both (especially he) enjoyed a measure of celebrity, our bylines on books and magazine mastheads. Death, rot and other forms of change would erase nearly everybody while altering nearly everything. Absent of persistent interest, memories of memories of memories would include nothing of today's living present. Even the fully famous, celebrities and heads of state, would be forgotten.

Since recall is rewrite, remembering replaces the past with a replica. History drifts from facts. Same with the stories we tell, even about ourselves. "The older I get, the better I was", says Corey Booker, the US Senator from New Jersey, reflecting on his varsity football days at the University of Michigan.

Short-term memory lasts only a few seconds, so we tend not to know how we'll end the sentences we start, or to remember how we started the ones we finish. Details, including all words said and heard, fall away. All we retain are the generalities we call meaning, which may not even be there. Garrison Keillor says "English is the preacher's language, because it allows us to talk until we think of what to say." But that's true for every language. All of us make stuff up as we go along, climbing to the future while never leaving the present.

The most useful meanings outlive the words, people and media that carry them. On a Linux Journal Geek Cruise in 2005, I asked Andrew Morton, the Linux kernel maintainer, if he thought Linux would be around a hundred years in the future. He said yes, and that most work on the kernel in 2105 would still be "stamping out bugs".

A decade into that century, with Linux more meaningful than ever to our whole networked civilization, I find myself wondering how long the world it maintains will last, and if the world would be lucky to still have Linux, doing what it has always done, and much more—or if the world has come to depend on other ways of computing. No way to know, and few if any of us reading this will be around to find out.

But I'm guessing that one of us already gone might, by some small chance, still be remembered. That person is Ian Murdock, who left us in January 2016. Ian was the father of Debian and the grandfather of Ubuntu and other Debian derivatives. He framed up package management as we've known it ever since. He wrote the Debian Manifesto, which predated the Open Source Definition by half a decade and helped model it. He designed Debian to attract a community of developers who invited and listened to users, and subordinated commercial ambition to the need for good code that served everybody. On March 1, 1994, he wrote:

The time has come to concentrate on the future of Linux rather than on the destructive goal of enriching oneself at the expense of the entire Linux community and its future. The development and distribution of Debian may not be the answer to the problems that I have outlined in the Manifesto, but I hope that it will at least attract enough attention to these problems to allow them to be solved.

That was in issue #1 of Linux Journal. Ian also would contribute to issues #3 and #6 and many others after that. He was one of us. Yet his influence was not limited to Linux. Looking back through my own correspondence with Ian, a big subject was something else that's still with us: "open-source politics".

Back in 2001, when Ian was at Progeny, one of the company's advisors was Joe Trippi, who went on to head the Howard Dean campaign for President. The candidate imploded in Iowa, but the team and its methods have modeled and led network-based grassroots campaigning through the years since—the most notable successes being the election and re-election of Barack Obama. Back when Dean was riding high in 2003, Ian blogged this excerpt from a Larry Lessig interview (now off the Web):

Trippi: I used to work for a little while for Progeny Linux Systems. I always wondered how could you take that same collaboration that occurs in Linux and open source and apply it here. What would happen if there were a way to do that and engage everybody in a presidential campaign?

Lessig: So is this an open-source presidential campaign?

Trippi: Yes. That moment when that was all going on made me think, "That's sort of what we're building here." I guess it's about as open as you can do it in modern-day politics.

And then this from Slashdot:

I have spent the better part of the last three to four years working on a lot of issues discussed here and with a lot of the technology. I advised Progeny Linux Systems—the Debian flavor, it gave me a lot of insight as to what open-source politics would be like and how the same principles could be applied. Really a lot of the same forces are at work if you think about it. Entrenched and flawed system, closed to everyone except the few that aim to keep control etc vs open dialogue, open collaboration, and a better solution emerging from the common actions of many. The country was not founded on the principle of self interest—it was founded on the principle of the common good. And it's fascinating to me how on every front it's the commons we need to build again.

Every death closes parentheses of time. Ian's were (1973–2015). That span is terribly short, and confused in the end by conflicting and bizarre accounts, including a police report and a series of tweets by Ian that were yanked by Twitter but saved by the Internet Archive. None of it reveals anything clear about Ian's final hours, other than trouble. No doubt more details will emerge over time, and perhaps something close to a true account will be made public eventually. But the suppression of additional details, for whatever reason, hasn't been a bad thing. Better to celebrate a man who left the world a better place than just to talk about how he left it.

A thousand years from now Ian too likely will be among the billions forgotten—if there are still humans around to do the remembering. (I'm sure there will be, but that's still just a bet.) Meanwhile, we're here now, standing on his accomplishments. Appreciation is required.

Resources

Kevin Kelly: http://kk.org

Cory Booker: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cory_Booker

"Cruising the Kernel with Andrew, Ted and the Gang, Part I" by Doc Searls: http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/8607

Andrew Morton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Morton_%28computer_programmer%29

The Debian Manifesto: https://www.debian.org/doc/manuals/project-history/ap-manifesto.en.html

"The Debian Distribution" by Ian Murdock in issue 1 of Linux Journal (March 1994): http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2748?page=0,1

"The Open Development of Debian" by Ian Murdock in issue 3 of Linux Journal (June 1994): http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2782

"Overview of the Debian GNU/Linux System" by Ian Murdock in issue 6 of Linux Journal (October 1994): http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2841

Joe Trippi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Trippi

"Joe Trippi and Howard Dean" by Ian Murdock: http://ianmurdock.com/open-source/joe-trippi-and-howard-dean

Lawrence Lessig: http://www.lessig.org/about

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal