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Hacking the City
Nov 07, 2000 :: Greg Knauss

Jamie Zawinski was listening to the band.

Late at night, on April Fools Day 1999, he stood on the floor of a crowded San Francisco nightclub and ignored everything but the thumping, roaring music. He was young - just twenty-nine - and long-haired and unemployed. He was also very, very rich. And if you had shouted over the noise, and asked him what he was going to do next, what his follow-up act was going to be, he would have told you to leave him alone. He can be like that.

Earlier in the day, Zawinski had quit Netscape Communications, the prototypical Internet startup, after serving five years as a programmer on the front lines of the browser wars. The company's twentieth employee, and a vitally important part of the team that made the World-Wide Web the ubiquity it is today, Zawinski had been through it all: the mad rush to ship the first version of the software, the gravity-defying IPO, the epic battles with (and slow defeat by) arch-rival Microsoft, the consumption of the company by America Online. Zawinski had finished his tour. He was tired. The trip had made him a ton of cash, but left him spent and frustrated, not only by Netscape but by the software industry in general.

But that night, in front of a loud band in a cavernous club, he wasn't thinking about the past. Or the future, for that matter. His plans, he says, consisted of doing "nothing, and lots of it." After the most complicated, public and exhausting five years of his life, he just wanted to listen to the band.

***

You're young, you're rich... Now what? It's a harder question than it looks. Zawinski's situation is endemic in San Francisco and Seattle and every other high-tech hub in the country. Literally thousands of Internet industry worker-bees, yet to see their thirtieth birthday, have ridden boom-time IPOs to instant, enormous wealth. And these twentysomething millionaires are suddenly faced with a question that most people only dream about: after the dust has settled, after you've grown bored or burned-out, after you walk away with more cash than you know what to do with... Now what?

Some plow their money and skills back into more Internet start-ups, in a kind of serial entrepreneur-hood. Some flail about hopelessly, their self-image so connected to reaching success that they have no idea what to do when they actually get there. Some drop out, ditching the fast-paced, high-pressure world of technology for South Seas beaches or bowling alleys. Some keep on doing what they've always done, never looking up from their keyboards to notice the piles of cash that surround them.

Zawinski, now 31, has done nothing so mundane. He's got bigger ideas. The man who once listed his employment objective as "improv[ing] people's lives through software" is still doing what he's always done, and what he always will do: he's hacking. Instead of computers, it's San Francisco. Instead of code, it's society. His goals may have changed but not his methods - he's fixing bugs and adding features. Zawinski, and thousands of other newly-rich hackers like him, have the potential to use their smarts and their tenacity and their wealth to re-make the American city, in the same way they have re-made American culture and the American economy.

For Zawinski, it starts with a nightclub called the DNA Lounge.

***

Jamie Zawinski is something of a legend among computer programmers. He's spent his career mowing over - or through - every obstacle in his path, both technical and political, usually with a stinging combination of wit, sarcasm and blinding impatience for people he considers too stupid to see things the right way.

"Here's what sucks:" he says, in a typically blunt summation of what went wrong with Netscape, "writing software with the goal of producing something IT managers want to buy, rather than producing something that people want to use."

Zawinski started programming professionally before he graduated from high school, hacking the artificial intelligence language LISP in the Carnegie Mellon University computer science department. He skipped college, jumped between start-ups and academic research for a while before creating a splash by starting a noisy public battle with a legend. Richard M. Stallman - the widely-esteemed guru of the "open source" software movement (a philosophy of coding that is most popularly represented today by the Linux operating system) - was behind schedule delivering the next version of Emacs, a favorite text editor. Rather than wait for the official release, Zawinski created his own, and in the process established his reputation for simply getting the job done, no matter who was standing in his way. "I've never cared much about stepping on toes," says Zawinski. "We had a problem to solve."

"It was clear [early on] that Jamie was a non-conformist," says Scott E. Fahlman, a principal research scientist at CMU and Zawinski's first boss and mentor. "He had his own ideas about how to do things, and would stick up for them."

Arriving at Netscape, Zawinski helped establish the culture that would become typical of Internet start-ups, grabbing sleep under his desk to save the commute home. He founded a mailing list called Really Bad Attitude, to let over-stressed programmers blow off steam by railing against management, co-workers and other slow-witted impediments to progress. And, of course, he helped mid-wife the creation of the New Economy, by playing a vital role in the development of the first mainstream Web browser. "I was sure Netscape was going to be wildly successful," he says. "There was no doubt in my mind. All we needed to do was be smarter and faster than anyone else."

When Netscape began to lose market-share to Microsoft, Zawinski was instrumental in convincing the company's leaders to go "open source," to release the code of their flagship product - Netscape Navigator - to the public, allowing anybody to view and change it. This was an unheard of step at the time, for a corporation to free their intellectual property. And while the "Mozilla" project cannot yet be considered a success, it (and the popularity of other open source projects like Linux) has encouraged other companies - among them IBM, Sun and HP - to begin to follow suit.

When Zawinski left Netscape, he left with a bang, not only burning bridges but vaporizing them. In a document posted on his Web site, he lambasted everything the company had become, years of frustration and disappointment spilling over in a tirade that's half angry and half sad. Netscape "got big," he wrote, "and big companies just aren't creative. ... [G]reat things are accomplished by small groups of people who are driven, who have unity of purpose. The more people involved, the slower and stupider their union is.

"[Y]ou can divide our industry into two kinds of people: those who want to go work for a company to make it successful, and those who want to go work for a successful company. Netscape's early success and rapid growth caused us to stop getting the former and start getting the latter."

When someone asked him during an Internet chat if he recommended the practice of bad-mouthing previous employers for people who aren't millionaires, he answered with characteristic bluntness: "That depends, do you want to tell the truth, or live life as a coward?"

The neutron bomb of a message roiled both the business and programming worlds. One Netscape manager, a latecomer and a team player, labeled Zawinski an "asshole." Lower-level workers cheered the cold-eyed assessment of what goes wrong with companies when they get big. Jim Barksdale, Netscape's experience-heavy co-founder, told Newsweek, "Jamie is a friend, but if I had listened to him on every decision we would never have been larger than 100 employees." A pall descended over many on the Internet, the resignation taken as a sign that Netscape's last, best hope was walking out the door.

And Zawinski? He went to listen to a band.

***

"I love music," Zawinski has written on his Web site, "especially live music. When I moved to the Bay Area in 1989, that was one of the things I found most incredible about this place: it seemed like I was seeing a great band about every two weeks.

"That's not true anymore."

In the past decade, San Francisco has boomed, ground zero of the Internet explosion and the New Economy. The second California gold rush has fundamentally remade the city, the thousands of companies and the billions of dollars that suddenly appeared paradoxically draining a lot of the exuberance out of the place. San Francisco, unexpectedly, has become a quiet town; rents are skyrocketing and the gentrified political atmosphere has tilted against some of the very things that attracted the work-hard, play-hard go-getters in the first place.

Clubs, for instance - and especially late-night clubs - have fallen out of favor. The San Francisco Bay Guardian calls the situation an "official war against nightlife."

"Clubs in San Francisco have been disappearing left and right," the number halved in the last five years, says Barry Synoground, Zawinski's business partner and long-time friend. "We're night-owls, our friends are all night-owls. Most of our friends don't work conventional jobs, so they like to go out at odd hours." If you get off work at 3 a.m., there just aren't many places left where you can burn off that last dosage of caffeine.

"If this trend continues," Zawinski says, "I can't imagine what this city is going to be like in a few years. Restaurants are closing because they can't afford their rent increases. ... What kind of place will this be if all that's left is housing and office space, with no nightlife and nowhere to eat except McDonald's?"

This is the problem Zawinski is trying to solve. "I was either missing, or failing to enjoy, shows by a lot of good bands" because of the dearth of clubs, says Zawinski, "and bitching about it every time. A couple of times, I even flew to Seattle to see bands that were also playing here in San Francisco, because the bands were big favorites and I was going to have the show spoiled by a crappy venue.

"[O]ne day, one of my friends said, 'Why don't you quit complaining and do something about it?' and it occurred to me that I could."

It can take a little getting used to, the logic of money. You want a club? Buy a club. Gut it, rebuild it from the inside out, tailor it to your ideal. High-tech and theatrical, the DNA Lounge is scheduled to re-open later this year.

It can seem a small thing, viewed from far enough away. What difference can a nightclub, of all things, possibly make? How does being able to dance well past anybody's idea of a sensible bedtime affect the world at large? Is this really anything more than an incredibly expensive stereo?

For most people, probably not. But Zawinski is a hacker - his old Netscape business card even lists that as his title - and hackers are a species unto themselves. The same intensity that can drive someone to sit and stare at line after line of code on a computer screen can also see them through something as trivial as opening a nightclub - and making it matter. Hackers are tinkerers and inventors and trouble-shooters, and nothing thrills them more than producing an elegant solution to a frustrating problem. To a true hacker, everything that stands between the unsavory here and now and the ideal Right Thing is minor implementation details - discrete problems to be solved, one at a time, for however long it takes.

If changing a single line of code can stop a computer from crashing, then maybe opening a single club can begin the resurrection of a city's nightlife. The DNA Lounge is intended as a real business, of course, and Zawinski realizes he must make a profit, but it's also an effort to restore a part of San Francisco that he once loved. "I'm doing this to give something back to the city I've made my home," Zawinski told the Board of Permit Appeals, during his fight for a late-night license. "I see a lack, I see a problem that needs to be fixed. Someone needs to fix it. And it might as well be me."

***

High-tech millionaires have a long history of being boring with their money. Fast cars, big houses, yachts, planes - for a group of people who are supposed to be so abstracted from the material world that small matters like personal hygiene can slip by unnoticed, most of the wealth generated by the Internet bubble has gone to the same old same old, what the rich have been buying with their cash for generations.

That will change. The most dramatic period of capital creation in the history of the world has left the country's urban centers awash with people who are young, smart, non-traditional and very well off. The geeks, long buried in the basement, are slowly emerging into the sunlight, and they're fully vested. Hackers, as a class, have prospered in large part because of their intense dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the intellectual restlessness that led them to revolutionize the technical foundation of the economy will soon be applied more generally, to everything that they can summon an interest in. The country stands at the cusp of an enormous sociology experiment: what happens when you give smart, creative people the means to pursue their ideas?

"I'm risking a lot on this crazy venture," says Zawinski, "and if it goes too wrong, then I have to go rejoin the rat race. If that happens, someone should tattoo 'INSANE' across my forehead, as I will have wasted my one and only youth."

There is a very real danger that things won't work out - not every experiment is going to succeed. Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple Computer and Zawinski's spiritual forefather, lost millions of dollars by combining his cash and enthusiasm for music in the early 80's with the Woodstock-inspired US Festivals. Joe Firmage, the multi-billionaire head of USWeb, let an interest in spreading his less-than-mainstream ideas about UFOs topple his reign at the company.

But when they do work, they have the potential to add up to something greater than simple, successful businesses. Paul Allen, Microsoft's billionaire co-founder, opened the two-hundred and fifty million dollar, Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project this June in Seattle, to promote and further that region's rock-and-roll legacy. Michael Saylor, CEO of MicroStrategy, has pledged a hundred million dollars to fund an on-line university. Chris Peters, a former Microsoft vice president and ardent bowling enthusiast, even bought the Professional Bowlers Association, with the hope of reviving the sport. And Wozniak, perhaps best of all, now teaches elementary and junior-high school kids in Los Gatos, California.

And though Zawinski describes his ambitions for the DNA Lounge as simply "mak[ing] a place that I think is cool," the club will change San Francisco, in some small way, and for what Zawinski sees as the better. "I have not had a life-long dream of running a nightclub," he says. "But there's a problem and I have the ability to fix it. So here I am."

And that's the whole point. A hacker with a keyboard can take a personal enthusiasm and affect a computer. A hacker with a checkbook can take a personal enthusiasm and affect his corner of the world, tweaking and debugging until it's just right. Zawinski, and hundreds of other hackers like him, will spend the rest of their lives using their riches to remold not just technology, but society, shaping it into the place that they want it to be. Each will bring the uniquely tenacious hacker attitude to bear on problems that have never been solved before, in politics and religion and culture. And after-hours nightlife, too.

Because everybody, once in a while, just wants to listen to the band.

 

 

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