Mitch Kapor, one of the folk heroes of the computer revolution, has an uncanny knack for staying two steps ahead of the world around him. At Yale in the late Sixties he majored in a field – cybernetics – that few had even heard of. He was already through with transcendental meditation in the Seventies, just as every hipster in the country was taking it up. Then, in the early Eighties, when the first IBM PCs were hitting the stores, Kapor started a software company called Lotus and developed 1-2-3, the first spreadsheet program written specifically for the PC. Almost overnight, it became the bestselling applications program of all time. And Kapor became a very rich man.
Now, Kapor has moved on again. His latest adventure is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which he founded in 1990, along with John Perry Barlow, a Grateful Dead lyricist and dedicated hacker.
EFF was born at the crossroads of Sixties idealism and Nineties technology, a kind of garage start-up civil-rights organization that has provoked debate about the design and texture of the coming digital era. In just under three years, EFF has become an important think tank for a wide range of technological and social issues, the public arbiter of what Kapor calls “a Jeffersonian vision of cyberspace.” That Kapor would find himself, at forty-two, engaged in a debate about electronic democracy could hardly have been predicated. He was born on Long Island into a solidly middle-class family, the oldest of two children. His father ran a’ corrugated-box factory and had dreams of his son becoming a college professor. But Kapor had his own ideas. After graduating from Yale, Kapor got a master’s degree in psychological counseling and eventually worked as a counselor in a mental-health clinic. “I soon realized that the best thing I could do for the profession of human services was to get out of it,” he says.
Kapor went on to flirt with a number of alternate lives, including a short stint as a stand-up comic. But then, in the late Seventies, he got his hands on an Apple II, and his life suddenly found direction. He taught himself how to write programming code and went to work for a few months as a consultant for Apple. But programming was never Kapor’s strength. He had an even rarer quality: an ability to see what could be done with a computer and a notion about how to implement it.
With the success of 1-2-3, Kapor was catapulted into a new world. Suddenly, he had a $6 million home on twenty-two acres in Brookline, Massachusetts, and was darting around the country on a private jet. But unlike his ex-rival Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, seemingly born with a robber baron’s compulsion to rule the world, Kapor quickly grew bored by corporate life. “A few years into it, I could already see that property lines were being drawn up, and it was pretty clear what the product categories were going to be,” he says. “It was turning into battles over market share-it was becoming like the detergent industry.” In 1986, at the height of Lotus’s success, he walked away.
Kapor had been fooling around with computer networks since the late Seventies, but it wasn’t until he stumbled onto the WELL, a small bulletin board operating out of the Bay Area, that he really understood their potential. “Being on-line was no longer a kind of sociological goof, where you could impersonate different people,” Kapor says. “These were people I would actually like to know in the real world, who have important things to say, who are intellectually stimulating.”
It was on the WELL that Kapor learned about a cyberpunk gang called Legion of Doom, a loose alliance of about twenty teenage crackers being harassed by the Secret Service for gaining unauthorized access into the computer systems of AT&T and other big corporations. Believing these young adventurers were a dangerous hightech crime ring, the Secret Service organized a major investigation involving more than 150 federal agents around the country, often breaking into hackers’ homes with guns drawn and confiscating every bit of electronic equipment they could lay their hands on: computers, printers, even telephones. Kapor and Barlow, united in their outrage, quickly got involved in the hackers defense. In the three years since, EFF has won several major court decisions protecting the civil rights of hackers and computer-network users.
But the legal hassles of wayward hackers are just the beginning of the complicated issues lurking in cyberspace. “If you want to compare cyberspace to television, we haven’t even got to The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy yet,” Kapor says. “The medium is still in its formative stages, and we have a chance now to decide what kind of world we want it to be.”
Questions abound: What should the government’s role be in developing this new technology? Is everyone going to have access to on-line networks or will only a select few? Goliaths like AT&T and Time Warner are already maneuvering for control of information highways, threatening to turn the hacker wonderland into a digital wasteland. Fear of getting cut out of the deal is shaking up rivals in the communications industry, the computer business, the cable-television business, even the newspaper business. Old alliances are crumbling by the hour, even as new ones are forming.