Sunday, March 8, 2009

Meeting Richard Stallman in '99; Predicted Future

In 1999, as Computer Science undergraduates, my friend Tim and I participated in the ACM Student Research Competition. We submitted a paper and were invited to New Orleans to present our work at the conference.

For me the most memorable part of the trip was listening to, watching, and briefly meeting Richard Stallman who delivered the keynote at the awards dinner. In geek circles Richard Stallman is referred to only by his initials & username "RMS". He is a living legend in the software industry and is extremely controversial for his views on software licenses, intellectual property rights, and politics. While many disagree with him on some of these topics (myself included) no serious person can debate his genius or his contribution to GNU Linux and the free software movement.

He is also well known for his physical appearance. If you saw him on the street you would probably avoid eye contact and cross to the other side assuming he was homeless, crazy or both. Inside this conference hall though people hung on his every word and lined up for hours to meet him. I watched (and was part of) a crowd entranced by their Messiah. It was fascinating but I don't think Tim was quite as impressed as I was.

The topic of Stallman's talk was interesting but at the time it seemed a bit far fetched and idealistic to me. He discussed the idea of creating a free online encyclopedia where by which teachers around the world would contribute articles (for free) on the topics they knew well. It seemed like a good idea but I had trouble imagining it ever really working. I didn't think about his talk much after the show ended.

Two years later, in 2001, Wikipedia formally launched and it wasn't until a few years after that when I recalled the topic of the RMS talk and made the connection. I guess the lesson is to always listen carefully to industry leaders speak. They might just tell you the next big thing.

The picture above is one of my only "celebrity pictures" but my non-CS friends and family always have to ask me, "Who is that bum you are with?" To which I reply "Oh, that's just my friend Tim."

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