18) An Effective Demonstration

Continue with the operation. You may fire when ready.

What?

You’re far too trusting. Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration. But don’t worry. We will deal with your Rebel friends soon enough.

Summer 1999

I could see the recriminations coming. It didn’t matter. You could rat them out all you wanted. The old bases had long been abandoned. The rebel core had dumped their BBSs and moved deep into cyberspace. Back in their bedrooms a young militia sat impatiently waiting for their next instructions.

This was going to be a disaster.

1990

“Yo Bob,” Bill signaled, “Check this out, it could be giant.”

“What’s an ‘.au’ file?”

“Listen,” Bill said typing a command I didn’t recognize from the Sun command line.

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night

“Very punny, Bill.”

“I was doing an Archie search and this FTP directory popped up. It’s whole songs, not just samples. More than a hundred of them!”

The Artificial Intelligence Section I worked in had been sub-tasked with evaluating existing search technologies. Some of the senior NASA guys had seen the WAIS prototype while at Thinking Machines. They’d brought us back Brewster Kahle’s handouts. Archie was much less ambitious than WAIS. It was simply an index of FTP sites. It was still pretty much a novelty but we started archie-ing everything before we took to the USENET to ask public questions.

Bill was searching for SpaceHab trivia but he recognized a song title in his results. As a music buff, that was enough to put him onto the directory. It was four levels deep on anonymous FTP server at ucsd.edu. We had no idea if it was a grad student’s research or if it was a part of some hidden warez scene. It didn’t matter, it was cool.

Bill downloaded a few songs, it *was* part of our mandate after all! At NASA you could get away with dancing like an idiot while rocking the lab through a two inch Sparcstation speaker. Everyone there was a geek and this was a novelty they’d never heard. The whole group gathered around to browse and listen. The quality was great for the day. These were mu-law compressed audio files. I’d never heard of the format but the files were small and clear. Much better than the 8-bit audio recordings I’d been making for my project.

We didn’t bother copying the directory. Archie knew where it was. I’d check it periodically looking for any new favorites. I remember laughing with Bill. “The record industry is going to be pissed when they find out. Wouldn’t want to be *that* guy!” It a half true kind of joke, made funny by the thought of a fine suited lawyer trying to navigate FTP.

Two weeks after Operation Sun Devil, I noticed the directory was gone. The two observations were very likely unrelated. I doubt the school even got a letter. He probably graduated or dropped out of school. Or he’d finished his project. Maybe the system administrator deleted it. It could have happened for a hundred reasons.

But somehow I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind. A kid sitting alone in his dorm room hand on his chin, quietly reading Phrack 31. Thinking silently to himself, “Maybe… just maybe… I’m not as invisible as I thought…”

The vision still gives me the chills.

The ’90s

They’d come for the pheaks first. Then they went after the carders. They passed specialty laws to get the hackers. It headlined the news for nearly a decade. “Software Pirates Busted!” Operations, raids and takedowns until finally no BBS was safe.

Anyone who hoped to survive fled. Entire scenes picked up and moved to the dark recesses of the internet. Back to FTP and IRC. Even to USENET. Places never mentioned in polite company and not once on the news.

It’s not clear exactly when the power of invisibility was lost. But by the end of the decade, young geeks weren’t just visible, they were positively luminous.

Personal Note:

I had planned to write about the ’90s Scene and the multitude of battles leading up to Napster. I’ve changed my mind.

It’s impossible for me to write honestly about someone else’s scene. I write best when describing how personal events made me feel. Most of my feelings through this period came from reading news reports about hacker and pirate busts. Each raid, brought back memories of everything I’d been through in order to learn. I didn’t know the victims but they felt like my people. Each new report made my skin crawl and my stomach turn. Nobody else ever seemed to take notice. But beyond that, the rest of the ’90s were fantastic. Between bust stories, I did my best to not let the war get to me. I spent my time alternating between, happily enjoying family and friends, then days at a time in heads down coding.

I’ll leave the rest to Scene historians.

Defacto2 has a detailed timeline of the Warez Scene.
MP3Scene records the history of MP3s.
My timeline of the ’90s.

1997

I doubt there ever was a mu-law scene. I’ve never heard one mentioned and Google returns no sign.

There was an active music scene in the early ’90s but they traded MIDI and MOD files. These were often unauthorized versions of popular songs but not direct copies. Their hand crafted nature made them more like “cover tunes” than reproductions of the commercial products. The music industry never seemed to bother the scene. Well, for a while… In 1986, it was guys from this scene who rediscovered the wonders of psychoacoustic compression.

All my computer life I’d felt like I showed up five years too late. This time, I guess, I showed up a little early.

The hacking scenes are more organized that most people consider. This shouldn’t really come as surprise since hacking itself is the study of systems. The music scene was a spinoff of the demo Scene which itself was a spinnoff of the warez Scene.

Warez pirates had been hunted for more than a decade. These groups and the combined scene had developed intricate security protocols. There were secret release group sites, private FTP sites for sharing between groups, and mutually trusted couriers to move files back and forth. It was a rough and tumble world and everyone played for keeps.

RNS nfo fileThe demo scene, however, was more of an exhibition sport. It was talented artists, musicians and programmers creating elaborate hacks to show off their skillz. There was no piracy involved so no real threat from the authorities. It was dog eat dog, but you didn’t go to jail for coming in second. It was still the kind of place where you could leave your address on the splash screen. The first MP3 releases weren’t a political statement. They were just another demonstration hack showing off some new found skillz.

When people Chris’s age justify Napster I often hear, “We were all ripping our own CD collections and sharing among our friends. Then Napster came and…”

“No you weren’t,” I tell them. “But it’s OK. Everyone starts as a leach.”

In the early years before Napster it was no small feat to convert a CD into MP3 files. Very few teenage Windows users would have even known where to start. Had they tried, most would have realized they didn’t even have the equipment.

But coincidentally, it took exactly the set of specialty skillz that demo hackers had developed. The first CD ripping hacks had appeared around 1992. The resulting 600MB of data was more than hard drives of the time could store. Digitally ripping sounds from a CD became a niche skill used mostly to create samples for musicians, MODs or demos. The first MP3 encoder went public in 1995. It wasn’t intended for music. It was for compressing video soundtracks. L3enc was a reference implementation not a commercial product. It was slow command line tool, but the MPEG video group needed something for experimentation. Demo scene folks lived to improve animation and video.

Turning a CD into MP3s was a two step process that required lots of free disk space and state of the art CPU power. The music data had to first be ripped to an uncompressed wav file. Then each song was encoded individually. It was a process which could take up to an hour a song. Worst of all, after you were done the results might suck.

MP3 encoding was nondeterministic. There were endless ways to encode semi-passable versions of an original. To get a quality reproduction, however, required understanding PCM sample rates, frequency response, audio filtering, and the mathematics of psychoacoustic compression. By 1997 there were multiple encoder choices and a growing number of parameters to tweek. And that was before release groups began hacking them to remove limitations and add their own optimizations.

Still, despite the hurdles, between August 1996 and April 1997 a staggering number of MP3s were released by more than a dozen well known groups. Some groups had even abandoned the demo or warez scenes completely to concentrate entirely on releasing MP3.

MP3s spread through college campuses faster than free beer. Few understood where they came for or how they were made. Nevertheless, it appeared to be the same infection that Scott and Jimmy caught. Kids who had no interest in computers scoured the web for Winamp. History students learned how to run FTP servers from their dorms. English majors started formatting MP3 web pages. People that had only been exposed to AOL starting talking about IRC! It was awe inspiring in its magnitude and terrifying in its conspicuousness.

I had no worries about the scene insiders. They were goodfellas who knew the drill. They hid in the nether regions of the internet, protecting themselves from scrutiny through multiple levels of indirection.

Thinking about the leachers, however, made me cringe. There they sat in their bedroom, dorm or den. Filled with excitement and boundless motivation. Experimenting in a networked digital world they’d never even imagined.

They were watching their machine dance.
Finding their magic byte.
Stumbling upon kindred spirits in a private clubhouse.

They were free! Free to explore their geeky new passions at will. Confident in the safety and security provided by their complete and total invisibility.

 

Except they weren’t.

By April, Jim Griffin of Geffen Records was sending takedown notices to college students. The scene was barely six months old and already in the spotlight. But for every web page that was deleted, two more popped up. Every dorm room FTP server that went down, encouraged another leach server on a new cable modem. IRC tracked each new site as it came up. Lurkers raced each other to get there first. Or at least before Jim who lurked in the same channels.

Adolescent frustration turned each young victim into a martyr. Noob heros from all corners came to avenge the fallen. They followed the old hacker ways. Replace what was destroyed, but make it better. Gather what you can from the ruins, then build it bigger.

Logistically, the churning FTP sites caused linking chaos. Index sites went nowhere. Web searches resulted in broken link after broken link. All of which resulted in more searches.

The trend was so pronounced that Michael Robertson paid $1,500 for the MP3.com domain with hardly a plan. Outside the ivory towers they weren’t thinking about music, philosophy, freedom, or copyright. They were thinking about money.

It was the heart of the internet boom. In 1997 Winamp became an overnight sensation. Guys in suits began to see possibilities. Then Real Network’s IPO brought instant gratification even before profits. For Broadcast.com’s 1998 IPO, gold rained from the sky. In 1999, MP3.com’s share price was tripled days before its IPO. Then it skyrocketed. Not bad for an 18 month speculative investment.

December 1999

At the end of the decade it was full scale rebellion. The NET Act had declared sharing criminal. Then the DMCA went after everyone else. The scene was a tinder box and Napster lit the match. Three years of the scene’s back catalog went online almost instantly. Thousands of full CDs from more than a hundred release groups. College kids in their dorms replicated them everywhere. Those core Napster nodes created a solid always-on P2P library for a million other teenagers using dial-up internet to download from home. The music scene was no longer just a personal diversion. For many it was a philosophical obsession.

You take the high road and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll get to IPO before you!

That, of course, had nothing to do with Napster. Napster was driven by two things. 1) Shawn Fanning hated broken MP3 links. 2) His uncle wanted to be Mark Cuban. There was no philosophy. No deep understanding of the scene. No commitment to the war.

Those things never bothered me. I didn’t even care if they all got rich. I thought Fanning’s concept was an elegant solution to the search problem. Brewster Kahle himself would have been proud. Cool ideas like that should be rewarded.

But I also knew without doubt, that Napster would be blown to smithereens. Worse yet, the public wouldn’t even be sympathetic when it was.

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

Wise politicians never antagonize newspaper editors. Napster on the other hand, had taunted the entire media industry. A group that manipulates public emotion as their stock and trade. They also threatened everyone else with a pen, brush or keyboard who considered themselves a potential next victim. The challenge could not stand.

The industry knew Napster wasn’t the rebel headquarters. They had no mistaken notion its destruction would end the war. It simply made an effective demonstration. A mere warning to anyone else who might challenge their monopoly.

I had no idea whether destruction would come before or after Napster could IPO. I didn’t really care. I had only one concern.

Making sure Christopher wasn’t wandering Alderaan with the other militia members when the Death Star came in range.

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