Michael S. Hart, Internet pioneer and good guy dies.

Long before The Evil Empire Google began to scrape up out of copyright and non – copyright material from wherever they could find it and then assert copyright over stuff that rightly belonged in the public domain, before the med scientist Tim Berners Lee created the travesty that is the World Wide Web, before Microsoft destroyed your right to privacy and Facebook stole your personal data, internetworking technology was in the hands of good guys.

Before even I was involved in networking computers, and bear in mind, in internet timescales I am almost as old as any Enochian demon, there was Project Gutenberg.

I was saddened to hear that Michael Stern Hart the founder of Project Gutenberg had died at the reatively early age of 64.

Hart, commonly considered the founder of the ebook, died last week at his Illinois home, according to a representative of Renner-Wikoff Chapel and Crematory.

Though Michael Hart’s brainchild did not make him a rich man as other internet pioneers became rich by peddling computer solutions that were to put it bluntly, “not fit for purpose”, he does not appear to have ever been motivated by wealth. People who knew him said Project Gutenberg was his life and his love.

The non profit project, run using a network of volunteers, was dedicated to providing free online access to as many books as could be converted to an electronic format, in particular classical and ancient works as well as scholarly writings on a wide range of topics. Project Gutenberg was the first organisation to make works as diverse as the plays of Shakespeare, Homer’s epics, the books of Brauch Spinoza and the writings of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein available online.

Project Gutenberg will live on, the mantle will be picked up by Hart’s many followers who like him are motivated by a genuine love of learning and enlightenment to share knowledge freely, unlke commercial organisations that claim altruistic motives but really are motivated by profit and control.

A friend of mine on a US site, who posts as Joe Schitte, says there is no such thing as altruism and he has a point. Michael Hart was motivated by self interest in that what he did was driven by his great love of doing it. Project Gutenberg was not a path to riches, fame or power for him, it was a joy, the thing that gave meaning to his life. To that extent it was self interest.

But Mother Teresa was, was she not, primarily motivated by earning herself a place in heaven?

Martin Luther King was, was he not, set on a course of making for himself a place in history?

And heart transplant pioneer Christian Barnard was motivated by competitiveness with others to be fisrt to achieve something.

All those other “altruistic” people too, people credited with putting the common good before self interest were, were they not, driven by an emotional need to be seen by their peers as good?

Only history will judge whether Michael Stearn Hart’s work freed our cultural heritage from it’s bondage between the covers of books or paved the way for some really evil bastards to grab control of information that was never theirs in order to profit from it (you may think the web is “free” but how many sites do you visit that are not serving you “targeted ads”, a practice I find fascistic ans repugnant?)

For now the death of Michael Hart is sad but the world is a better place for his having lived.

Michael Hart – The Guardian
Obituary on Project Gutenberg website
Michael Hart – an appreciation from The Independent