Updating JARGON.TXT Is Not Bogus: An Apologia
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Updating JARGON.TXT Is Not Bogus: An Apologia
In the run-up to the first edition of The New Hacker's Dictionary, and in the years since it was first published, reaction by hackers in general has been positive to enthusiastic. On the other hand, I have been occasionally but intensely flamed by some people associated with the original jargon file. In general, these are people associated with one of the cultures spawned with the DEC PDP-10 and its kin that flourished in the 1970s -- fans of SAIL, TOPS-20, and especially ITS (but also including MULTICS hackers). For brevity I group all these as `PDP-10' cultures below.
This page is addressed to those critics. If the PDP10-vs.-Unix culture wars don't mean anything to you, you might as well skip it.
The criticisms I have received share a number of common themes:
In what follows, I will try to answer these points one by one.
1. That any claim of connection to the old on-line JARGON.TXT or Steele-1983 (The Hacker's Dictionary) can only be a pretense and should be dropped.
False by the most obvious test -- Guy Steele didn't think so, he sent me softcopy of The Hacker's Dictionary to merge in, and I did so.
The new Jargon File incorporates nearly the entire body of THD, and thus of the final version(s) of JARGON maintained on prep.ai.mit.edu and on the ITS-import volumes on lcs.mit.edu. The revision was begun quite intentionally as an update of that material, though I had no idea at that time that a weekend hack was going to turn into a mega-project and a book.
After the fact, hackerdom at large has accepted the results as incorporating both the matter and spirit of the original jargon file. In the years since first publication of TNHD, the feedback I have received makes this very, very clear. Even among PDP-10 fans, I have reason to believe that discontent with the results is a minority position.
Therefore, whether jargon-2.x.x and subsequent versions are an evolutionary descendent of JARGON.TXT cannot be in question; by every test, it certainly is. Nevertheless, whether that continuity validly reflects a cultural continuity is a fair question which I attempt to address below.
2. That the UNIX and PDP-10 cultures are definitely separate and that mixing old jargon with new material is inevitably confusing or misleading.
This is also false, though I have come to understand why ITSers tend to believe it.
I first read the Jargon File while I was an ITS tourist in 1976. At that time the ITS culture cast a long shadow over the ARPAnet -- not the least because lots of people far outside MIT were impressed by the humor and spirit of the old Jargon File. Many of us adopted the File's slang as our own, feeling that we'd found a tangible sign of the community of minds we'd half-guessed to be out there.
As UNIX burgeoned and networked microcomputers came into their own, the PDP-10 and ITS influence receded in relative importance but remained with us as a recognizable and honored strain in the evolving poly-culture of the Internet.
Even though I call myself a UNIX hacker these days and haven't seriously hacked LISP since the early 1980s, FROB and MOBY and all the rest have been part of my cultural heritage for half my life -- and this is not in the least unusual!
Yes, the UNIX community has an identity of its own. But enough of us have the old JARGON.TXT as part of our roots that it would have done gross violence to history not to start from there.
3. That I do not understand the PDP-10 cultures, am thus unequipped to represent them, and should leave them and their artifacts alone.
I don't claim perfect understanding; I don't need to. I am not interested in eulogizing bygone days, but in creating a document that speaks to present ones. If you want pure history, well, JARGON.TXT is out there. I make a point of encouraging people who mirror the new Jargon File to carry the original as well.
I suppose one might claim that I never knew the `real' ITS culture at all, only its reflection in the File. I could probably argue that, because (among other things) I cut my programming teeth on a PDP-10, I've known RMS since the 1970s, visited the Lab back in the days of its glory, read a lot of the folklore, and heard many of the war stories from one point of view or another.
But I don't need to argue that either, because I'm not really interested in `representing' PDP-10 culture per se and don't pretend to be doing so.
Yes, I think the ITS tradition had and still has much to offer (it would be damn silly of me to think otherwise, considering that I composed this in EMACS). But I didn't go into this intending to represent anybody at all, just to distill some history and reports of current usage into an educational and amusing whole.
That leads straight to:
4. That the effort necessarily "rewrites history" in a way that would misrepresent the attitudes and ideas of PDP-10 fans (especially ITSers) now and in the past.
This is really hubris. The wider hacker culture doesn't think of the file as a historical document, but as a collection of intellectual graffiti.
To the extent that it is a historical document, it's become mythic history to all of us -- a sort of hacker-culture Matter of Britain indirectly chronicling the adventures of the Knights of the PDP-10 as they strove against darkness and ignorance. That the real people involved had feet of clay, and that things have changed a lot since then, is understood.
This oversimplifies in its own way, of course. It's also possible to question just whose history the file mythologized on a more factual level. The claim that my effort would rewrite ITS history in particular assumes a cathedral-like purity the original didn't possess -- or am I just imagining all the JARGON.TXT stuff from SAIL and WPI and CMU and elsewhere?
5. That PDP-10-derived entries should not be changed; that the most updating acceptable to PDP-10ers would be to pub an annotated edition, with new material kept rigidly separate from the old.
I have neither the ability nor the desire to nuke all existing copies of JARGON.TXT. That should be sufficient answer by itself.
However, I do feel compelled to add that there seems something faintly ludicrous about treating JARGON.TXT as a sacred, untouchable icon. Where has the keen irreverence that was so much of the original's appeal gone?
Must I conclude that many of the playful geniuses of 1977 have soured into a misanthropic gang of navel-gazing fuddy-duddies? That the only role they can now imagine for the File is one which exalts history and makes only the most grudging concessions to time and change?
I hope not. But more than once on this long strange trip I've felt a weird sense of dislocation, of disbelief, of sadness -- because, among other things, too many of the people willing to condemn the new File have done so on the flimsiest basis, without having read it or offered constructive criticisms. I simply could not reconcile the bold, youthful spirit of the original jargon file with the peevish chuntering since emanating from some of its would-be defenders.
To be fair, though, many critics do have the name issue separated from the content issues. This leads to:
6. That the name of the effort should not be `the Jargon File' but something different.
There have been times I was almost tempted to agree with this -- until I thought about the contributions and reactions of the vast majority of the people who've seen it. The revision process has acquired a momentum of its own -- the fact that I've done it in public has changed the very conditions under which we can debate what `is' or `is not' the One True Jargon File.
To the UNIX culture, USENET, and the whole world other than a minority of the last PDP-10 purists, what I'm collecting is `the jargon'; functionally, linguistically, and mythically this document is as intimately related to JARGON.TXT as it could possibly be and remain a celebration of the present -- and if I were to change the official name to pacify disgruntled PDP-10ers, the net as a whole would just nod and go on calling it the Jargon File!
But even that ducks the most fundamental issue. Even if I had the power to make people think of the new File as something else, I wouldn't do it. It was long past time for JARGON.TXT to be superseded in 1991 -- it just wasn't representative any more; it no longer filled the communal needs that originally earned it a special place in hacker folklore.
I guess I was responding to this in a half-conscious way when I began the revision. I'm very conscious about it now, having received bucketfuls of email expressing the most touching gratitude for reviving it, from old-timer and newbie alike. It is clear that the new File, and its book form The New Hacker's Dictionary. does fill those needs.
Please understand that I claim no special prescience about this; in a weird way I even doubt I deserve much of the credit. When I started, I was simply responding as a member of my culture to a conspicuous gap; if it hadn't been me, it would've been somebody else (quite possibly someone without my ties to the historical PDP-10 cultures who would have had far less respect for the older parts of the material).
Finally, there is:
7. That the new material is UNIX-centric.
Of all the criticisms levelled at the effort, I think this is the single one that really troubles me -- because I agree that it may be a problem, and I'm not sure how I can fix it.
I could dismiss it by arguing that hacker culture, taken as a whole, is now UNIX-centric; and that such a bias is appropriate, and part of the flavor, just as (say) the anti-Multics bias in JARGON.TXT was in relation to the TOPS-10 and ITS-dominated culture it was describing.
I have two problems with this. The first, which is more personal, is that (even though I believe it's true) if I heard it from somebody else it would sound lazy, too easy a copout for a guy who happens to be a professional UNIX wizard. The second, which is more `social', is that it clearly raises the risk of discounting and smothering contributions from vigorous `minority' computing cultures that might otherwise add breadth and color to the File.
I have tried to address the problem by making a special effort to cultivate respondents from non-UNIX technical cultures (Mac fans, Multics people, MS-DOS hackers, etc.) To some extent I've been able to lean on my own career history, which happens to span an unusually broad range of machines and languages. And there are a lot of entries from inside -- of all places -- IBM in the File.
Nevertheless, I feel continuing concern about this, and it is a respect in which I would appreciate constructive help from ex-ITSers, PDP-10 fans of all stripes, and everybody else.
Please -- rather than complaining that I am ``rewriting history'', help me write it! I would like to have more entries that are just as funny and snide about UNIX as JARGON.TXT was about other things, preferably entries written by certified Unix-haters with a cursor dipped in acid.
More generally, I would like to have entries that skewer present computing environments by comparing them to `stone knives and bearskins', providing only that they adduce something suitably illuminating and funny about the PDP-10 traditions or their targets.
Please read the new Jargon File. Think about it. And then ask yourselves what you can do that's constructive, that adds to the richness of the culture and represents your viewpoints within it, rather than simply trying to stop the effort or redirect it away from any particular herd of sacred cows.
Please help me show that the true hacker spirit is still alive.
(This was an updated version of an article I originally posted to alt.folklore.computers in December 1991, entitled ``An Open Letter To The ITS Community''.)
Eric S. Raymond <email@example.com>