The latest in my series of case histories of #AdversarialInteroperability and the role it played in keeping tech competitive is the history of Gopher, which I was able to write thanks to the generous assistance of Gopher's co-inventor @email@example.com.
Gopher was the web's immediate predecessor, created by a student-support team at UMN, who burrowed under the mainframe systems' guardians and created a menu-driven interface to campus resources, then the whole internet.
They swallowed up FTP, broke open the silos on digital library catalogs, used terminal automation to give anyone access to the Weather Underground service at UMich (who first told them to stop, then asked for usage data for their NSF grant renewal!).
They called it "internet duct tape" - scripts and tools that let them lash together all the disparate services of the net in rough-and-ready, file-to-fit, paint-to-cover fashion.
And even as they were doing unto others, others were doing unto them. People created competing gopherspace search-engines (VERONICA and JUGHEAD, to complement ARCHIE, which searched FTP).
The endgame of this was an obscure Anglo-Swiss research project called "The World Wide Web." Browser vendors swallowed gopherspace whole, incorporating it by turning gopher:// into a way to access anything on any Gopher server.
Gopher served as the booster rocket that helped the web attain a stable orbit. But the tools that Gopher used to crack open the silos, and the move that the web pulled to crack open Gopher, are radioactively illegal today.
If you wanted do to, say, Facebook, or Ios, or Google Play, what Gopher did to the mainframes, you would be pulverized by the relentless grinding of software patents, terms of service, anticircumvention law, bullshit theories about APIs being copyrightable.
Big Tech tells you it's big due to "network effects" but this is counsel of despair. If mystical, great historic forces are what keeps it big then there's no point in trying to make it small. Better to turn it into a regulated monopoly that need never fear competitors.
And Big Tech's critics swallow this line, demanding that Big Tech be given state-like duties to police user conduct that require billions in monopoly rents, AND total control over their platforms, to perform, guaranteeing tech monopolists perpetual dominance.
But the lesson of Gopher is that adversarial interop is judo for network effects. If companies can't use the law to maintain their walled gardens, then they become game-preserves to be stalked by competitors, convenient places to find everyone who might want to switch.
Gopher isn't a one-off. Look close at the history of any of our key technologies and you'll find an adversarial interop story. Check out my growing list of case-histories for more.
@doctorow Cory did a great job of capturing the early days of Gopher in his article.
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