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Decadence and penance at the Webbys

By Annalee Newitz

I was on the bus with Summer, heading to Grace Cathedral, trying to figure out whether we'd be late to the Webbys, a.k.a. the Oscars of the Web. Summer was applying some super-shiny lip gloss, which set off her giant furry red coat nicely. I was balancing my cell phone on top of the metal tin which contained my laminated Webbys press pass.

An unknown number flashed on the cell phone screen, and I hesitated for a minute before pressing the talk button. This was no time to chat. "Hello?" I said dubiously as Summer played with her sunglasses.

"Hi! This is Richard Stallman!" the phone said. I felt like one of those cartoon characters with an empty text balloon over its head. After trying to reach Stallman all week by email for an interview about something totally unrelated to the Webbys, I had given up hope of ever hearing from the elusive geek guru who founded the free software movement and created the famous GNU operating system www.gnu.org. And now he was on my cell phone. "Hey," he continued, "I'm in town and I'm on my way to the Webbys with an extra ticket. Do you want to meet me there?"

"Sure!" I said. "I'll be wearing a T-shirt that says 'I Love Porn.' "

"I guess you know what I look like," he replied. I did. After all, what self-respecting free software advocate hasn't taken a peek at Stallman's pages on the Free Software Foundation website www.fsf.org?

"Wow," I said to Summer, after he was off the phone. "I'm going to meet the most radical political activist in the programmer community."

"Oh really?" she asked, brightening. "Sounds like meeting a rock star."

But it wasn't like that at all.

As we drifted toward the Webbys pre-party in Grace Cathedral, it was obvious that I wasn't going to be locating Stallman without a great deal of effort. Packed with trays of gourmet munchies and a seemingly unlimited supply of expensive booze, the pre-party was swarming with cameras, men in suits and women in glittering evening gowns.

I scoped the crowd for Stallman, reflecting on all the rumors I'd heard about his volcanic temper and extreme eccentricity. He was said to have spent several years living on the sofa in his office at MIT; apparently he never bathed and was essentially a kind of Mad Engineer.

And then I heard someone say behind me, in a distinctive New York accent, "I bless your computer! Is your computer afflicted with non-free software?" Stallman. And he was hardly the unwashed lunatic I'd expected.

Wearing an old-fashioned 12-inch computer disk like a halo on his mane of unkempt curly hair, his arms disappearing into a Biblical-era tunic, Stallman was grinning madly and pretending to offer ironic absolution to a crowd of people from the dot-com world. "Who are you?" asked one woman, obviously charmed when Stallman placed a reverent kiss on her hand. "I'm Richard Stallman!" he replied happily. "I founded the free software movement!" She smiled without recognition, no doubt imagining she was in the presence of some nutty CEO from a company with the oddly long URL thefreesoftwaremovement.com.

"What do you think of all this?" I asked him in a rare moment of silence between blessings and TV crews pointing things at his face.

"Well, I don't use the Web," he replied calmly. His light brown eyes seemed to glow with inner peace. "It's my penance," he continued, "Because we can no longer offer guest accounts on the Free Software Foundation servers, I don't feel that it's right for me to go out into a world that I deny to others."

Even Stallman's moral intensity couldn't quite dissipate the Webbys' surreal, celebratory fog of capitalism, excess and spectacle. He was the holy geek who had decided to laugh at the imperialist dot-com armies, rather than succumb to them.

We sat together during the awards ceremony, marveling at the expensive watches we got in our goody packs, staring at the bright lights and expansive crowds, and awed by the frenetic, MTV pacing of the presentations. "It's like a rock concert," I commented, pointing my camera at Tina Brown, who took the stage to present the "best print/zine" award.

"Really?" asked Stallman. "That makes it my very first rock concert then." He continued to look beatific, but I wondered if this too wasn't another form of penance.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who now knows why it's important to remind people that it's GNU/Linux, not just Linux.

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From the May 17-24, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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