Note: This post is part of a continuing series of biographies of and interviews with the people who made things happen in Austin’s early internet history.
Lynn Bender is the man behind GeekAustin.org, a community for Austin’s high-tech industry. The site contains news and postings of interest to the technical community, as well as information on the numerous real world events GeekAustin.org hosts.
Brian Combs: When did you first get on the Internet?
Lynn Bender: In ’84, I took a job in the cataloging dept. at UT’s main library. As part of the job, I spent a considerable amount of time logging into remote library computers like OCLC to verify records. With the job, also came an email account. Soon after getting the email account, I learned about Usenet — which became a huge sinkhole for time.
By the time I left the library to open Europa Books in 1989, I considered a dialup account for the store and home to be a necessity. I was already in the habit of communicating with faculty and graduate students via email, and wasn’t about to give it up. Once the word got out that you could communicate with the bookstore via email, Europa began to attract a very tech savvy crowd. The fact that we stocked titles from fringe publishers like Loompanics certainly helped too.
A lot of young hacker types hung out at the store. These kids would buy books on topics like lock-picking, but would also order 600 page manuals on TCP/IP. Every time one of them came in with a shoebox of floppies — as a way of saying thanks for the good service — I half expected the Feds to come in a few minutes later. Several times they did.
I credit those kids, with their indefatigable passion, for schooling me in so many of the early internet technologies.
BC: What was the first Web project in which you were involved?
LB: I left Europa and opened Desert Books in ’96. Soon after I opened the doors, I put the store on the web. The guys at Realtime set me up with an ISDN connection. The store’s first webserver, believe it or not, was a Mac running MacHTTP — the predecessor to WebSTAR . Using Filemaker Pro as the backend and a few other tools, I put the store’s realtime inventory on the web. About the same time, Books.com launched their internet bookstore. Amazon didn’t launch until almost a year later. Obviously, I didn’t see the magnatude of the business opportunity. oops.
Once I got the bookstore site up, and saw how easy it was, I started hosting sites for other businesses around town. At one point, I was hosting almost 40 sites from that single Mac server. Because WebSTAR was notoriously difficult to crack, I could pretty much keep it on auto-pilot. Watching all the local kids trying to hack into Elysium’s and Mojo’s websites was a frequent source of amusement.
I finally shut that server down about 3 months ago. That Mac ran 24/7 for over 12 years. That was a pretty amazing piece of hardware.
BC: Of which of your internet projects are you most proud?
LB: The Linux Against Poverty installfest I hosted with Ken Starks this year was a real pleasure. With the help of about 50 volunteers and support from local businesses, we provided a few hundred computers to local kids who needed them.
BC: What inspired you to create GeekAustin?
LB: By 1999, the tech community surrounding Desert Books had grown to about 3500 names in the database. We hosted a lot of parties, and it was not uncommon to have someone like Eric Raymond or Tim O’Reilly show up at the parties. A few friends had started to call these events the “GeekAustin Parties.” When I made the decision to close the store a year later, it was important to me that I not lose touch with these friends, and not let them lose touch with each other. Since nearly all of these guys were readers of SlashDot, I asked them to help me build a site based on SlashCode, and named it GeekAustin. I’m currently in the process of migrating the site to Drupal.
BC: Other than GeekAustin, what projects are you working on currently?
LB: GeekAustin has really become an umbrella for the different projects my friends and I instigate. I just helped Dennis Gyor launch the Austin QA Pros group. The group already has a few hundred members and several educational events coming up. Through GA, I was able to help locate corporate sponsorship for the group. Last Fall, I launched a series of free tech classes (BarCollege) downtown. Some were successful, others not so much. Together with the instructors, I’m working out the kinks, and hope to relaunch the program very soon.
Hrm, what else. Ken Starks and I have already started talking about Linux Against Poverty 2010. I have a few other things coming up that I’m pretty excited about, but I’m enjoying watching the cats bounce around in the bag. I’m not ready to let them out yet.
BC: What do you think of the focus the last few years on social media technologies and channels?
LB: The tools are new, but the ideas aren’t.
When I was growing up, I watched my father who, every year beginning about the first week of December, would sit at the kitchen table for a few hours a night addressing Christmas cards to everyone who had ever bought a car from him. He didn’t have Excel, but he had a big accountant’s ledger that he used as a spreadsheet — with columns for what year the last car was bought, what the model was, etc. This was one of my father’s ways of maintaining a conversation with his customers. In the Cluetrain Manifesto, we were told that markets are conversations. This is not a new idea. Savvy sales people have known this for ages. We just have powerful new tools at our disposal.
Tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter give everyone access to the kind of data that used to take years to build. Some are learning to parse that data — to turn these tools into marketing databases. Others are using them to create distributed communities of practice. There are also those who use these tools to blast information like carrier-sort junk mail, or worse, treat the online community as a giant monopoly board, trying to place houses on as many squares as possible. Fortunately, the tools make it easy enough to ignore them.
BC: Other than social media, what are the most important things happening online today?
I can only speak for what’s important to me, and I’ve been devoting an increasing amount of time to open source projects and advocacy. In an economy where less and less people have money to pay for software — not to mention entire continents of people who couldn’t pay for it in the first place — the alternative is piracy or free open source. Without open source tools like Apache, Perl, and MySql, I never would have been able to launch GeekAustin. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to host free websites for local friends and businesses. Nearly all of the massive communities that popped up over the last decade, like LiveJournal, are built on open source software. If you pop the hood of Facebook, you see newer open source projects like Hadoop powering the backend.
I recently had to supply Build A Sign with vector art for a GeekAustin banner. If it hadn’t been for Inkscape, I would have either had to find a pirated copy of Illustrator, use a friend’s computer, or do without.
The Linux Against Poverty project made it painfully aware how important the free open source option is. None of the 200+ kids we delivered computers to would have been able to pay for a licensed copy of Windows — and then pay again for the software that sits on top of it. What about the budding artists and musicians among these? Few of their parents will be able put copies of Photoshop, Illustrator, or ProTools under the Christmas tree. So what do we say? You’re poor. No art for you?
BC: What should we be watching for (or watching out for) on the Internet in the future?
LB: I can’t say what we should be watching for, but I can tell you some of what I watch. Since the mid-90s, I’ve been watching Tim O’Reilly. Whenever some new technology came out, Tim would publish a book on it well before the topic was on most people’s radar. The easiest way to keep up with Tim is through his twitter feed (@timoreilly). If you want to take it a step further, look at who Tim follows on Twitter.
I listen to a lot of podcasts during my commute to the office. For tech stuff: Tech Nation, Technometria, and Interviews with Innovators have been longtime favorites. All are available through IT Conversations. I sometimes review new podcasts on Mopac University (a section on GeekAustin).
Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conference, said in his book Information Anxiety that Learning is remembering what is important to you. While I don’t entirely agree with that statement, I think that with all the information bombarding us, it’s easy to be in a constant state of distraction — and forget what is important to each of us.