February 24, 2000
A Utopian With a Twinkle and an Idea: Online Democracy
By REBECCA FAIRLEY RANEY
difficult to find a year that was not
interesting for Jim Warren, but 1977 was
as interesting a year as any.
That was when his commune broke up
because everyone got married, and the year
he accidentally made a fortune.
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
SPREADING THE WORD -
Jim Warren at his home in Northern California. He, was one of the first to propose that technology
could foster a truly educated citizenry.
So he bought some land and built a house.
It became a place for many things: the
headquarters of the first West Coast computer fair, the office of a rabble-rousing
community newspaper and the command
center for Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer
Calisthenics and Orthodontia (considered
the first software magazine). If you could
place the cradle of electronic democracy in
real space, it would be there.
From his house in Northern California
and his Macintosh, Mr. Warren, long a promoter of utopian communities, became one
of the first to forward the notion that cheap
electronic communication could foster a
truly educated citizenry.
More than a decade ago, he proposed
through his columns that technology could
electrify the republic. Largely because of
his efforts, California became the first state
to require that legislative information be
published online, and some other states soon
After government technology administrators told legislators that making computerized legislative information available to the
public would cost millions of dollars, Mr.
Warren argued that the project could be
done through the Internet for a fraction of
the cost. He helped draft legislation to that
end, then ran an online campaign that notified several thousand people of legislative
action on the bill and encouraged them to
get in contact with legislators at every step
of the way.
"He's the grandfather of it all," said
Graeme Browning, author of "Electronic
Democracy: Using the Internet to Influence
American Politics" (Pemberton Press,
1996). "He was thinking about it long before
the expensive, overproduced Web sites and
the million-dollar campaigns on the Internet
were even thought of."
Mr. Warren's home base, a three-story
glass-and-wood marvel that he designed,
sits on 40 acres in the mountains of San
Mateo County, reached by winding roads
traveled these days mostly by Saabs and
BMW's. Neil Young is one of the neighbors.
There's the third-floor shower, with four
shower heads and a view. ("I've never had
more than eight people in there," Mr. Warren said.)
On the lower deck, overlooking the ocean,
there's the Jacuzzi, which seats 12. Another
bathroom offers a view of San Francisco
from an elevated tub, and a basement room
holds a photo lab and an offset printing
press. ("What every backwoods cabin
should have," Mr. Warren said.)
As his housemates dropped by -- he lives
with about a half-dozen people, including
two former girlfriends, a computer geek, his
caretaker and their children -- he settled
into the kitchen and started his story in 1964.
He was 28 then, had a master's degree in
mathematics and statistics from the University of Texas at Austin and had spent five
years as a high school math teacher in his
hometown of San Antonio. He headed for
California, looking for a change, and landed
in the Bay Area "about two weeks before
the free speech movement exploded," he
He took a job as chairman of the math
department at a Catholic women's college,
but the arrangement did not last.
"I was throwing these huge nude parties
at my house," Mr. Warren said, a practice
his employers found "rather incompatible"
with the school's philosophy.
Losing that job forced him to look for
another line of work. A friend who valued
Mr. Warren's volunteer work teaching at
the Mid-Peninsula Free University gave
him a job as a programmer at Stanford
Medical Center to guarantee that he would
have sufficient income to continue teaching.
During those years, Mr. Warren earned
more master's degrees: one in computer
engineering from Stanford University and
another in medical information science
from the University of California at San
Francisco. He also worked as a research
assistant on a project at Stanford University
called Arpanet, an experimental computer
network that became the precursor to the
He joined the Homebrew Computer Club
in Menlo Park, where a group of hobbyists
got together to swap code.
Among them was a young man named
Steve Jobs, who presented to the club one of
the first demonstrations of his new invention, the Apple computer.
It was no accident, Mr. Warren said, that
the personal computing movement was
born in the Bay Area. Its goal was to place
computing power into the hands of individuals, rather than to allow it to remain exclusively the domain of corporations and the
"Much of the hippie and antiwar and
utopian movements in the Bay Area, I think,
were key contributors to why microcomputing took off in the Bay Area," Mr. Warren
said. "Why? Because we were willing to
share, rather than lock it up under patent."
In the mid-1970's, Mr. Warren started
editing Dr. Dobb's Journal, a job that paid
$350 per month. In 1977, he decided to put
together a computer fair as an outcropping
of the Homebrew Computer Club.
Like many of the computer industry's
great successes, the fair started as a fiasco.
Mr. Warren secured a location, advertised
the fair from coast to coast and then found
he could not get the hall.
He and his partner, Bob Reiling, scrambled to find another location. The San Francisco Civic Auditorium was available, but
for $13,000 per day, a staggering sum to a
man who grossed less than $5,000 a year.
But Mr. Warren ran some quick figures on a
napkin and figured that they might be able
to break even. All he wanted to do was get
people together to talk.
Thirteen thousand people showed up.
Much to Mr. Warren's surprise, the enterprise, the West Coast Computer Faire,
turned a substantial profit from the first
"It printed money," Mr. Warren said. "It
just printed money."
A few years later, he sold the fair to the
Prentice-Hall publishing company for $3
After that, he had time to pursue politics.
He ran for office and was elected as a
trustee to the local community college
board, lost an election for county supervisor
and fought the local planning department
when zoning laws kept him from beginning
another commune. He also published newspapers, wrote computer columns and eventually fused the worlds of politics and computing.
In the early 1990's, Ms. Browning, at the
time a writer for The National Journal, said
she, along with others, was entertained by
the passionate anger Mr. Warren directed in
his e-mail newsletter, GovAccess, and his
Boardwatch magazine columns toward
computer-illiterate elected officials. Years
before the inception of the World Wide Web,
he was outraged that nearly all Congressional offices did not have e-mail addresses.
But now that politicians are hiring public
relations firms to spread the news of their
passion for the Internet, Mr. Warren is more
annoyed than ever with the way politicians
are using it.
Accidental fruits of an e-
career: a reputation as a
reformer and a house with
a communal shower.
"Web pages don't count," he said. "It's
like putting a brochure on the counter.
That's not outreach."
He had envisioned a world of what he calls
"electronic precinct walking," in which
campaigns would turn staff members loose
in online forums to discuss issues with voters. He mounted campaigns in 1992 and 1996
to try to get presidential campaigns to engage in online debates before the primaries,
which has still not happened.
The current campaigns have staged online forums, but only when the public goes to
Web sites the candidates' staffs control.
"That's the counterpart of having someone pick up literature in your campaign
headquarters," Mr. Warren said.
He saw the resistance of campaigns to
engaging the public in open forums back in
1996, when one campaign's staff members
told him that they did not want to participate in an online debate because they could
not control the message. "They didn't know
who was going to ask something and couldn't control what comments people were
going to make," Mr. Warren said.
But seeking out voters in forums "benefits the public
in that it is not a controlled message," he
Mr. Warren has not agitated for online
debates in this election year, and he has not
unleashed his usual torrent of e-mail messages railing at the backwardness of those
in power. But Mr. Warren says he is available if anyone wants help. He does not care
whether the candidate is conservative or
liberal, just as long as the goal is to get
information to people.
And his price for such advice? Passing up
the chance to join the wave of profiteers
crowding the computing world now, he said
it would not be the first time he had worked
without a paycheck.
Rebecca Fairley Raney at firstname.lastname@example.org welcomes your comments and suggestions.