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February 24, 2000

A Utopian With a Twinkle and an Idea: Online Democracy

By REBECCA FAIRLEY RANEY Bio

It's difficult to find a year that was not interesting for Jim Warren, but 1977 was as interesting a year as any.



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.
That was when his commune broke up because everyone got married, and the year he accidentally made a fortune.

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 followed.

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 said.

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 Internet.

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 government.

"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 day.

"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 million.

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 added.

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 rfr@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.




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