Heroes of Tech: Pieter Hintjens (1962–2016)
A man known for his tech AND his ideas
Pieter Hintjens was probably best known for A Protocol For Dying, a blog post he wrote after learning he had metastatic cancer and only a short amount of time to live. The title was somewhat of a pun, as Hintjens specialized in protocols, but focusing too much on his final illness may take away from his ideas.
Hintjens was also famous for ZeroMQ, an open source, asynchronous messaging library that is still popular today. ZeroMQ can mostly be thought of as a socket library. He has a post about how ZeroMQ is a lot more than just a socket library, but…no…it’s a socket library. You define a context, you have this thing called a ZeroMQ socket, you can bind it, and then you can use it to send data.
Okay, FINE. Maybe it is more than just sockets. Looks a lot like sockets to me, though.
Hintjens believed in open source communities, “social architecture,” and decentralization. His final unfinished project was a decentralized Internet, and he had self-proclaimed radical ideas about how to properly lead an open source community.
In case you do not feel you have time to watch this entire talk by Hintjens himself, let me do my best to provide a summary: Hintjens was more proud of his work running a community than he was of his technical abilities. He said that many people fail to understand what really constitutes good code: In the beginning, Martin Sustrik and another talented programmer mainly coded ZeroMQ in a vacuum: A few people were producing amazing, logical, beautiful code that was not accounting for its users at all. So Hintjens believed in flipping the model on its head — get as many contributors as possible, accept their pull requests as quickly as possible, and in time the system will become self-correcting. He likened his model to that of Wikipedia: Everyone complained that the vandalism would be rampant, but in reality community members are empowered to correct what is wrong.
I don’t personally agree with all of his ideas, but I agree with many of them. Here are other ideas he presents in his talk:
- The future is distributed. Computers are everywhere now, and like the original Internet, the future should be grown…not built. What IS the Internet? The Internet is little more than a stack of protocols, yet it was built by both no one and everyone
- I suppose you could say Tim Berners Lee planted the seed and made the Internet possible, but he allowed it to grow on its own accord. That’s…MY commentary, not something Hintjens explicitly states in his talk
- Hintjens has a community where there is barely a leader at all. He does not have a grand vision, but rather he empowers others to lead
- One person asks in Q&A if the Hintjens model is the same as anarchy. Hintjens says that to go with this analogy, it is not anarchy — there are existing countries, and there are governments, but the citizens are free to leave and go to whichever country they choose. There ARE contracts, and there ARE rules, and they MUST BE enforced. But if the community members so wish, they can leave
- Another person in Q&A asks if this is not replicating a problem Wikipedia has — there are some really controversial articles that are allowed to exist. Hintjens argues that it is impossible to get to a “single truth,” so if people find themselves at an impasse regarding the right way to do something…fork the repository. This is a perfect acceptable conclusion of a dispute
A Protocol For Dying
Hintjens met someone named Somech, and said that he reminded him of a younger version of himself. He chose him as his successor for the ZeroMQ project.
In his final days, Hintjens’ biggest concern was explaining things to his children — they were not even teenagers yet. He would have to make them understand that they would not get to grow up with him as a father.
But instead of being a dark piece, “A Protocol For Dying” is a short piece expressing only gratitude. He is grateful for having lived and for having those last days with his children. He is grateful for the software community he led, and the many he interacted with in the process. And he is grateful for getting to write about it, without having a condition that slowly strips him of his mind.
…which is why I am kind of pissed the comments section is overrun with spam bots trying to sell cancer cures.
Why is ZeroMQ important?
By the way, Hintjens himself said he enjoyed Ilya’s article, so I am not sure who he is arguing with on the Reddit thread.
If we could bring Hintjens back to life, among other things I would be really curious if he thought Web3 was what he had in mind when he talked about a decentralized Internet.
Probably not, but maybe?