In memory of Gene Kan

by Andy Oram

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Gene's chapter for our Peer-to-Peer book brimmed over with sensitivity toward people's social behavior, insights into how technology reflected such behavior, and concern for supporting people the way they really are. He was well-matched with his fellow contributors to the Peer-to-Peer book, many of whom never met but all of whom combined technical insight with unhackneyed, free-thinking views about society and what was good about life.

He told me once that the best time of his career lay before Sun, before InfraSearch, before Gnutella, when he was a documentation tools specialist. I realize now that his clinical depression simply prevented him from enjoying the excitement and significance of his peer-to-peer work. All the time he was inspiring thousands of people, he was taking nothing from it himself; very sad.

Gene's fame shows the balance that open source projects require. Gene was the point person to go to for news about Gnutella. But Gnutella itself, as a protocol with dozens of implementations, has no leader or even an official spokesperson. We need for people to grab an idea and go off in different directions. But we also need quasi-stable interfaces to the media and to companies that show interest in open source projects. Gene played this role for Gnutella, and I'm sure he didn't ask for it. It came to him naturally because he was the right kind of person to handle it.

Nowadays, we know that depression is an illness like any other, often with a chemical basis. This helps me accept Gene's death. I don't have to look for a flaw of Greek tragic proportions or ask where he went wrong. I know that the illness just caught up with him before his doctors figured out the appropriate treatment. I can be thankful to Gene for what he did for me, and continue to hold him up as a model for anyone who desires to bring technology into harmony with humanity.