Two years after the explosion, the rate of innovation began to exhibit dangerous side effects. The explosive growth had provided an exciting validation of the collaborative hacker approach, but it had also led to over-complexity. "We had a Tower of Babel effect," says Guy Steele.

Such speculation benefits from the fast and loose nature of most so-called " behavioral disorders" nowadays, of course. As Steve Silberman, author of " The Geek Syndrome," notes, American psychiatrists have only recently come to accept Asperger Syndrome as a valid umbrella term covering a wide set of behavioral traits.

"He used to be so conservative," she says, throwing up her hands in mock exasperation. "We used to have the worst arguments right here at this table. I was part of the first group of public city school teachers that struck to form a union, and Richard was very angry with me. He saw unions as corrupt. He was also very opposed to social security. He thought people could make much more money investing it on their own. Who knew that within 10 years he would become so idealistic? All I remember is his stepsister coming to me and saying, `What is he going to be when he grows up? A fascist?'"