Hackers, Heroes of the Information Revolution

July 27, 2014
Steven Levy

Steven Levy's classic Hackers (which I read in its 2010 25th anniversary edition) is, first and foremost, a book that attempts to tell the tale of hacker culture and to recount how hackers, not big businesses or government institutions, were the main force in bringing the computer — a technology born in war, by and for governments and big businesses — to the general public. It is a story about technology, but even more so, it is a story about the people who dedicated themselves to that technology.

Levy's primary thread through the story is the Hacker Ethic, the set of principles that make up the loosely-defined philosophy to which the hackers adhered:

  1. Access to computers, and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works, should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority; promote decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

The book relates four major stories, each from its own era of hacker history: The true hackers of the 50's and 60's, the hardware hackers of the 70's, the game hackers of the 80's — and finally, the story of lonely Richard Stallman, the last of the true hackers. It follows some of the most glorious victories of hackerdom (ITS, Spacewar, Lisp, the Homebrew Computer Club) and some of its most ignominious defeats (the vaporware Tom Swift Terminal, the video game crash, the ill-fated Lisp Machines).

The hackers themselves are generally depicted sympathetically, without falling into the trap of idolizing them. Since these people have the status of cultural heroes in my particular walk of life, it seems oddly arrogant to say that I can recognize myself in many of them. I'm convinced that many of them were autistic (the utterly single-minded drive, the rigid structure, the complete disregard for the amenities of a "normal life", the self-absorption). Bob Saunders, who answers rhetorical questions with literal and brutal honesty; Lee Felsenstein, who perceived himself as the hero of a Heinleinian science fiction story going on in his mind; John Harris, who doggedly stuck with his Atari 8-bit consoles a decade after their obsolescence.

The material on the early 80's microcomputer boom turned me into a wretched mass of retrocomputing nostalgia, as I expected it would. These were things and people I remember. My mother was an early adopter, and I remember well those crazy afternoons in my childhood, spent on living the pure pleasure of getting my Commodore VIC-20 (and later, my C64) to do the things I wanted and on figuring out the intricacies of its machine language. I typed in listings of BASIC (and occasional machine code) gleaned from game magazines; back when paper, of all things, were the primary medium of game distribution. I'd figure out how games worked and introduce my own "improvements". In the 90's, I even had my own "my tribe has died" moment (making RMS' and John Harris' tales particularly poignant), when the Amiga demo scene (another hacker haven, which I am fairly certain would have had a part of its own if the book had been 10 years newer and written by an European) died down. I remember memorizing assembly mnemonics, learning (and coming up with) obscure machine tricks, all the sort of weird and crazy shit that takes dedication, caffeine and all-night hacking binges that Normal People just can't put into it.

I sometimes lament that Kids These Days don't really have anything like what I did with my C64 and my Amigas — my first real contact with the world the hackers wrought — but I guess they're laughing at me while hacking JavaScript. This book recounts the tale of how that came to pass. Born in the MIT machine room, the hacker ethic fuelled the personal computer revolution that has now created a world where we can be virtually certain that as long as there are computers, new generations of curious, impassioned hyper-focused nerds will be hacking them. Try as they might, the vile ilk of modern-day Apple (itself once a hacker haven) can make all the walled gardens they want to keep hackers from their machines, but that will — in the end — only make them go the way of IBM.

Powered by Plutonium