Hackers:Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy
In many coder’s mind, there is a general feeling that Steven Levy’s classic 1984 book on the culture, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is one of the best ever written. And as Stephen Levy noted in his Afterword written five years ago during the 25th anniversary of the original book publication: “…I did shoot high, making the case that the brilliant programmers who discovered worlds in the computer were the key players in a sweeping digital transformation.” One has to admire the first generation of hackers and how Stephen Levy book has spread the rich history of the hacker ethic. There are other books that have made their mark among hackers over the years, but think Levy’s book, is among the best.The changes that computers have wrought in the world since 1985 are reaching and thoroughgoing.It was a great time for levy to look back because 1985 was just a little past the 25th anniversary of the first serious hackers.I believe that, Levy was in the right place at the right time, although he could hardly have known it. At that time, Windows had not yet been released and Apple was still king of the home computer front.Nowadays most people are always looking to pin their problems on a villain.Naturally it makes human beings feel a little better. When it comes to the ongoing debate about creating and protecting information, that villain has over the years been hackers but what people don’t realize is that without hackers there’d never been freely available information.Levy does an excellent job of describing the era of white lab-coat wearing IBM people whose sole function was to deny access to all but the “anointed.”
This is where one of the key mantras of hacker-dom was born: “Information wants to be free.” Code is not something that should be guarded, that should be hidden behind a flashy interface as the folks at MIT wanted. When well executed,code is art all by itself.Having read this book,I have the feeling that even though code is everywhere, we don’t know anything about it.Hackers made tools to make tools and the microcomputer Altair was a kit which hobbyists had to assemble themselves.Today, we either troop to shops online or brick and mortar to buy laptops with a closed system.Modern buyers pay attention only to the surface and forget that what lies beneath it, is a deep, rich territory just asking to be explored.The first part of the book takes reader to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during the 1958-59 school year. Levy’s talks about three different generations of hackers namely the Orthodox Hackers, the Hardware Hackers, and the Game Hackers. His story begins at MIT not at the miniature models of the Tech Model Railroad Club.The MIT professor who spearheaded the TMRC, and hence the first hackers, had connections to the phone industry which according to what I was taught in school had the best electronics at the time.They used them to build an incredible railroad model. Sadly the work was affected when the hackers discovered a punch card machine in the basement of building 9 according to Levy.Levy describes in intricate detail the first hackers interaction with first the punch card machine and then, their TX-0 and to the Hacker’s paradise, the PDP-6. Along with those first Hackers, Levy describes the bureaucracy that they hate, and its incarnation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the IBM “Hulking Giants.”
From Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Levy explores Hackers at Stanford AI lab and tackles in depth how the movements in the 1960’s affected the hackers, and how some of them shared their populist views by taking hacking to the streets to support the ideas of free speech and access to information. Levy discusses the debate that raged over whether or not hacking for Massachusetts Institute of Technology was The Right Thing,considering almost all of their funding came from Advanced Research Projects Agency which was a part of the Department of Defense.I admired the way Levy described the second generation of hackers as the Hardware Hackers. These individuals were, unlike the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford Hackers, decentralized, with no academic structure to support their activities. Levy chronicles how the second generation of hackers never bothered about software and instead, focused their fight for the idea that computers should be liberated from the enormous industry bureaucracies that was led by IBM, the maker of the Hulking Giants.The Hardware hackers ended up forming computing clubs which eventually fostered the introduction of kit computers. Levy talks in depth about the Homebrew Computer Club and its rivals.Levy dedicates an entire chapter, “WOZ” and diagrams the introduction of the Altair, to the building of the Sol, the TRS-80 and finally the Apple II.Significantly, the Apple II sets the stage for the third generation hackers whom he describes as,the Game Hackers. These were anyone who could write software for the meager processors in the Apple II and the Atari 800, the vast majority of which were games.
There’s no doubt Levy narrates the story of the game company Sierra On-Line and its humble beginnings incredibly well. And, he also tells the story of the game hackers, who were the first in large numbers to become wealthy beyond their beliefs thanks to 30% game royalties. Levy wades into the controversy Bill Gates caused when he found out that Hackers were “stealing” his BASIC interpreter for the Altair.The author also reveals how the helter-skelter break up between the original Game Hackers and the game publishers as the industry matured and how bureaucracy cut out Hackers by not giving them authorship credit for games and slashing their royalty shares.And thats when the decline of the Hacker Ethic started.Hackers started companies and free information became encrypted.Levy discusses the tragical split of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Orthodox Hackers as the first LISP machines went into production.In his chapter entitled “The Last of the True Hackers” and tells the story of a young MIT Hacker named Richard Stallman who liked to be referred to by his initials (RMS) because it symbolized his login name.Stallman is devoted to Hacker Ethic and he sabotaged the commercially evil Symbolics to stay true to his belief. Even now, he is still one of most important advocate of the Hacker Ethic. In the second afterword the one from 2010, Levy states that Stallman ‘provided the intellectual framework that led to the open source movement.’ The book explains the widespread belief amongst hackers in the ‘Right Thing.’ Problems can be solved in multiple ways but in the world of coding there is always one solution which outshines all the others. This mastery of solutions is the Right Thing to do.Stallman is very persistent in doing the Right Thing,though not even his standards are what they used to be.
Levy defines and explains what exactly The Right Thing is, and why it was so important to the Hackers. He discusses all of the computers in terms of the people who used them.It’s after this generation that crackers also known as a black hat hacker,individuals with extensive computer knowledge whose purpose is to breach or bypass internet security or gain access to software without paying royalties emerged. The general view is that, while hackers build things, crackers break things.Generally, cracker is the name given to hackers who break into computers for criminal gain whereas, hackers are experts hired to find vulnerabilities in systems and are known as white hat hackers.Though it was the discussion of the last 40 years worth of computers is in depth, Levy’s is a story of people, and how their interaction with machines created a new kind of ethic.From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Hackers Greenblatt and Gosper to the Berkeley street Hacker Felsenstein to the master of Atari 800 assembly language John Harris to Apple Computer’s Steve Wozniac, Levy’s narrative runs deep into the Hacker ethic within these individuals and what they did for the fledgling computer industry.Overall, the book is about the pranks, TX-0, computer languages,phone phreaking, games, artificial intelligence, logic, capitalism, bumming, 30 hour day cycles, intelligence, encryption, the rise of the personal computer, betrayal, political action, communities, success, failure, ethics and above all passion. The author celebrates the work of different generations of hackers and admirably transcends general stereotypes image of hackers.These hackers may be socially awkward and interestingly there are no women mentioned in the book.This book reconfirmed my long held belief that culture can change technology and that technology changes culture.