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Book Review: Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

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It must be gratifying to author Steve Levy to see his classic Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution celebrated with a 25th anniversary edition. It is an honor that very few books of this type ever receive. As Levy notes in his Afterword (written in 2010): “…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.”

Strangely enough, even as broad a claim as that is an understatement. The changes that computers have wrought in the world since 1985 are nothing short of profound. In a sense, 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.

It was a great time to look back because 1985 was just a little past the 25th anniversary of the first serious hackers. The first part of the book takes place at MIT, during the 1958-59 school year. 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 hackerdom was born: “Information wants to be free.”

Freedom in this case meant “hacking,” or devising by any means necessary, a way to get to the machines. These incredibly smart kids, who just wanted to explore the brave new world of computers, came up with a number of tricks to get in. Picking the locks, traversing the acoustic tiles above, and getting one of their own certified were just a few of the methods utilized. Eventually they got their way, and the sacred computers did become open to a select group, who would regularly compete to write the most elegant programs. Just for fun.

A couple of decades later, those former students looked back on the MIT experience as a hacker’s paradise. And it certainly laid a lot of groundwork for what was to follow. But things really get going in part two. The introduction of the Altair home computer in 1975 is the key moment. With this kit, it was possible for someone to have (a very primitive) computer of their own for the very first time.

Levy details the many improvements that hackers made to the basic Altair model, leading up to the introduction of the Apple II. Steve Wozniak rightly gets all the credit here, as he did all of the nuts and bolts work. One of the reasons I consider this to be such an excellent book is that many authors would have taken a huge detour from the hacker story to the Apple success story at this point. After all, Steve Jobs is an endlessly fascinating character, and in 1985, Apple was king of the home computer market.

Levy sticks with it though, moving into the third part of the book, and the gaming explosion of the early eighties. The hacker/entrepreneurs who started the Sierra, Broderbund, and Sirius game companies are an intriguing breed. The author believes they amount to a third generation of hackers. These people had to find a balance between writing games and operating a huge business.

The central conflict of Hackers is contained in the statement that “Information wants to be free.” It came from an era when access to computers was heavily restricted, and people just wanted the freedom to use them. But when that dream was realized in the mid-seventies, did it mean that free now meant “no charge?”

Bill Gates spelled out his feelings on the subject back in 1975, when he and Paul Allen wrote the first operating system for the Altair. He was 19 years old when he published “An Open Letter To Hobbyists,” which addressed the matter succinctly:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

When asked by Levy to comment on that statement 35 years later, Gates hilariously stood his ground by turning it back on the author: “Maybe magazine writers will still get paid twenty years from now, or maybe they will have to cut hair during the day, and just write at night.”

Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution is the definitive word on the subject, up to 1985 that is. What we need, Mr. Levy — is volume two. I would love to see a history as well written as this one on the massive changes wrought in the world of computing in the past 25 years. I am certain somebody will write it eventually. But they have a formidable task indeed if they try and top this one. Hackers is an outstanding read, as fresh and illuminating a history of The Hacker Ethic as you will ever find, even 25 years after its original publication. This is a true classic of the genre.

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