Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution By Steven Levy

    Steven Levy » 4 Summary

    This 25th anniversary edition of Steven Levy's classic book traces the exploits of the computer revolution's original hackers -- those brilliant and eccentric nerds from the late 1950s through the early '80s who took risks, bent the rules, and pushed the world in a radical new direction. With updated material from noteworthy hackers such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Stallman, and Steve Wozniak, Hackers is a fascinating story that begins in early computer research labs and leads to the first home computers.

    Levy profiles the imaginative brainiacs who found clever and unorthodox solutions to computer engineering problems. They had a shared sense of values, known as the hacker ethic, that still thrives today. Hackers captures a seminal period in recent history when underground activities blazed a trail for today's digital world, from MIT students finagling access to clunky computer-card machines to the DIY culture that spawned the Altair and the Apple II. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

    I'm migrating all my reviews to my blog. I'm keeping the old version here (because it makes sense to do it) but you can read the latest one on my blog: https://pothix.com/hackerscomputerrev...

    Great book. John Carmack said it was the most inspiring book for him and I can understand why.

    The word Hackers is not the same these days, but the Hacker Ethics still lives in some of the programmers out there. Those guys that keep hacking (and/or programming) for hours and hours just for the joy of create and modify things still exists.

    It made me think about the old times when I used to use part of my “sleep time” to work on some C++/SDL code just to understand how could I bring 2D game to life with these tools.

    This book (and these old hackers) motivated me to bring my hacker lifestyle again. It’s time to get back. :) Nonfiction I'm still sort of processing this book a week later. All the status updates I posted are notes I wrote on paper while I was reading, alas I ran out of scraps while sick in bed, somewhere around pg 350. (the goodreads entry says this has more pages than the copy I have, btw.)

    Note: this is a really long and somewhat rambling review.

    A few themes stick out, notably West coast vs East coast. No, seriously. The first section is all MIT hackers, the other two are west coast focused (hippie hackers and the gaming biz). Shockingly, the hippie hacker community actually manage to get more shit done.

    My pet theory is that it relates to engagement with the rest of the world. Those MIT guys really got to lock themselves away from everything, and they really liked it that way. (There's some interesting moments of cognitive dissonance of the radical openness within the lab vs the military funding for the lab.) Which meant they were doing fascinating crazy stuff, but it didn't necessarily have any effect on the masses. Whereas the hippies -- or at least some of the influential folks in that scene -- actually cared about the rest of the world. And of course the gamers were out to make money. So they were the ones who got computing and the hacker ethos out into the world.

    Another thing that I kept running into: I'd be excited about the hackers' excitement, totally understanding that sense of flow...and then: ugh, thoroughly unpleasant people. Not just unpleasant individuals, but a repellent culture. I found that most true of the MIT hackers and the gamers, FWIW.

    Possibly related: the overwhelming maleness of the hacker culture throughout the entire book. A lack of balance?

    Also possibly related: a quote about Stallman (p 438) - He recognized that his personality was unyielding to the give-and-take of common human interaction. (That line? Made me bust up laughing.)

    Another somewhat random observation: baby boomers. Didn't occur to me until reading the last afterword, and the conversation between Levy & Gates, that all these hackers were boomers. I'd never really thought about the hacker ethos/community as also being a creation of that generation. Huh.

    What does all this mean to the things I've ranted about on my blog? (I had that in the back of my head while I was reading, based on an email conversation with the person who sent me the book.) I'm still not sure. It does make the underlying ethos of Facebook make more sense, although not any less repellent. In fact, maybe it's more so, because there's a historical thread connecting it to guys crawling through the ceiling to steal keys out of desks. (WTF? That still blows my mind.) And thus, a lack of learning how the rest of the world perceives reality.

    And for the gender thing? I see it even more, and I keep wondering how much of our current situation is inevitable given the history, what would have happened if the history had been different, etc. It also contexualizes the history of sexism in computing against the history of sexism in general (wait, did that sentence make any sense?) - the whole damn world was sexist then. My mother was one of three women in her high school trig class, and IIRC she was the only one who finished. Whereas when I took higher math in high school, I'd say the class was split more like 50/50. So the idea of the MIT hackers that there's some biological difference that kept women out of their world is nuts. Their world -- despite its lack of football -- was hyper-masculine, disconnected from anything that wasn't the guys and the machines. The story of the woman whose program got screwed up because of an unauthorized upgrade by hackers -- and she was doing something real -- made a impression on me as far as that's concerned. But that impression of hackerdom being a male province only fed on itself, so that women who were interested in computers were an oddity. (For example, what happened to the housewives who disappeared into the community center computer? Why weren't they able to become part of the hacker community?)

    As I said, I'm still processing.

    And that said, it was a well-written book; fantastic story-telling. The follow-ups were interesting as well, given that the book ends basically with a reference to the movie Wargames. Good stuff, overall, and definitely recommended. Nonfiction This book, the original version, changed my life when I read it in high school. It, along with The Cuckoo's Egg, put me on the road to computer science in college. Nonfiction I don't usually review before finishing but I'm not sure I'll get through this one so might as well.

    It's a bloated and repetitive book that focuses on a very specific area and drags it out as far as you can conceivably take it.

    The author seems to think the people in the book are extraordinarily interesting, with their petty neuroses and self-centred immaturity, but unfortunately, they are ...not.

    Do yourself a favour and watch the excellent films Pirates of Silicon Valley and Micromen instead, if you want to know about this particular era of computing.

    There are lots of very interesting parts of Computer Science History, but this book isn't one of them. I'm more intrigued by Hero of Alexandria's first forays into Robotics; Ada Lovelace and the start of programming; the incredibly fascinating Bletchley Park and enigma code breakers... when you are used to genuinely absorbing computer science history, this book just doesn't cut the mustard.

    It also only cares about a particular era of young, obnoxious male Americans and acts casually as though their contribution to computer science is the only one that counts for anything. It doesn't even include young Female Americans who contributed, like Grace Hopper, Klara dan Von Neumann, Margaret Fox, Katherine Johnson etc. ... preferring to buy into the idea that women just don't do computer science...strange isn't it?

    No, the strange thing is how this ignorance still gets perpetuated as a fact in an information book about computer science, in this century. Give me a break.

    My main complaint though is that...it's just boring. It doesn't have to be, but it is. As another commenter mentioned - you could cut out a heck of a lot of this book with some decent editing. Nonfiction This book got me excited quite a few times. It's less about the history of hackers, or the culture of hacker ethic. It's more about a sort of emergence - when technology and people crossed their paths, and boom!! a new way of thinking emerges.

    Humans, after all, are thinking machines. It's more than exciting to find a new way to think. That'd lead to new ways of living. It's what humans created together that's changing the world we live in.

    But then, what do I know? When I was luckily selected to be the few who could access Apple II computers with BASIC language in the 1986 of China, I had little appreciation of this privilege. After college, I met a friend who's a computer programming enthusiastic. He taught himself a good amount of English just in order to join those online forums. He told me he taught himself how to turn music into notes. Thinking back, that friend might have been the first hacker I've ever met in life.

    Thinking back, if I was able to see the amount of creativity in programming, I could have been hooked. Which never happened. Therefore, I'm a hacker that's never going to become one. Nonfiction

    Let's get this out of the way up front—the term hackers here refers to the original ideology of the word from the earlier days of computing, when hackers blazed the trail of our modern hardware and software systems. These are not the modern day denizen hackers of destructive, malicious infamy. Based on this understanding, this book should be required reading for anyone connected with the computing profession. It serves as a rich history of the genesis of modern day computing, from the earliest days at MIT, the birth of languages such as Lisp and BASIC, the origins of modern video games from Space War and Colossal Cave, to the natural evolution of microcomputing. Steven Levy shows us how a historical book about an industry should be written. It contains an unfolding, interrelated emotional story of people and technology. There are moments of wonder, awe, tenacity, pain, suffering, hope, idealism, and eventually, money, capitalism, and greed. Even at 450+ pages, this is one book you'll read through quickly. After reading this, you'll want to fire up Emacs, dust off Space War, and find out just how powerful this Lisp language from 1959 still really is ;-)
    Nonfiction I loved this book. It is a documentary about various aspects of computing. The first part is utterly excellent. It is about the birth of the hacker ethic around the DEC PDP machine in the MIT AI Lab. It is very funny and very inspiring. Some of the people in that section of the book have disappeared into obscurity, so the book is amazing for capturing this lost part of tech history. The second part is about the personal computer revolution. It covers the Altair machine, the Apple I / II and other microcomputers of its class. This part made me realise for the first time how much of a key player Apple were at the beginning. They pretty much created the home computer. The third part is about games, and the programmers and companies that created them for the early computers. It focuses on a few key developers and companies, mostly Sierra. This was quite interesting since I played a lot of Sierra games back in the day and didn't know any of these background stories until now. Anyone really into programming should get a kick out of the first section, it is worth buying just for this. Nonfiction I really, really enjoyed this book. Levy tells the story in a way that flows from one brief era of the early computer age to the next. There is still so much of those early days which defines how we build and use computers in the 21st century. This book should be required reading for any programmer but I honestly think anyone would enjoy it.

    Philosophically, there is so much bound up in the Hacker Ethic that I have never heard a hacker (of any sort) express it coherently. When RMS presents it, it's some sort of Ultra-Liberal flavour of Americana-Soaked Super Freedom. ESR is probably worse. Modern hackers miss the gossamer nature of the ideal and stomp straight into implementations. Old hackers conflate a Hands-On Imperative with DIY. Somehow, Levy captures everything I have ever wanted to express about the Hacker Ethic the way that Harari expresses the concept of Collective Imagination/Hallucination. These ideas do not subscribe the ephemeral political spectra and they don't fit cleanly into the ideas the reader holds before reading the first page. Neither author is arguing for or against these ideas -- they're just presenting them. The execution is so brilliant I can't believe friends and colleagues haven't been shoving this book down my throat for decades. Nonfiction This was a really interesting look at the history of computers as a DIY technology, stretching from the 1950s to the 1980s, when the first edition of it was published.

    I find a lot of computer users look at the things like they're magic boxes, likely run by black magic and/or hamsters running in wheels; I confess to having moments where I've felt that way myself, but I'm trying to educate myself a bit more on how computers actually think and operate, and this book helped cement that understanding a bit more.

    Additionally, this book reinforced two of the truisms I've repeatedly encountered when studying subcultures.

    The market will replace your values with its own. It seems to me that subcultural movements tend to have certain values to them that make them popular with certain segments of the public. As they gain more popularity, the mainstream starts to notice them, and tries to find ways to monetize them, even if the movement was one that was based originally around non-commercial values. This is how we end up with Iggy Pop songs being used to sell Disney Cruise tours, and fashion that exploits women and their sexuality being marketed as girl power feminism. It's also how we end up with a generation of computer hackers who can't understand why anyone would want to buy a pre-assembled computer with the software already loaded on it.

    History never ends. One of the main recurring conflicts in Hackers relates to who has access to computer information - we see this with the MIT gurus in the 50s trying to limit access to their computers, and again with the tales of early software users wanting to freely share programs vs. the companies wanting to use copy-prevention to increase their profits. And we see the same conflict now with the open source movement vs. proprietary software, and DRM media files vs. the Creative Commons. It's one that will probably continue as long as people are recording information by the bit, which should ensure that Hackers remains somewhat relevant for generations to come. Nonfiction This is a book about the early age of hacking before computers controlled so much of our world that hacking became a science of exploitation. This is the original meaning of hacking, which is to squeeze extra performance out of equipment by bending the proper rules, which often have to do more with administrative control than technological limitations. I find this encouraging as an outlook as it is what all of us should always do to whatever limitations we find in life: work around the unreasonable ones by understanding the raw reality
    (science/logic/common sense) of a situation more than its human-imposed administrative, social and political -- these words seem to mean the same thing in this context -- controls. Levy takes us through the early days of East Coast university hacking, then looks at the hippie days and the garage shops of the West Coast, before giving us a brief glimpse into the world to come as computers became more powerful, were networked, and moved out of the corporate/government/academic world and into daily life. Nonfiction