02 August 2011

Hackers

Hackers is Steven Levy's classic social-anthropological account of software pioneers and the computer revolution.

Levy's history takes us from the birth of the hacker culture and the hacker ethic, hammered out in Building 26 at MIT, to the commercialization of software, exemplified by On-Line Systems (better known by its later name, Sierra On-Line) and its seminal series of computer games, and the creation of GNU by Richard Stallman.

(It is strange, to me, now, to think that hacker culture was born out of a subgroup of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club [TMRC].)

Levy introduces us to a large cast of characters from different generations, from the 1950's to the 1980's. And while the history as Levy tells it— recounting all their intertwined stories— is intriguing, Hackers also serves to document the hacker culture and the hacker ethic.

The software pioneers were always trying to push the limits of what computers could do. Still it seems strange to speak of a singular ("the") hacker ethic or hacker culture, since their motivations and their worldviews (while all idealistic in some way) were so different. Some viewed hacking as a search for ever more elegant programs, eternal discoveries of a nearly mathematical nature. Others viewed the computer as a tool for the empowerment of individuals. (This was a tough sell in Berkeley, where computer software, which at one time was in large part the product of (D)ARPA funded research, was viewed with skepticism.) Moreover, each generation's version of hacker culture was shaped by the technological and commercial environment of its time. The MIT hackers were concerned with ensuring that they had unfettered access to the extremely valuable hardware on their hands. But by the 1980's, when inexpensive computers were widely available, what seemed more important was bringing the fruits of computing to the masses.

When Hackers was first published in 1983, it seemed as if it could merely be a chronicle of a little-known and dying subculture. (At the time, Stallman referred to himself as the "last survivor" of the hacker culture.) But today the hacker ethic has permeated society and popular discourse in a way that few might have imagined then, and Hackers is the definitive account of its birth.

Recommended.

By the way, in 1983, at a panel at the first Hackers Conference in Marin County, CA, Stewart Brand made an utterance which is widely quoted out of context as "Information wants to be free". It is worthwhile to read his original comment, which is substantially less normative and more interesting than it is often made to sound:

On one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

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