Book Review: Hackers by Steven Levy

Hackers Book Review
Categories: Book Reviews

I just finished “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” by Steven Levy. It was a very interesting book that covered the major role hackers played in the three overarching stages of personal computer growth. The stages are:

  1. True Hackers – Mainframe Computer Hacking
  2. Hardware Hackers – Personal Computer Development
  3. Game Hackers – Gaming Software Development

This book was first released in 1985 when I was 5 years old and has since had two updates. The 80s were a time of unbelievable growth in the personal computer. I remember when my best friend’s family got their first Apple computer. I remember typing on Apple computers in Middle School. It’s fascinating to read a book about a time that you lived through, but were too young to know what was really going on.

Levy defines a hack as “a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfill some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement.” I find it interesting that the first section of the book mostly took place at MIT in the 1950s and 60s and particularly within the Tech Model Railway Club. As the name suggest, the students involved in this club set up model trains. These students became fascinated with all of the wires and connections.

Growing up, my dad had his dad’s model train set up in our basement. I thought it was cool and my father enjoyed spending time with that train. But I never had a desire to get into the guts, to pull apart the cords, and see if I could improve upon the electronics. In my mind, someone who has that desire is a hacker. They desire to learn the nuts and bolts of a computer, a phone system, a model train, a lawnmower, and then they go about hacking the original to see if they can figure out a way to make it better.

Levy highlights an entire subculture or “hacker ethic” that grew out of the MIT labs. In an irony that seemed lost on most of the participants, this culture had a very decentralized mindset that mistrusted authority while simultaneously being funded by the Department of Defense. Status in this culture was not dependent upon age or socio-economic status. 12-year-olds worked alongside professors. If you had the skill, you were in.

A major theme throughout this book is that of gaming. The original MIT crew spent hours writing games for mainframe computers they could only sign up to use for an hour at a time. Once the Apple II was built by Steve Wozniak, companies quickly sprouted up releasing games at breakneck speed. Games had the following effects:

  1. For developers, creating games was akin to magic, creating a world out of nothing
  2. For players, these games turned a scary machine into an approachable toy.

Computers today are so approachable we have them in our pockets and touch them with our fingers. In the 80s, people still had George Orwell in their head while considering the potential damage these scary new machines could wreak on society. Games crossed this chasm.

I really enjoyed reading the second section of this book. I got my first Apple computer in 2008. I had used Apple computers in school, but had always used a PC during college and in my first job. That 2008 Apple laptop changed my life. I started and built this company on that laptop. I probably could have done it on a PC, but there was something unique about the Apple that made developing and using the computer much more enjoyable.

The second section of this book covered a large area of personal computer development in California in the late 70s and 80s. I learned more about the beginnings of Apple with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak attending the Homebrew Computer Club. This club grew out of the hacker ethic developed at MIT.

The third section of the book covered the development of software for these new personal computers, and especially the creation of games. Some people created games from scratch and others basically took arcade game ideas and converted them for use on the Apple II or Atari systems.

In the book’s afterword, Levy laments the fact that most media mentions of hackers these days refer to nefarious international spies or local whistle-blowers. The hacker community is pretty disturbed by this and wants to get back to the original definition (that was largely popularized by this book) that emphasizes the good things brought about by hackers and the hacker ethic instead of what the few bad apples are doing.

I joined the computer world later on in life. I was scared to death of technology until a grad school professor opened up the basics of web development. I’m now on a quest to make up for lost time. I want to read about the industry and learn more about computing languages, future trends, and the history of the computer. That’s why I bought this book. Although technical, I didn’t think it was beyond a non-industry reader thoroughly enjoying this book for the history that it presents. While Innovators by Walter Isaacson presents a longer timeframe highlighting the history of the creation of the personal computer, this book digs in deep to the mindset required to bring about this new computing world.

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