First published in 1984, this book brought the term Hacker to a wider audience, and signifies the love of playing with a thing, investigating it, making it better and passing the knowledge on.
Title: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution – 25th Anniversary Edition
Author: Steven Levy
The term hackers should not be confused with the use that the late 80s had for it: to describe those who tried to use technology to infiltrate and disturb the computer systems of the world. Back then that meant banks, the government and the military, mostly.
It charts the rise of computers in American society breaking the story down into decades and localities.
The early university hackers at MIT, who also hacked any other system in life that they came across, such as model railways and Chinese restaurant menus, used to work in the labs at night, when most of those authorised to use the new computers for research were not there.
Back then, computers were shrouded in mystery, guarded by a priesthood, white-coat wearing acolytes who had undergone twenty years of training before being given access to the hallowed machines. The young hackers could not wait that long. They had to get their fix working on peripheral computers such as the PDP-6, which was used to create the cards to be fed into the main computers. The limitations of that system only helped to spur on their creativity.
With creativity came a need for perfection, with routines containing the least number of instructions deemed the best. A hierarchy of experts held court night after night, with those that would learn from them huddled behind, trying to glean some of the magic.
The key concept these early computer enthusiasts held on to was that once a program was written, it was free to be used by anyone else who wanted it, whether to use it within their own creation or to try and make it better.
The commercialism of the ensuing decades showed that this ethos was up against a tough battle, almost being squashed out of existence altogether. With the advent of open source projects, some sponsored by giants of the commercial era, such as Microsoft, we see that the spirit of those early hackers did not disappear completely and has had a latter day revival.
As those hackers moved on from MIT some of that ethos spread, most notably in California. The author takes us through the 1970s and the birth of home-brew; building computers from scratch out of whatever they could, often in garages in the suburbs.
These were people who might have had a taste of computers professionally and wanted them in their personal lives, but also included those that were just bitten by the bug as soon as they saw what was possible with computers.
The Altair and Apple were early products of this era that excited and created a buzz that the world has never quite gotten over. Our need for computers to inform us, entertain us, warn us, show us where to go or whatever else is so great that most of us wouldn’t dream of leaving home without our smart phone.
The early days of home-brew clubs reminds me of the last few years in the IoT and maker worlds, except that the cost of entry has gone right down. You can start off with a Raspberry Pi for as little as a ten Euro.
Speaking of the Raspberry Pi, it has also helped to drop the age of adoption. All around the world, children as young as six or seven are getting to do real life hacking, either in code or with hardware. A new wave of hackers is in the making.
The book’s last period covers the gaming software craze that we take for granted these days. Back then, in the early 80s it was a shock to the system. How could such a new industry make so much money so fast? It rose to challenge the giants of the entertainment world.
It created a brief period of time where celebrity status was a real thing for game creators, and was at its height during the period the book was written. Today’s games are far more sophisticated, often taking teams of hundreds of developers to complete, but in the early 80s a game often had only a single designer. Today’s game credits are often as long as blockbuster film credits.
The game industry was where the hacker ethic of freedom of code and information came directly in conflict with the need for commercialism; people had to make money somehow. Or more correctly, money was there to be made from the growing number of computer game enthusiasts. Some of the stories from Hackers, such as the Sierra Online tale, are a warning of when profits can get out of control.
The rise in game lovers led to the rise in game copiers, who wanted to sell or share the games without passing on royalties to the folks who published them. This in turn gave rise to an industry of copy protection. Over each passing season the protectionists fought an ongoing battle against the copiers.
To this day the battle is still going on. The advent of streaming media, of paying a subscription rather than ever having a physical copy may have reduced the contention, but digital rights management is still a battlefield that arose out of early software development, such as games, for the home computer market.
The edition I read was updated in the 2010 with follow-up interviews featuring many of the early protagonists of the computer era. Bill Gates is one worth noting. It was his letter, complaining of the stealing of his Basic software, that signalled the start of computer software as property that should be paid for. It drew attention to the fact that somehow it was wrong to pass software on without compensating those who had worked hard to bring it to fruition.
The Hacker ethic says that information is free and that the advent of home computers gives everyone access to that freedom. It might be nice to take another look at the hacking that has gone one since the beginning of the century; perhaps the author can be persuaded to write a follow-up.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence has seen a resurgence since the 50s and 60s when the Hacker era of computers began. The last twenty years has seen it take a firm foothold on the computer landscape. It has transformed the marketing industry by allowing them to target advertising to individuals based on carefully collected data.
The rise of BitCoin and other block chain types of currency created a new industry. Today there are server farms dedicated to mining the currency using the equivalent power of small towns.
Quantum computing feels like it may be a tangible reality within our lifetimes, although the current offerings fall shy of its potential. It may still be the focus only of academic interest, but as we saw in Hackers, universities sometimes breed a new type of individual who through the constant, open flow of challenges and ideas sometimes inspire solutions to problems we didn’t even know that we had.
Hackers will be of interest to anyone that grew up with computers in the 1980s and to those who want to know how having that phone in your pocket, that tiny device that makes the room-filling computers of the 1960s look like toys, came about.
Our reliance on computers today came from the Hackers of years gone by wanting to get inside computers, to see what new things they could be made to do, to see how far they could push the limits of the code.
We don’t need computers to live fulfilled lives, but it would be hard to go back to the time before they where everywhere. From the lights and heating in your house that you can turn on from your phone to make sure it is cosy when you return on a winter’s day, to the realistic, captivating, addictive computer games, none would be possible without the curiosity, the struggle for access that generations of Hackers put in to bring computers out of the temple and into the home.