The word ‘hacker’ in the context of this book does not represent a faceless person in a dark room accessing unauthorized data. Hacker, the decades of the fifties through the eighties, defined those who experimented with computer technology out of a service to their own insatiable curiosity. Some the actions the hackers took were not, per se, sanctioned; but their genius was simply too impressive to stop.
Levy grounds the book with what he called the Hacker Ethic, an unwritten, unspoken, but universally-accepted principle. It essentially boils down to this: All information should be free. In the early days of room-sized computers with limited capacity, there was almost no commercial value. Therefore, the term ‘free’ meant ‘without restraints.’ The first generation of hackers were simply curious undergraduate students at MIT, who benefitted from a collaborative environment. They believed that “access to computers… should be unlimited and total.” It is a viewpoint that is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) prophetic in today’s climate of data debates.
The book is sectioned to tell the stories of three generations of hackers: Pure Hackers in the fifties and sixties, Hardware Hackers of the seventies, and Game Hackers of the eighties.
The Hacker Ethic found its truest disciples at MIT, where it was a way of life. But not a way of making money or passing waking hours, it was their religion. MIT was the center of early computer science because military contracts with the pentagon funded the massive ‘supercomputers.’ Naturally, a bourgeoise elite were the only ones with authorized access to the computers, commonly referred to as “the Priesthood.” It was not until some late-night snooping around did some curious students discover that the computers were not shut down at night. From there, innumerable hours would be spent pushing the limits of early computer science by these socially-awkward heroes hopped up on Coca-Cola and delivery Chinese food.
Silicon Valley did not truly become Silicon Valley until the late seventies. These men were middle aged, held respectable day jobs, and, more the most part, regular sleeping patterns. They followed the Hacker Ethic, sharing their discoveries with each other freely. Collectively, their ideals can be represented by a man named Lee Felsentein. A gifted mind with a curiosity for electronics, Felsentein differed from the MIT hackers because he was more interested in the idea of what computers could be. Inspired by political protests in his days at Berkeley; Felsentein embodied the Hardware Hackers collective goal of bringing computer technology to the masses.
The third section answers the question posed by the success of the Hardware Hackers: Computers are now spread across America, now what? The Game Hackers were the generation to truly turn the screw and commercialize computers. This section saw a return to software hacking, where nearly anyone was able to teach themselves how to code by simply learning hands-on (thus known as the Hands-On Imperative).
The Hacker Ethic, particularly to the first generation of acne-infested teenagers at MIT, was a guiding principle that decided nearly every decision the hackers had to make. Levy outlines five virtues that were followed dogmatically even though they were never written down, or relatively spoken of.
Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative
Rock stars of the MIT generation such as Alan Kotok, Bill Gosper, Richard Greenblatt and Ted Nelson did not learn their skills in a classroom. They simply learned by virtue of their own curiosity and sheer will. In the early days, undergraduates were not given authorized use of the computers at MIT. However, they made the ninth floor of Tech Square not only the home of the computers, but for themselves as well. The hackers would spend most of their days scavenging for time on the computers from graduate students and researchers who they, quite simply, thought of as simpletons doing simpleton work. Richard Greenblatt, a fierce follower of the Hacker Ethic, was reported to stand over a graduate student’s shoulder at the computer until he made them too nervous and would solve their errors for them before demanding time for his own work.
All information should be free
As previously mentioned, in the early days code was copied and shared without caution. The programmers believed that any source code should be available for study or improvement by another hacker. The first proliferated computer game was called Spacewar; it was wildly popular, thoroughly entertaining, and made zero dollars. Even games and systems built in California in the seventies were shared freely as well. Even some game hackers in the eighties, who still followed the Hacker Ethic, believed that selling their games was wrong. The most evident case provided in the book involved an arrogant college student from Harvard named Bill Gates. In his college days, Gates wrote a software program called a compiler; it was a tool that helped programmers code. Gates sold the compiler to a company in Arizona. However, the program was shared freely across the west coast, until a sternly-worded letter was shared stating that the copying of the compiler was a theft of intellectual property. Signed, Bill Gates, who quickly became infamous within the Hacker circles of the seventies.
Mistrust Authority—Promote Decentralization
Hackers hated bureaucracy. It was limiting, inefficient, and slowed them down. The Pure Hackers of MIT would go as far as physically breaking into locked university room to access information they deemed should be free; it was warmly referred to as “lock-hacking.” One of the beauties of the Hackers’ mistrust of authority was that the authority knew they could not punish on the Hackers themselves. By the mid-sixties, much of MIT’s notoriety within the national community came from the accomplishments of the crazed undergrads.
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
No one was ever turned away who showed the passion for hacking. No one was ever commended for anything other than their hacking. Their ability alone was valued. This meant that at-times difficult characters such as Greenblatt or Nelson were accepted; twelve-year-old Peter Deusch, was accepted. Meanwhile, those with “seemingly impressive credentials were not taken seriously until they proved themselves at the console of a computer.” It was a fair value that levelled the playing field for anyone who wished to contribute to the community.
You can create art and beauty on a computer
This is what truly drove the Hackers, especially those at MIT in the sixties. To them, hacking was not a hobby, job, or even just a passion. What essentially boiled down to a collection of ones and zeros was pure art, it was a calling, it was a capital-F Form. They hacked for no other reason than for the beauty of hacking itself.
Evident from the In-Depth section, I was completely enthralled with the first section of this book. The MIT and other college hackers were full of ridiculous stories that were as entertaining as educational. My favorite might have been from the Stanford lab, where students discovered a crawl space above the dropped ceiling. They would use this as a place to nap in between hacking binges. It was utter madness, but you could not put the book down in this section. If anyone has ever seen the movie The Social Netwwork, think of the scenes where the young Facebook team rented the house in California.
After the Pure Hackers, the sections of the Hardware and Game hackers read more like a textbook. This may have been because their stories of hacking were somewhat normalized, but I struggled to get through these sections. The early stores of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were fun to read because I did not know how they truly became famous, but they were not highlighted as true heroes of the Hacker Ethic.
I highly recommend the first section of this book if you are interested in computer science in order to learn the history and how the culture bootstrapped itself in the early years by young college students. Apart from that, if you are interested in hardware or game hacking, my recommendation would be to find a more succinct news article. fffff