Book Summary | Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

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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).

In Depth

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.

Personal Review

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

5 thoughts on “Book Summary | Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

  1. What I love about this book (and one of the reasons I assigned it), is that the core is really 35 years old! It’s amazing at how the stories and history has held up and still remains relevant today. A signal that what we are dealing with may not be all that “new” from a certain perspective.

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  2. I have always given “hacking” a bad annotation and thought of bad guys breaking into national security and stealing intellectual properties. Your summary of the book give me a better and deeper understanding of “hacking”. From your description, I would say hackers are a group of people who are determined, free, welcoming and accepting. The Stanford lab story sounds interesting and made me think about a scene from the book I just read: Twitter co-founder Evan Williams creating Blogger in a tiny basement surrounded by pizza boxes and beer cans.

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  3. Great review! Given the current state of data security and high profile breaches and hacks this was very enlightening. You provided a great summary of how some of the values still seen in computer science started. It really makes me rethink the way i conceptualize what hacking truly is.

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  4. Hi Michael, I was very moved to read this review because this was one of the books I was considering. Of course it was the word “hackers” that caught my eye, yet, I was ignorant to what this text was really about. While reading this summary, I thought it was extremely interesting how the original MIT hackers believed that “access to computers… should be unlimited and total.”. This concept was intriguing because in the book I read, The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly, the author discussed 12 technological forces that will continue to impact our future. One of the forces described by Kelly was ‘accessing’ so this presumption by the pioneer hackers reminded me of this topic. Considering that this is an older read, it is compelling to see how long the very act of ‘accessing’ has been an integral part to success. In our society it seems to be an evermore significant model by which businesses run. Take Uber for example; Uber has had its success because as a business it has been able to provide access to the consumers. A consumer can get a ride almost anywhere at any point in time. This is an interesting concept to keep in mind as we head into the semester.

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  5. Hi Michael!

    Great review! This sounds like an interesting book. I think it’s a bit ironic that the first hackers, who believed so strongly in the ideal of all information being open and free, were only able to achieve their level of success because of MIT’s contracts with the military– which is not, probably, the most friendly organization to sharing all information with everyone.

    I also think it’s interesting that disregard for degrees, race, or education played such a role in the ethic of early hackers, since the reality today is so very different. Academic qualifications are paramount to being hired at a lot of companies today, and given that race and gender imbalances are very much issues in modern-day Silicon Valley, I think it’s worth considering how factors like that influence how we perceive and evaluate pure technical ability– even, or perhaps especially, when we’re not aware of it.

    Rachel

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