Steven Levy's Hackers is a classic of the information age

The book that made the term "hacker" popular is still relevant, and the ethic it identifies is still influential -- perhaps more now than ever. Chad Perrin reflects on Steven Levy's Hackers.

Any book that provides as powerful and insightful a reading experience three decades after it was first published as the day it was sent to the printer deserves the label classic. Steven Levy's Hackers is such a book, serving not so much as a history of the "computer revolution" as a cultural investigation into the tribe of inquisitive geeks whose devotion to an ideal of open collaboration and striving toward perfection drove the development of technologies that today we take for granted.

That is, many of these technologies are taken for granted; others are ignored by the populace at large, while today's hackers still use, abuse, and improve on them constantly. They often have a difficult time understanding why the wider world has never become aware that there is A Better Way than the half-baked, poorly designed, inefficient technologies most people use without a second thought. The key to why hackers use and improve on technologies that others are not even aware exist, why many of the most mundane of these technologies only haltingly trickle down to the general populace, and why in fact the rest of the world views such new advances and the people who create them with profound suspicion, lies in understanding what makes hackers tick and sets them apart from the rest of us.

Steven Levy's book does an admirable job of pulling back the curtain, exposing the wizards for who they are. Unlike the Wizard of Oz, however, the reality is in some respects much more arcane and impressive than the myth that has grown up around the hacker culture.

The book

Hackers details some of the early hacker culture in the United States, where the term "hacker" for a tinkering-prone systems enthusiast was coined. It is broken into three distinct periods in early hacker history, each corresponding to a particular flavor of the hacker archetype.

True Hackers

The first part of the book introduces the reader to the culture that grew up around the Tech Model Railroad Club and the TX-0 and PDP series computers at MIT. These obsessive, precocious people developed a sophisticated tribal culture all their own, where the most important communication took place through source code, the most valuable commodities were technological advancements and clever tricks, respect and computer time were the de facto currency, and the most important social ideal was the largely unarticulated but very real "hacker ethic": share freely, investigate deeply, and improve constantly. As Steven Levy described it in the book's preface:

I found a common element, a common philosophy which seemed tied to the elegantly flowing logic of the computer itself. It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost — to improve the machines, and to improve the world.

Hardware Hackers

The second part of the book describes the ideals, hobbies, and social movements of a group of hackers whose interests necessarily extended further into the physical world than those MIT hackers of yore; they wanted computers at home, which essentially meant they had to build them before they had anything to program. The time was right for a culture to grow around such aims, and the now-famous Homebrew Computer Club was emblematic of the movement that started springing up around the country like another kind of culture entirely in numerous Petri dishes. Unconsciously mirroring some of the efforts of their MIT spiritual ancestors, hardware hackers built computers at home — from kits or even from spare parts — and used them to create programming language implementations, write database applications, and even make music. They gave rise to a burgeoning consumer home computer industry.

Game Hackers

As home computers suitable to the relatively nontechnical user became more prevalent, the current crop of hackers turned toward plumbing the depths of these machine's mysteries, learning to do things with them consumers were not meant to do, or even things that the computers themselves were not intended to do. Their explorations led them to contribute to the meteoric rise of the computer gaming industry, cramming gameplay capabilities into processing power and memory constraints that were simply not designed to hold them, making the computers get up and dance by the power of sheer curiosity and perseverance.

The story

Rather than telling a single story or reciting dry facts at great length, the way the Hackers story is presented is remarkably similar to the way the events it describes progressed. It details individual stories and narrative profiles on some of the most brilliant or influential hackers within their sprawling culture, from the hothouse environment of MIT that supported a near-solipsistic hacker world in microcosm all the way to the politicking of the mid-1980s computer game industry that threatened to turn hackers into criminals, bums, or jaded businessmen with no remaining interest in the passions that had animated their lives. Rather than scattering these stories disconnectedly across the book's pages, though, Steven Levy finds the connections that link them together.

The gradual exodus of MIT's "True Hackers" to other parts of the country when they got "real jobs" fed into the growth of hardware and software markets that supported the home computer "Hardware Hackers." Some of those hardware hackers went on to develop their own software and hardware products, giving rise to the computer game industry where the "Game Hackers" rose to prominence — and, to some degree, even to stardom. The individual stories that make up each of the three sections in the book connect with each other to produce a cohesive whole, a picture of their respective hacker subcultures as emergent phenomena. They also connect across the lines between these distinct subcultures in sometimes surprising ways, producing a holistic history of hacker culture from the 1950s to the 1980s, laying obvious groundwork for the continuation of that culture into the Internet age and the era of commercially competitive open source software that was, at that time, yet to come.

An amazing characteristic of this book is that, in the midst of its compelling storytelling, it includes tidbits about the development of industries that clearly lay the foundation for decades of development to follow. These threads of history, woven into the overall fabric of information technology industries — hardware, software, and policy — can be seen in retrospect to wind unbroken through the weave from as far back as the mid-20th century all the way to today, in some cases not only unbroken but largely unchanged. It is gratifying and frustrating, even depressing, to see that the lessons of early computer industry viewed through the clear insights of free-thinking hackers have proven themselves true and relevant over and over again, while the industry giants who have achieved such astronomical success through the strength of their ambitions and ruthlessness of their tactics continue to burn billions, even trillions, of dollars every year fighting against laws of economics and engineering rather than accept the truth and adjust their business models to suit.

The desire for control is so strong in some people that they refuse to acknowledge that in the end such strict control is counterproductive. Others, like the hackers who are the eponymous characters of this book, take the opposite approach, creating for the sheer joy of it and giving their creations to the world in the hopes that these works will return to their creators improved. It is taking a while, but it looks like the hackers — hampered as they have been by a distaste for ruthless or even cruel pursuit of an end-game — are being proved right in every respect, as open source software, distributed filesharing networks, privacy technologies like OpenPGP encryption, and even cryptographic digital currencies are becoming not only viable models for economic interactions, but downright commonplace.

One example of those historical threads may surprise the reader as a very early emergence of the basic principles of profit through sharing that affected household name Bill Gates. On the other hand, that thread may seem perfectly mundane and expected to those who are already somewhat familiar with hacker culture and open source software communities. The example is that of Microsoft's BASIC interpreter for the Altair home computer. Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft, produced the first BASIC interpreter for the Altair computer, and it became the object of obsession for home computer hackers around the country — hackers who had been positively salivating in anticipation of being able to use a high-level programming language. Unfortunately, though people were pre-ordering it in droves, shipments of the software were slow in coming. They went so slowly that, when someone got his hands on a copy, everyone leaped at the chance to get copies illicitly because they felt they might never get one otherwise.

In an act of proprietary fury that would characterize the business model of his company for decades yet to come, Bill Gates wrote an open letter to the home computing community that was printed in one of its flagship publications. It raised a storm of controversy, mostly in the form of hackers becoming incensed at the hubris of Bill Gates' accusations directed at people who just wanted to get an interpreter at a reasonable price when, in fact, most people could not get one even at an unreasonable price. Instead, they found a way to get it for free.

As quoted in Hackers, notable Homebrew Computer Club hacker Steve Dompier commented on "The Software Flap" and its consequences:

Steve Dompier thought that Bill Gates was merely whining. "Ironically, Bill complaining about piracy didn't stop anything. People still believed, 'If you got it, you could run it.' It was like taping music off the air. BASIC had spread all over the country, all over the world. And it helped Gates — the fact that everybody had Altair BASIC and knew how it worked and how to fix it meant that when other computer companies came on line and needed a BASIC, they went to Gates' company. It became a de facto standard."

Bill Gates' reaction to unauthorized copying made enemies of the core of the home computing community. Ultimately, distaste for Bill Gates and his company hastened the development of a replacement BASIC interpreter, obsolescing what Gates felt should guarantee him a paycheck, but even so he managed to profit in the long run from the piracy. If he had simply rolled with the punches, odds are he could have profited even more handsomely, gaining an unofficial, ad-hoc fan club among home computer hackers, rather than becoming a pariah in that community.

Like many of the other lessons the book describes in some detail, this is one whose most important students never really learned, and one that is only now beginning to gain more traction in the mainstream. Almost all software that is remotely useful has a near-zero marginal cost, a relatively high development cost, and a marginal utility that diminishes from a high initial value. The lesson is that, when dealing with such a product, the developer benefits far more from wide distribution than from enforced high-profit sales. In short, and in less economic jargon-ridden terms, piracy is free advertising.

This oft-ignored tendency in real-world markets dovetails beautifully with the hacker ethic's premise that information should be free: free to use, free to improve, and free to share with others who will do the same. This is, however, largely an implicit ethic. Many hackers might not consciously agree with it, even as they in effect practice it in their daily lives. This conflict between the ethics by which hackers might live and those they may consciously profess to believe is another lesson that tends to get lost and forgotten — that hackers are people too.

The conclusion

The book closes with "The Last of the True Hackers" Richard Stallman and his sometimes quixotic, sometimes a bit crazed and extremist crusade against the idea of control wherever it may lurk. Where other hackers tended to merely live the hacker ethic Steven Levy identifies in his book, Richard Stallman set out to explicitly codify, advocate, and enforce that ethic. As with any zealous effort to do something like that, it has met with mixed success.

The basic precepts of the hacker ethic are gaining widespread acceptance, by some in a broadly applicable manner, and by others as something that can live peacefully side-by-side with commonly conflicting ideas of a proprietary software industry. This spreading influence, however, comes largely via the "open source" movement, an offshoot of Richard Stallman's own efforts that consciously rejects some of his more extreme "Free Software" ideas and vexes him endlessly. While information technologies are in many ways becoming increasingly closed on some levels, on others they are becoming more open than ever, drawing new generations of hackers into the compulsive tinkering behavior that so clearly marked their forebears.

The irrepressible hacker impulse is displayed openly in Hackers, illustrating what turns out to be not an adolescent phase, a criminal underclass, or an irresponsible lack of discipline, as many have characterized it. Rather, it appears to be an intrinsic part of human nature that runs more strongly in some than in others, an important part that gives rise to innovation and understanding. Taking the time to read the book Hackers helps clarify the role of that impulse in the advancement of the information age, and helps illuminate for readers how they might be those hackers' kindred spirits.

Cover image courtesy of


Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

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