Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
© 1984 Steven Levy
How did computers cease to be the playthings of secretive governments, universities, and multinational corporations and become instead fixtures in 80-90% of all American homes? Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is a history of that transformation, driven by young men who could not be satisfied with the status quo. Stealing into locked rooms, or spending night after night learning the best tricks to convert typed words into real-world action, their persistent curiosity edged technology forward. Their obsession with mastering computers, with pushing them to their limits and fiddling with them to get more out of them, not only influenced the development of the machines themselves, but created new industries.
Nowadays we think of a hacker as a force for ill, someone who invades others’ computers and systems and wreacks havoc or steal things. That negative baggage was acquired only in the mid-1980s, however, when a few young people made headlines through their network intrusions. Before that, the term referred to ..tweakers, if you will, to those who fiddled with electrical and computer systems to learn their ways and to see what they could do with them — often improving them along the way. Hackers fills itself with the stories of young, awkward men (and one woman) who forced innovation by refusing to stop their incessant modding. Through these restless lives we see a progression of computers, increasingly accessible and increasingly more agile. This was not the area of “plug and play”: some users were operating in basic assembly language, compared to which FORTRAN and company were user-friendly. The computers were often put to unorthodox uses, programmed as calculators or even games (Spacewar). As interested in them grew, companies arose to put computing hardware into the hands of technically-savvy consumers. This was not the era of the Apple II, though — not yet. The first ‘hardware kits’ produced a machine whose ‘output’ was blinking lights. Hackers is not all technical, however; some people who are drawn to computers have grand ideas for their use, as a portal to human awakening. Some of the pioneers here weren’t pushing hardware so much as they were access – like a computer ‘collective’ on the west coast that sought to establish a public-access mainframe in Berkeley, with a communal directory of information.
Hackers is thus a personal history of the computing revolution, driven on by curious enthusiasts whose fascination with the potentials of these devices bordered on obsessive. In a day where “nerd” and “geek” have achieved a kind of faux-chic, Hackers provides a memory of the genuine article.