Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
© 1984 Steven Levy
458 pages

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.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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8 Responses to Hackers

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    my brother was one of those in Berkeley(later moved to Silicon Valley)who spent all of his time tweaking, as it were; supposedly he sent the first message over the internet to some other guy somewhere on the peninsula, there… sounds like an interesting book…

  2. Stephen says:

    I hesitated to use 'tweak'..I know it has a drug connotation now, but the ideal word wouldn't come to mind! “Tinkerers”, maybe…but that doesn't fit software too well. Did your brother stay involved with the computer/networking industry?

  3. CyberKitten says:

    I *think* I read this in the 90's…. [muses] I was certainly reading a lot of this sort of thing back then and it certainly sounds familiar. It was a very interesting time – just before and just as technology *really* took off!

  4. Stephen says:

    The nineties? I can faintly remember a friend of mine using an external modem to dial into something-or-another back in '96 or '97. He didn't use abrowser, though, it was some sort of…fantasy chatroom, with odd graphics. (I don't remember a browsing program, anyway.) He had a word processor that was a blue screen and white text. I wish I could remember the system, because that was my first experience with the 'internet' — and it was much more exotic than the websites I started going to. Believe it or not, in middle school I had a list of websites I wanted to visit whenever I got on — including stuff like “scholastic.com”.

    Next month I'm going to look at a book called “Nerds 2.0.1: A History of the Internet”.

  5. CyberKitten says:

    I was in Computer Club @ High School in the late 70's. Of course we didn't have any actual computers! We used to make punch cards to send off to a near-by mainframe to run our programmes. Then the following week we'd get the results on wide green lined print-outs! [lol]

  6. Stephen says:

    Those were the days, eh? I've got a friend who swears they were still doing batch processing when he started, but he's only in his fifties so I think he's exaggerating.

  7. CyberKitten says:

    Probably not. My company still did over night batch processing in the late 80's. The computers we had back then were HUGE. I was involved in moving some of them across the country. That was fun… Not…. [grin]

  8. Mudpuddle says:

    He did very, VERY well… we don't communicate, though… he lives in Paris…

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