Book Review - Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition by Steven Levy
To find out how you got to where you're at, you often have to look at where you came from. In the world of computers, that means going back to the late 1950's to observe the mindset and personalities that shaped the growth of the personal computer. Steven Levy has what could be considered the best analysis of those individuals in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition. Yes, it's been 25 years since since this book was first published in 1985. But it's as relevant now as it was then. I read this book quite some time ago and enjoyed it immensely. My enjoyment with rereading it hasn't diminished.
Part 1 - True Hackers - Cambridge - The Fifties and Sixties: The Tech Model Railroad Club; The Hacker Ethic; Spacewar; Greenblatt and Gosper; The Midnight Computer Wiring Society; Winners and Losers; Life
Part 2 - Hardware Hackers - Northern California - The Seventies: Revolt in 2100; Every Man a God; The Homebrew Computer Club; Tiny BASIC; Woz; Secrets
Part 3 - Game Hackers - The Sierras - The Eighties: The Wizard and the Princess; The Brotherhood; The Third Generation; Summer Camp; Frogger; Applefest; Wizard vs. Wizards
Part 4 - The Last of the True Hackers - Cambridge - 1983: The Last of the True Hackers; Afterword - Ten Years Later; Afterword - 2010
Notes; Acknowledgments; About the Author
When you walk into a Best Buy or any other retailer today, you simply pick up the computer you want, head home, plug it in, and away you go. But when you go back to the beginning, you start to understand just how amazing these things are. Levy steps into the inner sanctums of the large mainframe computers, devices that cost millions of dollars and allowed few the privilege of touching them. But there were some who immediately understood the power and the vision, and they weren't going to be denied the opportunity to play, learn, and push the limits. Hackers goes from those who spent time re-engineering model railroad layouts to those who took that same drive to the world of bits and bytes. Everything was a challenge, what with virtually no memory and nothing much in the way of input/output devices. But even though their efforts weren't always appreciated or welcome, these hackers continued to lead the way to discover what *was* possible. As the mainframes continued to shrink, more and more individuals focused on what could be done if you put the CPU and memory together with a keyboard and screen. The Homebrew Computer Club was the birthplace of people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who went on to form Apple and create the history of the personal computer. Levy also digs into the birth of the fast-paced world of computer gaming, when companies like Atari, Apple, Sierra, and others wrote computer games to push the boundaries of the ever-more-powerful personal computers, while also making the programmers literal superstars and millionaires. For those who had the right skills and the drive to learn, there was seemingly nothing they couldn't accomplish.
What makes the book shine, over and above the historical narrative, is the commentary and analysis of the hacker code and mentality. At the start, there was little financial gain to be found by writing code and building new devices to hook onto the computer. As such, the creed was that everything was open and information was to be shared. But as time progressed and companies started to form around software and hardware, it became harder to maintain that pure approach, and information started to become proprietary. Things once open and free came with price tags. People like Richard Stallman, the last "true hacker", railed against this "perversion" (as he still does today), but few follow him at the level of fanaticism he demands. But understanding his mindset helps to understand the philosophy behind open source software, where software is still free as in beer and free as in speech.
If you haven't read Hackers, either in the original or new edition, I would recommend it. It's a fascinating read.