Elaine Nelson's Reviews > Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Hackers by Steven Levy
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's review
Sep 21, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, history, non-fiction, science, technology, sociology
Read from September 13 to 14, 2010

I'm still sort of processing this book a week later. All the status updates I posted are notes I wrote on paper while I was reading, alas I ran out of scraps while sick in bed, somewhere around pg 350. (the goodreads entry says this has more pages than the copy I have, btw.)

Note: this is a really long and somewhat rambling review.

A few themes stick out, notably West coast vs East coast. No, seriously. The first section is all MIT hackers, the other two are west coast focused (hippie hackers and the gaming biz). Shockingly, the hippie hacker community actually manage to get more shit done.

My pet theory is that it relates to engagement with the rest of the world. Those MIT guys really got to lock themselves away from everything, and they really liked it that way. (There's some interesting moments of cognitive dissonance of the radical openness within the lab vs the military funding for the lab.) Which meant they were doing fascinating crazy stuff, but it didn't necessarily have any effect on the masses. Whereas the hippies -- or at least some of the influential folks in that scene -- actually cared about the rest of the world. And of course the gamers were out to make money. So they were the ones who got computing and the hacker ethos out into the world.

Another thing that I kept running into: I'd be excited about the hackers' excitement, totally understanding that sense of flow...and then: ugh, thoroughly unpleasant people. Not just unpleasant individuals, but a repellent culture. I found that most true of the MIT hackers and the gamers, FWIW.

Possibly related: the overwhelming maleness of the hacker culture throughout the entire book. A lack of balance?

Also possibly related: a quote about Stallman (p 438) - "He recognized that his personality was unyielding to the give-and-take of common human interaction." (That line? Made me bust up laughing.)

Another somewhat random observation: baby boomers. Didn't occur to me until reading the last afterword, and the conversation between Levy & Gates, that all these hackers were boomers. I'd never really thought about the hacker ethos/community as also being a creation of that generation. Huh.

What does all this mean to the things I've ranted about on my blog? (I had that in the back of my head while I was reading, based on an email conversation with the person who sent me the book.) I'm still not sure. It does make the underlying ethos of Facebook make more sense, although not any less repellent. In fact, maybe it's more so, because there's a historical thread connecting it to guys crawling through the ceiling to steal keys out of desks. (WTF? That still blows my mind.) And thus, a lack of learning how the rest of the world perceives reality.

And for the gender thing? I see it even more, and I keep wondering how much of our current situation is "inevitable" given the history, what would have happened if the history had been different, etc. It also contexualizes the history of sexism in computing against the history of sexism in general (wait, did that sentence make any sense?) - the whole damn world was sexist then. My mother was one of three women in her high school trig class, and IIRC she was the only one who finished. Whereas when I took higher math in high school, I'd say the class was split more like 50/50. So the idea of the MIT hackers that there's some biological difference that kept women out of their world is nuts. Their world -- despite its lack of football -- was hyper-masculine, disconnected from anything that wasn't the guys and the machines. The story of the woman whose program got screwed up because of an unauthorized upgrade by hackers -- and she was doing something "real" -- made a impression on me as far as that's concerned. But that impression of hackerdom being a male province only fed on itself, so that women who were interested in computers were an oddity. (For example, what happened to the "housewives" who disappeared into the community center computer? Why weren't they able to become part of the hacker community?)

As I said, I'm still processing.

And that said, it was a well-written book; fantastic story-telling. The follow-ups were interesting as well, given that the book ends basically with a reference to the movie Wargames. Good stuff, overall, and definitely recommended.
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Reading Progress

09/13 page 26
5.0% "At which I shouted "a-holes!" - "Of course I won't *like* to bring in groceries. If you ask *if* [...] that's another matter." Grar."
09/13 page 76
14.0% ""The sad fact was that there never was a star-quality female hacker." hacker quoted guessing it's genetic, I have other thoughts. (Obvs. To remember for later: mom's trig class ca. 1960.)"
09/13 page 89
17.0% "Margaret Hamilton, later in charge of onboard computers for moon landings. Not a hacker, and got burned (metaphorically) by a hacker project."
09/21 page 117
22.0% "obligatory & illuminating Ayn Rand reference."
09/21 page 139
26.0% "different ethos moving away from MIT. also: hacker suicide(s)?!"
09/21 page 145
27.0% "moon shot = change of perspective"
09/21 page 145
27.0% ""the real world, when it got its mind made up, could have an astounding effect.""
09/21 page 157
30.0% "obligatory Stranger in a Strange Land reference."
09/21 page 164
31.0% ""I got so upset I started crying" re: use of computers for military purposes. I've had that moment of seeing good things used to ill ends; as much as hippies make me crazy (see bottom of p 162) the impulse strikes true. - nuts, like the MIT crowd, but at least nuts who are part of the world."
09/21 page 171
32.0% ""Sometimes housewives..." coming to the computer and getting lost in it. what happened to them?! (may be starting to develop a theory abt IT cultures.)"
09/21 page 174
33.0% "In college, read and did NOT like Brautigan - why didn't we read this? This I could have responded to more, then again, maybe not then."
09/21 page 212
40.0% "find myself laughing out loud reading about the Altair. also: East coast/West coast, like a rapper feud!"
09/21 page 216
41.0% "intrigued by Lee's meeting structure."
09/21 page 217
41.0% "cheap female labor in Malaysia making all of it possible, and no one wanted to talk about that part."
09/21 page 222
42.0% "Jude Milhon: "control for the sake of control" - and no women. maybe more wacky but evolving into the same culture."
09/21 page 234
44.0% ""It was like taping music off the air" re: software piracy. (gates letter, etc) harbinger of things to come."
09/21 page 238
45.0% "Pittman - "classic" Aspie nerd."
09/21 page 238
45.0% "BASIC cost $150?!"
09/21 page 242
46.0% "what happened to Interface Age magazine?"
09/21 page 256
48.0% "Woz gets Motorola chips. A QWERTY moment?"
09/21 page 262
50.0% "problems of managing hackers. reminds me of Rands in Repose."
09/21 page 274
52.0% "theory: west coast hacking went big because it engaged with the world."
09/21 page 292
55.0% "the birth of "rockstar" programmers. not necessarily a good thing."
09/21 page 307
58.0% "modern game industry born in part from women gamer/storytellers, even tho at first she was told "run along little girl" - WoW link?"
09/21 page 314
59.0% "$@%*#ing computer shop guys."
09/21 page 319
60.0% "*another* woman gamer. most women on the scene so far."
09/21 page 336
64.0% "Altair letter to Sierra: like the Gates letter, but with lawyers."
02/22 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Elin Agreed. I haven't got to the end of the book yet but I'm guessing it doesn't mention a single one of the following people?
The 'different hardware' quote is nauseating. Can't believe he had the gall to casually throw that in there.
I agree on the cultural values of the hackers too... I don't mind that in their world tools are free and should be shared. But they were asked repeatedly to see someone else's point of view, to have some consideration for someone else and just use a different goddamn tool and STILL they insist on stealing it and wrecking it... ugh, what jerks.
The worst case I've found so far was the "Do you want to help with the shopping" guy - seriously. What. A. Douche.
On a more positive note: thanks for the interesting review. :)

brianstorms I loved this book, bought it and read it when it came out. One thing missing is the lack of any story from "flyover country" -- it's as if, if it didn't happen in silicon valley or MIT, it never happened. I'd hoped there'd be mention of the PLATO system and the hacker community there (based in Illinois) but nope. Nothing about PLATO.

Stuart I loved your review, and I think the missing women is an issue that a lot of people nowadays think about.

brainstorms: maybe you could write that missing chapter. I have never heard of that either but would love to.

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