A mere fifteen years ago, computer nerds were seen as marginal weirdos, outsiders whose world would never resonate with the mainstream. That was before one pioneering work documented the underground computer revolution that was about to change our world forever. With groundbreaking profiles of Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club, and more, Steven Levy's Hackers brilliantly captured a seminal moment when the risk-takers and explorers were poised to conquer twentieth-century America's last great frontier. And in the Internet age, the hacker ethic-first espoused here-is alive and well.
Steven Levy is editor at large at Wired, and author of eight books, including the new Facebook: the Inside Story, the definitive history of that controversial company. His previous works include the legendary computer history Hackers, Artificial Life, the Unicorn 's Secret, In the Plex (the story of Google, chose as Amazon and Audible's best business book of 2011), and Crypto, which won the Frankfurt E-book Award for the best non-fiction book of 2001. He was previously the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek. He lives in New York City.
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.
Why didn't O'Reilly bother to edit out the unneeded phrases like "known to man" ("the best computer in the world known to man")? A decent editor could have cut 20% out of this book, and made it much better in the process.
Additionally, there are enough cases of deep confusion about technical terms and famous events that I had to research any stories I was not already familiar with to see if the details were correct.
The writing is terrible, punctuated with ridiculous narrative commentary. For instance, while discussing a chess program that avoided a loss via an illegal move, Levy asks if the program was finding a new solution to chess. No; it had a bug that caused it to consider illegal moves, and it took one. It's hard to imagine confusing one (bug that causes program to take illegal moves) with the other (sentient program that changes the rules of chess for increased enjoyment). It's also hard to imagine a good editor failing to flag such an ignorant statement.
I have the 25th-anniversary edition and, to be fair, the portions of the book added later (when Levy was older and more experienced) are better written. But that only shows how poor a job the original editor did!
I can understand Dennis Ritchie's anti-foreword to the UNIX Hater's Handbook ( http://simson.net/ref/ugh.pdf ): "Like excrement, it contains enough undigested nuggets of nutrition to sustain life for some. But it is not a tasty pie. ... Bon appetit!"
I don't usually review before finishing but I'm not sure I'll get through this one so might as well.
It's a bloated and repetitive book that focuses on a very specific area and drags it out as far as you can conceivably take it.
The author seems to think the people in the book are extraordinarily interesting, with their petty neuroses and self-centred immaturity, but unfortunately, they are ...not.
Do yourself a favour and watch the excellent films Pirates of Silicon Valley and Micromen instead, if you want to know about this particular era of computing.
There are lots of very interesting parts of Computer Science History, but this book isn't one of them. I'm more intrigued by Hero of Alexandria's first forays into Robotics; Ada Lovelace and the start of programming; the incredibly fascinating Bletchley Park and enigma code breakers... when you are used to genuinely absorbing computer science history, this book just doesn't cut the mustard.
It also only cares about a particular era of young, obnoxious male Americans and acts casually as though their contribution to computer science is the only one that counts for anything. It doesn't even include young Female Americans who contributed, like Grace Hopper, Klara dan Von Neumann, Margaret Fox, Katherine Johnson etc. ... preferring to buy into the idea that "women just don't do computer science...strange isn't it?"
No, the strange thing is how this ignorance still gets perpetuated as a "fact" in an information book about computer science, in this century. Give me a break.
My main complaint though is that...it's just boring. It doesn't have to be, but it is. As another commenter mentioned - you could cut out a heck of a lot of this book with some decent editing.
This book is divided into three basic sections. The first, about MIT hackers in the 1950's and 1960's, is outstanding. The second, about homebrew hardware culture in the Bay Area in the 1960's and 1970's, is decent but bloated. The third, about game hackers and Sierra On-Line, is mostly worthless. I'd recommend reading the MIT section and then readily giving up on the book after that.
Great book. John Carmack said it was the most inspiring book for him and I can understand why.
The word Hackers is not the same these days, but the Hacker Ethics still lives in some of the programmers out there. Those guys that keep hacking (and/or programming) for hours and hours just for the joy of create and modify things still exists.
It made me think about the old times when I used to use part of my “sleep time” to work on some C++/SDL code just to understand how could I bring 2D game to life with these tools.
This book (and these old hackers) motivated me to bring my hacker lifestyle again. It’s time to get back. :)
This book got me excited quite a few times. It's less about the history of hackers, or the culture of hacker ethic. It's more about a sort of emergence - when technology and people crossed their paths, and boom!! a new way of thinking emerges.
Humans, after all, are thinking machines. It's more than exciting to find a new way to think. That'd lead to new ways of living. It's what humans created together that's changing the world we live in.
But then, what do I know? When I was luckily selected to be the few who could access Apple II computers with BASIC language in the 1986 of China, I had little appreciation of this privilege. After college, I met a friend who's a computer programming enthusiastic. He taught himself a good amount of English just in order to join those online forums. He told me he taught himself how to turn music into notes. Thinking back, that friend might have been the first hacker I've ever met in life.
Thinking back, if I was able to see the amount of creativity in programming, I could have been hooked. Which never happened. Therefore, I'm a hacker that's never going to become one.
I loved this book. It is a documentary about various aspects of computing. The first part is utterly excellent. It is about the birth of the "hacker ethic" around the DEC PDP machine in the MIT AI Lab. It is very funny and very inspiring. Some of the people in that section of the book have disappeared into obscurity, so the book is amazing for capturing this lost part of tech history. The second part is about the personal computer revolution. It covers the Altair machine, the Apple I / II and other microcomputers of its class. This part made me realise for the first time how much of a key player Apple were at the beginning. They pretty much created the home computer. The third part is about games, and the programmers and companies that created them for the early computers. It focuses on a few key developers and companies, mostly Sierra. This was quite interesting since I played a lot of Sierra games back in the day and didn't know any of these background stories until now. Anyone really into programming should get a kick out of the first section, it is worth buying just for this.
I really, really enjoyed this book. Levy tells the story in a way that flows from one brief era of the early computer age to the next. There is still so much of those early days which defines how we build and use computers in the 21st century. This book should be required reading for any programmer but I honestly think anyone would enjoy it.
Philosophically, there is so much bound up in the Hacker Ethic that I have never heard a hacker (of any sort) express it coherently. When RMS presents it, it's some sort of Ultra-Liberal flavour of Americana-Soaked Super Freedom. ESR is probably worse. Modern hackers miss the gossamer nature of the ideal and stomp straight into implementations. Old hackers conflate a Hands-On Imperative with DIY. Somehow, Levy captures everything I have ever wanted to express about the Hacker Ethic the way that Harari expresses the concept of Collective Imagination/Hallucination. These ideas do not subscribe the ephemeral political spectra and they don't fit cleanly into the ideas the reader holds before reading the first page. Neither author is arguing for or against these ideas -- they're just presenting them. The execution is so brilliant I can't believe friends and colleagues haven't been shoving this book down my throat for decades.
This was a really interesting look at the history of computers as a DIY technology, stretching from the 1950s to the 1980s, when the first edition of it was published.
I find a lot of computer users look at the things like they're magic boxes, likely run by black magic and/or hamsters running in wheels; I confess to having moments where I've felt that way myself, but I'm trying to educate myself a bit more on how computers actually think and operate, and this book helped cement that understanding a bit more.
Additionally, this book reinforced two of the truisms I've repeatedly encountered when studying subcultures.
The market will replace your values with its own. It seems to me that subcultural movements tend to have certain values to them that make them popular with certain segments of the public. As they gain more popularity, the mainstream starts to notice them, and tries to find ways to monetize them, even if the movement was one that was based originally around non-commercial values. This is how we end up with Iggy Pop songs being used to sell Disney Cruise tours, and fashion that exploits women and their sexuality being marketed as "girl power" feminism. It's also how we end up with a generation of computer hackers who can't understand why anyone would want to buy a pre-assembled computer with the software already loaded on it.
History never ends. One of the main recurring conflicts in Hackers relates to who has access to computer information - we see this with the MIT gurus in the 50s trying to limit access to their computers, and again with the tales of early software users wanting to freely share programs vs. the companies wanting to use copy-prevention to increase their profits. And we see the same conflict now with the open source movement vs. proprietary software, and DRM media files vs. the Creative Commons. It's one that will probably continue as long as people are recording information by the bit, which should ensure that Hackers remains somewhat relevant for generations to come.
Let's get this out of the way up front—the term "hackers" here refers to the original ideology of the word from the earlier days of computing, when hackers blazed the trail of our modern hardware and software systems. These are not the modern day denizen hackers of destructive, malicious infamy. Based on this understanding, this book should be required reading for anyone connected with the computing profession. It serves as a rich history of the genesis of modern day computing, from the earliest days at MIT, the birth of languages such as Lisp and BASIC, the origins of modern video games from Space War and Colossal Cave, to the natural evolution of microcomputing. Steven Levy shows us how a historical book about an industry should be written. It contains an unfolding, interrelated emotional story of people and technology. There are moments of wonder, awe, tenacity, pain, suffering, hope, idealism, and eventually, money, capitalism, and greed. Even at 450+ pages, this is one book you'll read through quickly. After reading this, you'll want to fire up Emacs, dust off Space War, and find out just how powerful this Lisp language from 1959 still really is ;-)
This is a book about the early age of hacking before computers controlled so much of our world that "hacking" became a science of exploitation. This is the original meaning of hacking, which is to squeeze extra performance out of equipment by bending the "proper" rules, which often have to do more with administrative control than technological limitations. I find this encouraging as an outlook as it is what all of us should always do to whatever limitations we find in life: work around the unreasonable ones by understanding the raw reality (science/logic/common sense) of a situation more than its human-imposed administrative, social and political -- these words seem to mean the same thing in this context -- controls. Levy takes us through the early days of East Coast university hacking, then looks at the hippie days and the garage shops of the West Coast, before giving us a brief glimpse into the world to come as computers became more powerful, were networked, and moved out of the corporate/government/academic world and into daily life.
I can overlook some sexism. Especially if a narrative just "forgets" to mention people who aren't men. This book goes a step further to imply that women aren't as good at hacking/math/computers as men which is bullshit. As if the first programmer wasn't a woman (Ada Lovelace). As if the first compiler wasn't written by a woman (Grace Hopper). As if there aren't a million kickass women and non binary folks who are hackers today. I'm frankly astonished that the author thought to almost exclusively interview and feature men in the first edition, make incredibly sexist remarks about it, and then never return to apologize or correct himself in the following editions.
I would give this 1 star except for the fact that I truly enjoy learning about the history of computers, which is the only thing that kept me reading.
This was somewhat mediocre. The book started ok, with the AI lab in MIT and the hackers there, but then got into some stuff which has nothing to do with hacking in any form, and the focus on Sierra On-line is unjustified. All things considered, not a useful book beyond the first 100-150 pages.
Great insight on the birth and evolution of the hacker mentality and its effects on the computer revolution. Following the achievements and contributions in the field made by people such as Marvin Minsky (the father of AI), Peter Samson (developer of the Harmony Compiler and "Spacewar!"), Richard Greenblatt and Bill Gosper (considered to be the founders of the first hacker community), Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), Ken and Roberta Williams (founders of Sierra On-line, one of the first computer gaming companies), and John Draper (legendary figure in the programing, hacking and security communities) among many others. My only gripe while reading this book was that I haven't stumbled upon it a few years earlier.
I loved this book. I loved this book back in 1985 when I first read it. But I really loved reading it again in 2021. This 25th-anniversary edition has an appendix where Levy tells us what his hackers are doing today, something I wondered all the while rereading the original story. Get that edition.
Most people today can't remember a time before computers dominated the world. I can. This book is about a handful of people who envisioned the potential of computers back in the late 1950s through the early 1980s. Their tiny subculture took over the world.
The first of the three parts is a very enjoyable account of the eldest generation of hackers - their breathless enthusiasm and absolute dedication shines through to the reader as if one was there. I liked the second part the least, the third one was good again.
It's also very interesting to read a book that maps the relatively obscure hacker culture (back in 1983, when it was first published). The book got popular in the following years, made its own impact on the very culture it described. And then it got updates. There was an afterword with an update from 1993 (that is, ten years later) and then another one from 2010, so the author had an opportunity to update the book with some comments on its own role within the community.
I'd wanted to read this book for a long time; even more so after I'd read in Masters of Doom that it was instrumental to John Carmack in the formation of some of his views. And finding that Carmack got a mention in the 2010 update was quite satisfying.
Ngày nay, nghĩa phổ biến của từ "hacker" là để chỉ những "tin tặc" hay những kẻ phá hoại, lợi dụng các lỗ hổng an ninh mạng để đánh sập hệ thống, ăn cắp thông tin hay thậm chí là cả tống tiền nữa. Nghĩa tiêu cực này còn phổ biến đến mức người ta còn phải "đội mũ" cho các hacker để phân biệt: nhóm thứ nhất là hacker mũ đen bao gồm tin tặc và những kẻ phá hoại. Nhóm thứ hai, hacker mũ trắng thì giống với nghĩa gốc của từ này hơn. Và những người trong nhóm thứ hai này cũng là chủ thể chính mà cuốn sách nhắc tới.
Cuốn sách đưa chúng ta quay trở lại thời kỳ khởi phát của ngành công nghiệp điện tử và máy tính ở thung lũng Silicon, xem xét những anh hùng trong cả lĩnh vực phần cứng lẫn phần mềm để tìm hiểu cách mà họ đã đưa ngành công nghiệp này phát triển đến trạng thái ngày nay. Điểm chung ở họ là sự đam mê bất tận với công nghệ và luôn đòi hỏi phải phá vỡ mọi rào cản để dòng chảy thông tin được chảy tự do khắp các mạch nguồn đam mê và sáng tạo. Họ chia sẻ với nhau cái gọi là "đạo đức hacker" gồm những nguyên tắc cơ bản như sau:
Chia sẻ Mở Phi tập trung hóa Tiếp cận tự do với máy tính (không ngạc nhiên khi có nguyên tắc này trong thời kỳ mà việc tiếp xúc với một chiếc máy tính vẫn còn rất đắt đỏ). Làm thế giới tốt đẹp hơn. Chúng ta sẽ bắt gặp những Richard Stallman cùng phong trào nguồn mở, Bill Gates cùng những đêm vượt rào vào phòng thí nghiệm để manh nha hệ điều hành của mình hay chứng kiến Steve Job, Steve Wozniak và các hacker phần cứng khác đưa máy tính cá nhân đến với mọi gia đình như thế nào.
Ngày nay, những nguyên tắc và tinh thần của đạo đức Hacker không những vẫn còn nguyên giá trị mà thậm chí còn quan trọng hơn. Dường như nó là những nguyên tắc sống còn để một đội nhóm phát triển và mạnh mẽ. Ngay cả các sản phẩm thành công nhất của thế giới ngày nay cũng dường như là sự kế thừa và mở rộng của thứ tinh thần ấy, chẳng hạn:
Các đại diện của nền kinh tế chia sẻ (airbnb, uber, grab, ...): chia sẻ, mở, phi tập trung hóa, làm thế giới tốt đẹp hơn. Quyền lực chuyển từ các đại gia vận tải và khách sạn tới những người dân bình thường nhất. Các đại diện của mạng xã hội (facebook, twitter, youtube): chia sẻ, mở, phi tập trung hóa, làm thế giới tốt đẹp hơn. Ngày nay ai cũng có thể mở một kênh radio, kênh truyền hình, tờ báo. Blockchain và bitcoin đang làm các chính phủ và ngân hàng trung ương dần mất đi quyền lực tối thượng của mình. Thế giới sẽ thay đổi hoàn toàn khi blockchain và tiền số tìm được con đường cho riêng mình. Một cuốn sách vô cùng thú vị, có lẽ ai cũng sẽ rút ra được những bài học và chiêm nghiệm cho riêng mình. Nó gợi lại cho mình rất nhiều ký ức của thời còn học trường phổ thông, thời đại học cũng nhưng năm tháng chập chững vào nghề sau này. Xin tiếp tục ghi nhớ và nuôi dưỡng những tinh thần ấy, tinh thần hacker.
Really cool sketches of the hackers we know (or didn't) from early days at MIT up through the dawn of the personal computer. There were a few oddities (claiming brøderbund was Scandinavian for "brotherhood" (last I checked, Scandinavian wasn't a language...think maybe he meant Norwegian?), and that Bill Gates wrote DOS for the IBM PC (didn't he buy it from some guy for like $400?). The only other drawback for me was that some of the early chapters were a bit dull for me (sorry, nothing specific to report), but of course did love hearing about hacks of many varieties (jokes, stunts as well as clever coding tricks). I think it might've been better if we jumped even deeper into the hacks they came up with. Levy kind of glosses over them, giving a layman's description (lest he offend us with overly technical topics???).
I really did appreciate that he never tried to insert himself into the narratives. Or maybe he wasn't anywhere near these guys till long after events took place. But even when he quotes from these guys in interviews years afterward, he still didn't refer to himself (why do journalists insist on doing that so often?). In his afterwards of course he did adopt the first person a few times, not sure they were all that thrilling to read.
The bad: The books is extensively long. It's an excruciatingly detailed history of hackers, but still - sometimes too long. Also, there could be a short summary (or several) throughout the chapters. We jump from biography to biography with sometimes very little continuity. I got confused.
The good: It's a great great read. I would say essential for any CS major. I hated the book at the beginning. It was slow, I thought it would never end, and I wasn't really learning anything significative. But then it started to warm up. But it didn't become super interesting right away. I kept reading, determined to end, and it just kept getting better and better.
Now, this might not be Levy's fault, as the most recent technologies are the ones involving people with most interesting and skilled backgrounds. But I definitely felt the book really increase in quality towards the end.
At the end of the day, in summary, it's super-detailed history of everything related to computer science, hacking, debugging, bumming, optimizing, Assembly and older languages, and how the computer industry was created. I love it.
One of my absolute favorite tech-related books of all time. Read it a half-dozen times, at least.
It's somewhat better-written than most of Levy's books (like the painful "In the Plex"), though it bears the same biases that his other work does. I don't know if it's a long-form journalist tendency, but Levy's books and articles all seem to be written as if they're telling The Whole Story, though they are heavily skewed by the people who were most willing to be interviewed extensively. Any writer has to work with the material he can uncover, but it would be nice if it were a little more openly acknowledged that a lot of the story told as history is really personal recollection on the part of a participant who *might* still have an axe to grind.
But this one is so, SO good in spite of all of that, and what a golden and glorious age it covers!
I think, to almost every person I've ever spoken to, computers and their early history remains opaque and somewhat intimidating. Hackers is a worthy attempt to remedy this.
Hackers is well researched and thorough, successfully tracing the convoluted route from punchcards to breadboards, wires and transistors all the way to the first versions of the spreadsheets-and-emails black box that sits on most office desks today. Levy focuses heavily on the people that drove this revolution - from the anarchistic roots in the MIT AI lab to the cold-hearted commercialism of the capitalists that graduated from well-meaning, hacker-spirit collectives.
Hackers is split roughly into three parts: 1. The origins in the MIT AI Lab - a wide-eyed celebration of the mischievous, intellectually-curious students, constantly at ends with the privileged priesthood of graduate students permitted to interact with the IBM 704 monolith. 2. The hardware hackers - a positive, deep-dive into the Homebrew Computer Club and their focus on the hacker spirit, particular context being given to the Woz. Also of note is the somewhat foreboding letter from Bill Gates to the hacker-spirit community denouncing the established practice of code plagiarism. 3. The gaming revolution - a detailed trace of the history of gaming for home PCs and the commercial battleground that followed as thousands of dollars turned into millions. The mood starts off optimistic and partway through turns into an elegy to the death of the hacker spirit as the protagonists knew it, in the face of a rapidly growing, profitable, gaming industry.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly with the detailed description of punchcard systems and the challenges that faced their users, though believe it would be a moderate-difficult read for those with no prior knowledge of computers, their history or how they work.
This book is the story of the beginning of computers, written in the 1980s. I'd already read about many of the events portrayed in the book via other books or magazine articles. But this was nice and detailed. I like Steven Levy's style. He really brings the people profiled to life. Knowing where computers have ended up - which companies and movements have won - makes it an especially interesting read compared to when it was first published and people weren't sure where the industry was going or if it would crash like the Atari crash of the 1980s.
It was weird that I was alive for a good portion of the last part of the book, but hadn't experienced it firsthand both from being too young and from neither myself nor my parents having geeky peers.
The book has 2 afterwards to update the reader on what's happened since then. The second one is from 2010. It's funny, even 11 years later it the Zuckerberg section read SO differently. Frankly, I'd really love if Levy would just make a sequel to the original book and really cover the 90s to today. Go deep on Google, Red Hat, Linus Torvalds, Facebook, and Twitter. Show the 3rd (or 4th?) wave hacker and how they are similar and different from those previous generations.
Good as a history book that reads like a long-form magazine article. Also easy to read in chunks as you have interest. Highly recommend.
The first part chronicles the adventures of a group of programming enthusiasts in MIT's AI lab in the 70s. They wrote useful utilities for the first generation of computers like TX-0, PDP6, etc. They believed in freely giving away all programs they wrote.
The second part is the story of hardware hackers in California who dreamt of new machines and wrote the initial software to make those machines come to life. This section includes the initial experiences of now-famous people like Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and also some lesser known but profoundly influential figures like Lee Felsenstein.
The third part deals with the "third generation of hackers". The stories here are mostly about the rapid rise of the video game industry.
The most interesting thing about this book is that it was written back in the 80s. Back then it was impossible to know which of these figures would go on to become legends, and who would remain obscure.
Overall my yardstick for judging a book is based on how much I learn from it. This book definitely has tons of stories and lessons that are not captured in other more recent works of this nature.
Awesome, yet somehow overblown chronicle of the original "hacker" culture.
If you know a bit about the history of software engineering, you probably (90%) know that who current pop culture considers a "hacker" is far from the traditional meaning of this word. This book gets even deeper - to the group of original hackers who rocked the computer industry before 82-83.
But, is it a good book? For a geek, sure it is. There are some well-known facts (e.g. about Wozniak), but there are also some far less popular ones - even a geek like myself were still both surprised & amused (occasionally). But does it mean that it's truly pleasant to read? Not necessarily - it's very long and sometimes it feels like it's going nowhere - like you're waiting (a cliffhanger!) for a breakthrough moment that never comes.
Still - I think it's worth reading - mainly because it succeeds in honest depicting of what the origin hacker culture truly meant. What were their priorities, way of thinking, motivations, etc. But if you're not a geek - beware, I'm pretty sure reading this will be a boring experience for you.
I've recently picked up the desire to learn more about the history of computers. How did society get to a point where computers are so intricately woven into our lives? Hackers by Steven Levy was my first foray into the space — Levy has carved of a manageable time period (~40 years) and a small enough niche (the original Hackers) that this book serves as a canonical dissertation on one of the core tenets of computing: The Hacker Ethic.
Before diving any deeper, a definition of hacker needs to be established. In its original form, the term hacker had a positive connotation among the adherents of the ethic. It was somebody who loved to work with computers and understand their mysteries. The hackers strove to understand how computers worked and in the process made them better. These days, we think of enemies of the state like Anonymous or Russian bad-actors who break into our accounts to steal sensitive information. This definition has been pushed by the media, who have unwittingly flipped the definition on its head from its idealistic roots.
What is the Hacker Ethic? Beyond being simultaneously inspiring and repulsive — think smelly nerds that forego basic human needs for up to 36 hours at a time to work on a complex computer subroutine — the ethic represents wonder, creativity, and a staunch disregard for authority. The original hackers were the passionate few that loved computers and their potential enough to shut out the world and do what they loved: hack.
Unfortunately, this independent thinking and sheer brilliance has its dark side. Perhaps it was a lack of variation in personality (the original hackers from MIT were primarily young white dudes) or the arrogance that comes with a deep technical understanding of some of the world's most complex topics. Folks like Richard Stallman (creator of Free Software Foundation and GNU) are canonical examples of brilliant minds that leave a trail of development and destruction in their wake. Though, I can't help but wonder whether it's even possible to become as obsessed with computers as these folks without a predisposition towards interpersonal difficulty.
In Hackers, Levy imprints the idea that the select few who can be described as true hackers have had a disproportionate impact on the world — for better or for worse. I highly recommend this to anyone close to the technology industry as a deeper dive into the roots of its quirky culture.