Hacking the planet


— 1:26 PM on May 20, 2011

I've got a confession to make. Books and I aren't as close as we used to be. Online articles catering to a slightly more attention-deficient audience have been the staple of my reading habits for an unacceptably long time. Even when those articles are presented in nice, bite-size portions, I am often guilty of skipping to the conclusions page. As my undergraduate college transcript will attest, books that don't pique my interest after the first chapter get tossed aside or skimmed at best. In spite of that, I'm here today to gush about a book by Steven Levy that grabbed me with the first paragraph and didn't let go until the afterword: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.

Despite keeping a casual ear to the ground, listening for books and movies based on computer lore, Hackers stayed under my radar until a recent late-night, academically required Amazon shopping spree. While browsing for cheap books to push me over the $25 total required to get free shipping, Hackers popped up in a recommendation panel, and my mouse cursor was drawn to it like a neodymium magnet to a refrigerator door. A few clicks later, the book began its journey to my mail box.

Despite sharing a similar title, Hackers does not chronicle the exploits of such pseudonym-laden teenagers as Acid Burn, Cereal Killer, and Crash Override. Instead, Levy introduces us to the progenitors of personal computing as we know it today, starring characters like Ricky Greenblatt, Ed Roberts, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak. The book ties together dozens of stories about the hardware and software hackers who helped build and shape the modern computer industry.

As I am a byproduct of 1983, this book serves in a Cliff's Notes capacity, filling in the blanks surrounding various technological advancements and computing heroes from the late 1950s through 1982. If that seems like an odd place to stop recounting history, it should be noted that the first edition of this book was published 26 years ago, in 1985. The 25th-anniversary edition contains an afterword for both the 10 year and 25 year anniversaries of the book. It follows up on several of the original hackers and briefly highlights more contemporary visionaries like Mark Zuckerberg, who has only recently entered the pantheon of tech superstars.

The stories begin in 1958 at a quaint little Cambridge school called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (you might have heard of it before), and they follow several members of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC). This is the scenario that hooked me; why on earth would Levy be talking about model trains? This is supposed to be computer book! Without giving too much away, Levy eloquently describes how the underpinnings of the MIT model train set consisted of various components, wired in meticulous ways, which approximated the logic functions used in computing. This experience, in turn, caused certain members of the club to venture into forbidden rooms containing behemoth machines like the IBM 704, Lincoln Labs' TX-0, and the DEC PDP-1. Many of the exploits and accomplishments of this first generation of hackers are brilliantly captured throughout the first part of the book.

Beyond Cambridge, Levy takes us to the West Coast, as we tag along with a group of hardware hackers sharing a grandiose vision of computers for the masses. The focal point is a relatively small cluster of enthusiasts who formed the "Homebrew club." This was a place where people could gather to share their hardware and software hacks, generally performed with an Altair 8800. This is the group that spawned "The Woz" and his original Apple computer. We also meet characters like John Draper, a.k.a. "Captain Crunch", who got his dubious hacking start by building blue boxes—devices used to place free long-distance calls around the world. If you've ever see the TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, a lot of the material covered here will seem familiar.

Building on the successes of hardware hackers in the 70s, a third generation of hackers began to emerge. This time, their attention was directed toward the development of games and software to make the hardware hackers' creations appealing to the layman. Companies like Sierra On-Line and Brøderbund took center stage, but the over-arching theme of this generation was the almighty dollar. Levy describes how some began to realize the monetary value of their innovations, and how capitalism quickly infected the formerly altruistic ethos of the hacker.

The magic of this book lies in Levy's ability to take otherwise unsexy, awkward protagonists and make you believe that they possess almost superhero-like powers. You can imagine them exercising absolute control over every bit and transistor at their disposal as you turn the pages. I find this particularly impressive; glorifying marathon sessions of Chinese take-out, key punching, hygiene forbearance, and beard-scratching is no easy task.

The tone set throughout the book venerates the open atmosphere and lack of bureaucracy enjoyed by the early hackers. At times, it can seem like a 477-page advertisement for the open source movement, championing the virtues of quality work and sharing over dollars and cents. Regardless of your stance on the topics of patents and licensing agreements, this book is worth a look, if only to help one understand why many people today choose to donate countless personal hours providing us with open source (and hackable) options. This book attempts to elevate the word "hacker" above the negative connotation it too often carries, giving the term back to those who see added potential in something and go hands-on to unlock it.

As much as I enjoyed the read, I am unsure of how well the material in this book will jell with audiences much younger than myself. I've been around just long enough that my first computing experiences took place on a combination of Apple ][s and IBM PCs running DOS. Much of the pre-Macintosh era discussion in the book brings back fond memories of "Inserting Disk 2" playing Oregon Trail and annoying family members with the "beep" command on our IBM PC-AT at home. Those who grew up in a world without command prompts and can't discern a PEEK from a POKE may find it harder to connect as deeply with the book as I did. Ultimately, however, Levy presents his stories in a way that any nostalgic computer geek should be able to appreciate.

In the technology industry, we are sometimes fixated on the future—searching for the next big thing or drooling over some next-generation gizmo. Occasionally, we need to take a deep breath and look back at our roots to see just how far we've come. That is what this book is to me: a glimpse into the past, an important perspective that shows where we've been, what we've achieved, and what remains to be conquered with our digital tools. It makes me truly appreciative of what we have today and of those who created the tools, which in turn created more tools, which we use today to craft even more tools for the future.

If you've already discovered this book (you've had 26 years for goodness' sake), I'd love to hear about your favorite parts or experiences using some of the technology discussed along the way.

   
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