HACKERS: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

HACKERS: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Rolling Stone and Popular Computing columnist Levy has chosen to wax eloquent on a seemingly one-dimensional theme: the nature of the hacker--the computer junkie whose life begins and ends with his time on the machine. But what starts out as good solid character-sketching, with lively quotes, becomes an interesting exercise in technological history and cultural change. Levy gets under the skin of his ""heroes""--a particular group of owlish MIT introverts and perennial adolescents who consume endless Cokes and Chinese food--to make some sober observations about the computer revolution of the past 25 years. The whole of Part I is devoted to life on the 9th floor of Tech Square at MIT, home of the hackers and the first truly programmable computers, as well as of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. These two remain shadowy gums, however, because Levy makes clear (even as Roger Schank does in his Al book, below) that hackers are essentially machine-oriented: their goal is a symbiosis, a mutual interaction that will lead to an extension of brain power or an end-product, no matter how silly or useless. Hackers understand the hardware and can rebuild it, as well as writing the software. Levy couches these details in terms of a general ""Hacker Ethic"" which aims at building ever more Perfect Programs, doing things the Right way (e.g. elegant, fast, ingenious. . .). The Hackers also stand for total openness--no locked doors, passwords, secret programs--and, in the well-known college tradition, were skilled in defying the bureaucracy, cracking codes, gaining access to locked safes, offices and, of course, to telephone lines (not for profit, it's added). The Cultism came acropper with the Vietnam War, student rebellions, and anti-scientific attitudes. (MIT's Al lab was funded by the DOD.) By the '70s an awareness of a Real World came to be felt, and the pioneer Hackers began to break up. Levy follows the fortunes of his endearing oddballs through the second generation: the birth of other Al and computer labs, especially on the west coast; the rise of commercialism and video games, leading finally to the present third generation of home computers and office automation. There is something of an American tragedy in this telling as we see the now middle-aged pioneers settling down to become entrepreneurs, some even marrying, and worse, some now bitter competitors. The Hacker Ethic flame has cooled; the simplistic anarchy is gone! Where will the next generation lead? Definitely not a book for buffs only.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1984
ISBN: 1449388396
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday