"Hackers" at 25

It's been 25 years since "Hackers" was published. Author Steven Levy reflects on the book and the movement.

Steven Levy wrote a book in the mid-1980s that introduced the term “hacker” — the positive connotation — to a wide audience. In the ensuing 25 years, that word and its accompanying community have gone through tremendous change. The book itself became a mainstay in tech libraries.

O’Reilly recently released an updated 25th anniversary edition of “Hackers,” so I checked in with Levy to discuss the book’s development, its influence, and the role hackers continue to play.

Writing “Hackers”

Do you remember the original pitch for “Hackers”?

<img src="http://www.oreillynet.com/images/people/154/steven_levy.jpg" border="0" alt="Steven Levy" width="140" style="float: right; margin: 0 0 5px 12px;"Steven Levy: I don’t remember it, though I can tell you that it didn’t wind up being what the book was. I thought I was going to embark on a series of magazine articles.

Soon after I started researching, it seemed like it was going to be a two-part book starting with the Homebrew Computer Club and then the game hackers and that emerging industry. But then I realized that the whole hacker culture started at MIT. That was where I had to go, and it turned out to be a key section of the book.

Of all the stories and profiles in the book, which resonated most with you?

SL: The MIT story was just amazing. I stumbled upon this important history and no one else had chronicled it. It’s difficult to overestimate how important that community was to hatching the culture of hacking, and really the culture of computing. It had ripples far beyond the hacker community that went out to the way we all use computers.

I would learn about these people like Richard Greenblatt and Bill Gosper, that no one ever heard of. The way they expressed themselves and the reverberations they created were very influential. They were legends within the walls of MIT.

It’s a little bittersweet that the book itself wound up defining them to a larger audience. From a journalistic and psychological perspective, it was interesting to talk to Greenblatt and Gosper. They had mixed feelings about sharing with me. Gosper had the biggest vacillation. He was okay with the book, but he never went to a Hacker Conference. And there’s things in the book that were a little embarrassing for Greenblatt, but he was okay. He felt: “Well, that’s just journalism. The more important thing is hacking, and if the book is good for hacking, that’s all right.”

Some of the people who grudgingly talked to me ended up appreciating the book. Marvin Minsky, for example, was a mercurial character. He’d get up and walk away and you didn’t know whether the interview was over. I would follow him and keep asking questions. I ran into him at a Science Foo Camp last summer, and he said such nice things about the book. I had never heard these things from him. That was just super for me.

Is there anyone you wish you had included?

SL: I didn’t set out to create an exhaustive chronicle of all hackers. Some people have told me I should have included them in the book. But I was following a narrative. Just because someone isn’t in the book, doesn’t mean they’re not important.

The “Hackers” impact and the 25th anniversary edition

How has the definition of “hacker” changed over the last 25 years?

Hackers: 25th Anniversary EditionSL: The original term was upbeat. The MIT people adopted it for computer wizards who took systems to the limit. It was a badge of pride, but it became associated with vandals and thieves. There was a lot of consternation in the mid-’70s when the word became synonymous with a destructive element. I never thought that was something to spend a lot of time worrying about, though. The original definition was still lurking there. The movement always went forward, and the people who were inclined to be hackers — the ones who had the “hacker gene” — they just kept on.

More recently, the positive version of “hacker” has made a big comeback. I’m happy to see that.

You mentioned a “hacker gene.” Is there a connection across hacker generations? Does the book tap into that?

SL: There definitely is. It’s been so gratifying to hear people say the book changed their lives. Other times, I’ll be reading a biography or an article about someone prominent in the computer world, and they’ll mention “Hackers.” Some have told me “I recognize myself in this book, and I didn’t know those other people were out there.”

If you were writing the book today, how would you approach it?

SL: It’s hard to say because so much now is taken for granted that wasn’t even thought of back then. One of the precepts of the hacker ethic — which I tried to codify based on what I saw as the implicit assumptions of hackers for various generations — was that you can create art and beauty on a computer. That was a crazy idea back then, but now it’s pretty obvious. The super edgy ideas at that time are now so mainstream you don’t even think about them. So, now, it would have to be a really different kind of book.

The 25th anniversary edition contains updated material. What did you add?

SL: I went back to some of the people originally in the book. I also talked to people who, if I were writing the book now, would’ve been in it.

Working behind the update was the idea that we had all gotten older. That just happens after 25 years. Everyone was still as enthusiastic as before, though. Take Bill Gates. Even though he has a different job, he’s still as hardcore as he was. He’s hacking vaccinations, now. And don’t think for a minute he’s lost track of what happens with Microsoft.

The new people were great. Mark Zuckerberg, to me, is the person who embodies the kind of hacker who doesn’t see the conflict so much between commerce and computer creativity. It’s all at peace to him.

Hacking in the present day

Are we in a position now where low-cost storage and pay-as-you-go resources will unlock a level of innovation similar to what you encountered when you were writing “Hackers”?

SL: It’s a continuation. At the time, creating a program that lived on a paper tape and that was shared among a dozen people was as revolutionary and as dramatic a change as these cloud-based application centers are now. That same sort of flexibility and launching pad for creativity snowballed into something that the masses now participate in.

Is Apple’s success with closed products (iPhone, iPad, etc.) an ominous sign for hacking?

SL: Even though Apple has an iron hand in executing the limits that they’ve set, there’s a lot of creativity that happens on the iPhone and the iPad. Setting those limits isn’t a very hackerish thing to do. But certainly if you’re a hacker and you’re so inclined, you could work within those limits and you could write something that Apple would approve. And people have. Just because Apple has top-down regulation, doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity.

What is the next frontier for hacking? Physical goods? Biological? Something else?

SL: I don’t think we’re done with computer hacking. It’s more important than ever to have creative ways to make use of this unbelievable infrastructure that we’ve created.

Any time you think it’s all been done, someone comes up with something that changes everything. Look at Napster. There was this period where people thought all the big companies would make all the big decisions, and then Napster came out of a dorm room and knocked everything upside down. We’re going to see more of those. Facebook came from a dorm room, right? A great idea that’s well implemented can go farther than it’s ever been able to go before.

This interview was condensed and edited.

Update 6/27/10: Dale Dougherty interviewed Steven Levy about “Hackers” at FOO Camp. Video from their chat is embedded below:


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