On re-reading Steven Levy's "Hackers"

Why the "Hackers" thesis still holds. Plus: How links created new context in the ebook.

When O’Reilly Media bought the rights to “Hackers” for its 25th Anniversary
re-release
, we knew this classic needed no gilding. The characters
are just as astonishing, the anecdotes as gripping, the analysis as
pertinent as when the book was released in 1984. O’Reilly publisher
Dale Dougherty recently conducted a video interview with “Hackers” author Steven Levy about the
book.

Nevertheless, spiffing it up for the ebook version has
paid off by delivering a new dimension to the book that readers are
reporting back on favorably. After I offer my reactions to re-reading
the text after 25 years — stronger reactions than I had expected — I’ll
finish with a discussion of the links we added to the electronic
version.

Impressions of “Hackers” from 1985

When I first read this book, it had already hit the bestseller
lists. I had just entered the computer field as a technical writer (a
position I occupied far too long before becoming an O’Reilly editor)
and I wanted to get a feel for the people whose fate I had just
adopted as my own. A lot of incidents in “Hackers” evoked
strong feelings, as I’ll explain shortly. But I hardly expected that
I’d adopt many of the deepest values and viewpoints of the
protagonists, as millions of others have also done in the ensuing
decades.

It’s hard to remember the attitude of the public toward computers in
the early 1980s. Computing stood in the minds of many as a kind of
aloof, coldly calculating inhumanity, and was commonly portrayed that
way in movies of the 1950s and later. Let yourself have a good time
and view the episode called “The General” from “The Prisoner” series
of 1969. Look beyond the ludicrous and over-dramatized image of a huge
tape deck with flashing lights that emits smoke and burns itself to
death upon being fed a question it can’t answer, and notice the
philosophical statement that the episode makes. I’ve always found it
amazingly thoughtful and apt.

The popular view of computing in its early years was eroding as
personal computers popped up more and more in homes and offices
following the release of “Hackers.” People were realizing that
computers could be fun. They could start to see how the computers
could make our lives easier.

And Levy helped take people to the next step. He showed them that
computers could alter the relationships between people, and even cause
us to view the world in new ways.

Reading the first part of “Hackers” in the 1980s, I passed
quickly over the MIT misfits. Although this culture is the root of
everything that follows in the book, I found the personalities no more
relevant to me than an anthropological thesis on far-off cultures. It
would be a while before I became truly conscious of the significance
of the events that took place in those dingy labs and corridors, and
what they meant to the protagonists.

Similarly, the third part on the development of video games grew
tedious. I couldn’t find the ingenuity and genius in exploiting human
beings’ urge toward play to make fortunes. But the historic impact of
that industry on computing and daily life persists.

It was the second part of the book that struck home the most. This
section discussed Community Memory and other idealistic experiments to
give a voice to masses of people through computers. I identified at a
single click with the anti-Vietnam War activists and Great Society
drop-outs who pushed forward this revolution. I followed with pride
the narrative from their empowerment movements, which turned the
Establishment’s machines against it, to the creation of mass-market
personal computers.

Apple Computer Corporation, which today is excoriated by hacktevists
as a closed system trying to control every pixel that enters our
brains, was at that time the carrier of the great promise of human
self-expression and liberation.

But my identification with the counterculture was not conflict-free. I
had shared many of their struggles and values in the ’70s. Yet I also
wondered how they chose their priorities and I thought some of their
obsessions were puerile.

Most important, I knew the revolution had failed. The high hopes of
that political period were dashed, and along with many of its veterans
I had moved on into the corporate world, picking up whatever shards of
idealism I could carry with me.

I really struggled with Part Two of “Hackers.” I wanted to be
one of the counterculturalists, to travel back to Berkeley, Calif. of the 1970s and hook up teletype machines to offer people who had a lifetime of grievances to air and no connection to the others who
shared them. But at the same time I knew that the movement had become
derailed before it started. I thought these visionaries would never
have started their movement had they foreseen the future that I was
living through at that very moment.

It was unimaginable that Silicon Valley would pick up the most
positive aspects of the free-market idealism Reagan brought to the
White House in 1980 and turn it full circle, somewhat as the Community
Memory activists had subverted the computer itself. It was even more
impossible to believe that the original values of the MIT hackers
could spring forth again, triumphant.

So far I have summarized the three parts of “Hackers,” but
didn’t mention the little Epilogue that Levy tacked on at the end. In
this concluding postlude he returns to the “Last of the True Hackers”
of the MIT days, a lonely idealist living and carrying out the
principles around which his colleagues rallied 20 years before. As
I read this postscript in the 1980s, I felt that Levy had added this
portrait of Richard M. Stallman and his fresh-coined GNU project for
literary reasons. Aesthetically, it was a neat trick for Levy to
return to the theme of MIT hackery long left behind. This same
epilogue 25 years later seemed oracular in its prescience.

Impressions of Hackers from 2010

I picked up “Hackers” after a long gap when I heard that
O’Reilly was acquiring the rights. It is the Epilogue that strikes me
most this time around, and now one can see the interview with Stallman
not as a nostalgic wrapping-up of times gone by but as an announcement
of a new movement soon to play a dominant role in society. The one
overarching story of the past 25 years in computing has been
the emergence and increasing hegemony of free software. Although
Stallman disparages the alternate term “open source,” that term has
helped the ethos of freedom spread to many other realms in business,
the arts, politics, and personal interactions. As a retroactive
vindication of Levy’s choice, it is almost too obvious to mention that
few people in “Hackers” command as much name recognition as
Stallman.

How is this? It turns out that Levy’s thesis holds true over time.
Hacker culture has proven to be the motor behind new thinking and
group effort in technology. The double-pronged genius of
hackerism — sharing freely while creating conditions for the unfettered
exploration of each individual’s talents — has nurtured the
advancements of our age.

Levy wrapped up his book in 1984 just as two critical trends exploded
upon the computing field: the popularization of graphical interfaces
through Apple’s Macintosh and the early exploration by college
students and engineers of USENET news groups and other online
communications. On USENET itself, more and more, people were turning
up with simplified email addresses containing an @ character followed
by a short sequence of dot-connected names, the marker of a new,
powerful, interconnected set of networks. It’s amazing how well the
thesis and story of “Hackers” holds up in the wake of these
changes.

If there would be a fourth part of “Hackers,” I wager Levy
would cover the emergence of the mobile phone app. And a key element
of the story would be one I told in the article The unflappable free software community that opened the iPhone.

This article reminds readers of the frustration felt by developers who
wanted to create their own native apps for the iPhone, and explains
why it didn’t take long after the release of the iPhone for some of
these developers to create their own, open-source API. Suddenly an
ecosystem of iPhone apps burst upon the scene, an ecosystem that no
one controlled and that everyone had access to, although users had to
Jailbreak their iPhones to install the apps — and huge numbers did.

I felt that the hackers who opened the iPhone forced Apple’s hand,
creating the competition that prompted Apple to release its own
development SDK. Other people tell me Apple had it planned all along,
but if so they certainly made a great secret of it, and I’ve read
elsewhere that their timing at least was influenced by the
availability of the free SDK.

Another great hacking story is furnished by doctors and programmers at
Veterans Administration hospitals, who in the 1980s created a powerful
piece of open source software named VistA and a world-class quality
improvement program in tandem. This story is told in Phillip Longman’s
book “Best Care
Anywhere
.”

Mobile apps — including projects to improve economic opportunities in
the developing world — the DIY movement, synthetic biology, cultural
remixes … there are many vast new fields of individual initiative in
technology to which “Hackers” is relevant.

Additions to the electronic version of Hackers

Although O’Reilly has distributed digital editions of books for years,
notably through a subscription service we developed a decade ago, Safari Books Online, we’ve
really headed into new digital territory over the past year, looking
for ways to make the medium work particularly well for our books. Our
efforts are facilitated by the tremendous progress in ebook readers
since Amazon.com introduced the Kindle. The e-book bundle for “Hackers”
contains APK, Mobi, PDF, and ePub formats, supporting the Kindle,
the iPad, the Safari Books
Online edition
, and many other readers — even an iPhone or Android
phone.

“Hackers” proved to be a valuable guinea pig for this new
publishing experiment, because it was written in a pre-Internet age
and the text of the new edition is unchanged except for some added
afterwords. What could we do to lend a twenty-first century experience
to an offering whose visionary breadth so deserved it? Certainly, it
would make sense to take advantage of the engaging multimedia
experience made possible by the descendants of the computers and
computer programmers covered in the book.

First, the electronic edition includes three complete interviews with
popular leaders of the computing field: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg,
and Tim O’Reilly. Summaries of those interviews are in the text as an
afterword. What I’ll focus on here, though, are the links we added to
the text to take the reader to websites about related topics.

O’Reilly editorial group manager Mike Hendrickson and I collaborated
on adding these links. Whenever we saw a phrase that looked ripe for
further exploration, we sought out one or more relevant links.
Sometimes Google was our friend; other times we knew enough about the
technical area to link directly an authoritative or highly informative
website.

Some categories of links include:

  • Biographies or current websites for leaders of the computing field.
    In his “Ten Years After” follow-up to the book, Levy had trouble
    tracking down many of the people he had interviewed. But someone,
    somewhere, has at least created websites that say something about
    them.

  • Fan sites or emulators for classic computers and video games. Nearly
    anything released in the 1980s — dozens of which were mentioned in
    “Hackers” — still exists in a virtual and sometimes physical
    form. Linking to these sites was fairly straightforward.

  • Cultural references. Readers in 2010 might not be familiar with the
    1970s-era rock groups and movies that Levy referred to casually and
    prolifically. In addition, the book has traveled around the world
    where fewer people know the references. So these deserved links.

  • Historical references. This category presented an interesting
    decision: how eager to be in adding links that might help readers
    understand Levy’s train of thought? Should we assume readers know who
    Croesus was? Should we assume they know what the French Resistance
    was? Ultimately, I tended to add links whenever I encountered a
    historical reference, because at least a few readers may appreciate
    them.

Numerous other items got their own links, too. As we went along, the
links took on a cumulative impact that went far beyond the convenience
offered by each one. In effect, Mike and I recreated the social
context of the 1980s. The emotional experiences that Levy drew upon in
references, say, to Cat Stevens or Australian aborigines can be grasped
vicariously by the reader by following the links. In effect, thanks to
our links — and to the tremendous efforts of search engine developers,
Wikipedia contributors, old computer lovers, and others — the
electronic version of “Hackers” provides an engrossing
experience, not just a wonderful stand-alone text.

If the electronic “Hackers” is a second-generation approach to
the text: a third generation will turn the experience around. While we
provided web pages as an organizing context for “Hackers,”
other books could themselves become an organizing context for the web.
For instance, a book on CSS could point to successful websites that
use each of the principles and features the book illustrates. The
process of hacking literature has just begun.

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