Hackers never were part of the mainstream establishment, but their current reputation as villains of cyberspace is a far cry from the early days when, first and foremost, they were seen as ardent if quirky programmers, capable of near-miraculous, unorthodox feats of machine manipulation. True, their dedication bordered on fanaticism, and their living habits bordered on the unsavory. But the shift in popular perception to hackers as deviants and criminals is important not only because it affects the hackers themselves and the extraordinary culture that has grown around them (fascinating as a subject in its own right), but because it reflects shifts in the development, governance, and meaning of the new information technology. These shifts should be questioned and resisted. They unfairly cast hackers in a disreputable light and, more important, they deny the rest of us a political opportunity.
In Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy traces the roots of evolving hacker communities to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1950s. Here, core members of the Tech Model Railroad Club “discovered” computers first as a tool for enhancing their beloved model railroads and then as objects of passion in their own right. They turned their considerable creative energies to the task of building and programming MIT’s early mainframes in uneasy but relatively peaceful coexistence with formal employees of the university’s technical staff. In parallel, hacker communities developed and flourished in other academic locales, particularly Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon, sometimes spilling over into nearby cities such as Cambridge, Palo Alto, and Berkeley.
Formidable programmers, these hackers produced and debugged computer code at an astonishing rate. They helped develop hardware and software for existing computer functions and invented, sometimes as playful challenges, novel algorithms and applications that were incorporated into subsequent generations of computers. These novel functions not only extended recreational capabilities-gaming, virtual reality, and digitized music-but also increased practical capabilities such as control of robots and processing speeds. Obsessive work leavened with inspired creativity also yielded a host of basic system subroutines and utilities that pushed operating capacities and efficiency to new heights, steered the field of computing in novel directions, and became a fundamental part of what we experience every time we sit in front of a computer.
Levy and others who have written about this early hacker period describe legendary hacking binges-days and nights with little or no sleep-leading to products that surprised and sometimes annoyed colleagues in mainstream academic and research positions. The “pure hack” did not respect prescribed methods or theory-driven, top-down approaches to computer science and engineering. To hack was to find a...
For just $18 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $30 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our online archives.