Book Review – Hackers by Steven Levy

Just shortly before I got my first computer back in the mid-1980s, Steven Levy wrote “Hackers”. The book has become so famous over the years that there’s quite a long entry about it on Wikipedia. I’m not sure why I haven’t picked it up earlier as the story of the book ends just by the time I got started back then and thus would have given me a good idea of why I found things in place as they were.

According to the book I must be from hacker generation 4 as he splits his book and hackerdom up to 1983/84 into 3 generations. The first generation of hackers at the end of the 1950s and 60s were at home in universities, the main one being MIT as at that time computers where still huge in size and not affordable to individuals. So in the first third of the book, Steven tells the story of many of the people working at MIT’s AI lab at the time, programming Spacwar and activities like nightly lock picking excursions which must have been silently tolerated by the university at the time but would probably land you straight in jail these days. At the time only few if any openly dreamed about small personal computers for the home and office.

This changed in the second half of the 1970s when microproprocessors on a single chip, just appearing a few years earlier became affordable enough individuals to buy. The story thus shifts its focus from MIT at the US east cost to the the Altair and the Homebrew computer club in California and people there like Lee Felsenstein and Steve Wozniak just to name two. Steve Jobs has an appearance in the book, too, but mostly to explain how Woz ‘the hacker’ who is not interested in fame, money and management ended up in Apple despite of himself.

The ideal world of ‘hackerdom’ comes to an abrupt end in the book with the third part where fun and interest as main motivation is replaced by money. Part 3 of the book is mostly about the computer gaming industry and people wanting to get rich. I got a bit depressed when reading this part of the book because I’m definitely not part of this 3rd generation of hackerdom.

And then it’s 1983 and the story ends. That’s a good thing because I can then weave it into my personal computing history which starts at about this time. As the book was written in 1983 it is also interesting to read it from a historical perspective. Since its initial publication many editions must have appeared and the latest one contains an afterword written in 1993 and another one written in 2010 in which Steven reflects on what he wrote at the time and how the people he wrote about in his book have developed since. Richard Stallman is the topic of Appendix A of the book as the bearer of the ideals of the hackers of the first and second generation into the future which I found a wonderful close to the story. Highly recommended reading!