Hackers by Steven Levy: a review

I originally read Hackers when it was new, as I’d already been reading Levy’s computer explorations elsewhere. Rereading it was great fun.

Steven Levy pretty much framed the way we remember the early personal computing days with this book. This is a collection of stories–three main ones, and a host of smaller tales within the large ones. The main stories cover the MIT hackers of the 60s and 70s, the Bay Area folks revolving around the Homebrew club who perfected the modern personal computer, and Sierra Online’s birth as an important gaming company. The smaller stories are mainly about individuals and events. Over the course of the book the emphasis changes from truly personal hacking to the ways hackers interacted with the development of their obsession into an important industry. This journey into business defines the book.

Then the first appendix circles back to MIT, and Richard Stallman, and the nature and culture of hacking. Two other appendices, written for the tenth and twenty-fifth anniversary editions, do some updating–and muse, once again, about the nature, costs, and benefits of the changes the main book sketches.

Levy managed to identify many the key figures in the computing revolution while that revolution was occurring, and they make appearances in the story. But most of the book’s characters are minor actors on the world’s stage, and could be seen as representative types were they not so clearly individuals. We see, again and again, youngsters (almost always boys) mastering machines (or code, or both), then trying to master themselves. The outcomes vary enormously.

Levy might have written a different book–perhaps Berkeley rather than MIT, ARPANET instead of Homebrew, Peachtree might replace Sierra–and reached similar conclusions. I knew midwestern PDP-7 hackers every bit as obsessed as any described here, and they’d have made fine fodder for Levy’s musings. And he’d have found hackers in IBM, had he looked. But Levy’s story works, and we’ve largely internalized it.

Terrific book. Well worth your time, if you’ve not read it.

Late note 8/22/10: Freiberger and Swaine’s Fire in the Valley approximates the alternative book I describe a couple paragraphs up, at least in part. Both books are worth reading; in fact, I’d call them both essential to understanding this industry’s roots.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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