Book Reviews

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

ISBN-13: 978-0141000510
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 464

Hackers is the story of the early days of computers. From a time when hacking was truly underground and a single computer took up an entire room, over the microprocessor revolution, to the booming videogame industry of the eighties. Through the whole journey Steven Levy lets us step into the great minds of the early hackers, understand their motivations and why programming is so fascinating. The result is a classic book that is of significant importance even today.

The hacker culture has its roots at MIT, a natural start for Levy's story. Here we meet legendary hackers like Gosper , Greenblatt , and Russell . From a cultural perspective, this is probably the most important chapter as it explains the origin of "the hacker ethic" and the unique social context that lead to it. The hacker ethic is a central theme in the book and the author relates and compares subsequent events to those values. These chapters are fascinating from a historical perspective as well, with the creation of programming tools like assemblers, interactive debuggers, and even the first videogame (Steve Russell's Spacewar ). Also, John McCarthy plays an important role and I was pleased that Levy covers the creation of Lisp - McCarthy's groundbreaking discovery. Sure, the book doesn't dive into all that technical detail I would love, but one thing's for sure; as soon as time travels become practical, I'll definitely sign-up at MIT for course No. 641 back in 1959 and get to learn Lisp from the master himself.

Part two of the book takes us into the seventies where we meet the hardware hackers of northern California. Here we get stories like the Altair 8800 and, of course, the rise of Apple. Particularly the Altair 8800 stories highlight the truly amazing creativity and will to overcome obstacles in the hacker community. On its own, Altair 8800 was basically useless; an expensive box. And in order to program it, one had to toggle the switches on the front panel to enter opcodes one by one. Yet these early hackers managed to create, given this seriously constrained machine, brilliant applications. My personal favorite is Steve Dompier's invention of the first IO-device for the Altair - playing music on a low-frequency radio by the interference made from writing to different memory locations on the Altair. It's brilliance, it's art, it's programming.

The final part of the book moves us into the booming computer game industry of the early eighties. Much of it focuses on Sierra On-line , its founders Ken and Roberta Williams and the company's early star-hackers. I've played several of Sierra's early games and reading about their evolution and the history behind them is both interesting and, yes, quite nostalgic. Of technical interest is Ken's Adventure Development Language (ADL). ADL is, in my view, a great example of a domain-specific language; written on top of an assembly language, ADL seems to have been high-level enough to allow non-programmers to write adventure games.

With the rise of the game industry came the money. And with them came the conflict between the original hacker values and the hunt for profit. The most obvious example is probably Levy's less-flattering portrait of Atari, where every bit of information was kept closed and the competition was fought in court. But the hacker ethic lived on. In the epilogue we meet "The last of the true hackers", RMS , and his total dedication to the hacker ethic. In fact, this very review is written in Stallman's Emacs - a program that digitally embodies the hacker ethic; free and open, fully customizable, and an architecture that encourages users to improve and extend it.

Even though Hackers is now 25 years old it feels as relevant as ever. If you're a programmer, you owe it to yourself to read it.

Reviewed August 2008