February 19, 2004

Book Review: Hackers

Hackers, by Steven Levy, should be required reading for anyone who programs computers for a living. Starting from the late 1950s, when the first hackers wrote code for the TX-0 and every instruction counted, to the early 1980s, when computers fully entered the consumer mainstream, and it was marketing rather than hacking which mattered. Levy divides this time into three eras: that of the 'True Hackers,' who lived in the AI lab at MIT and spent most of their time on the PDP series, the 'Hardware Hackers,' mostly situated in Silicon Valley and responsible for enhancing the Altair and creating the Apple, and the 'Game Hackers,' who were also centered in California; expert at getting the most out of computer hardware, they were also the first to make gobs and gobs of money hacking.

The reason everyone who codes should read this book is to gain a sense of history. Because the field changes so quickly, it's easy to forget that there is a history, and, as Santayana said, "Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it." It's also very humbling, at least for me, to see what kind of shenanigans were undertaken to get the last bit of performance from a piece of hardware that was amazing for its time, but now would be junked without a thought. And a third takeaway was the transformation that the game industry went through in the early 80s: first you needed technical brilliance, because the hardware was slow and new techniques needed to be discovered. However, at some point, the hard work was all done, and the business types took over. To me, this corresponds to the 1997-2001 time period, with the web rather than games being the focus.

That's one of my beefs--the version I read was written in 1983, and republished, with a new afterword in 1993. So, there's no mention of the new '4th generation' of hackers, who didn't have the close knit communities of the Homebrew Computer Club or the AI lab, but did have a far flung, global fellowship via email and newsgroups. It would be a fascinating read.

Beyond the dated nature of the book, Levy omits several developments that I think were fundamental to the development of the hacker mindset. There's only one mention of Unix in the entire book, and no mention of C. In fact, the only languages he mentions are lisp, basic and assembly. No smalltalk, and no C. I also feel that he overemphasizes 'hacking' as a way that folks viewed and interacted with the world, without defining it. For instance, he talks about Ken Williams, founder of Sierra Online, 'hacking' the company, when it looked to me like it was simple mismanagement.

For all that, it was a fantastic read. The more you identify with the geeky, single males who were in tune with the computer, the easier and more fun a read it will be, but I still think that everyone who uses a computer could benefit from reading Hackers, because of the increased understanding of the folks that we all depend on to create great software.

Posted by moore at February 19, 2004 11:05 AM
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