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Keywords: Programmers, hacker ethics, computer history
Author: Steven Levy
Verdict: Highly recommended
Alternatively a term of deep respect, suspicion or abuse, the phrase 'hacker' is still one of those words that means vastly different things to different people. As far as the popular press is concerned a hacker is someone who breaks into other peoples computer systems, usually for criminal purposes. As far as some people in the IT industry are concerned a hacker is an unmanageable developer churning out weird and indecipherable code that is a nightmare to maintain. But amongst developers, the word retains a degree of glamour and respect that hasn't changed no matter how far technology and process have moved. Stephen Levy's 'Hackers - Heroes of the Computer Revolution' is firmly in the latter camp. Now re-issued in a 25th anniversary edition, this is the classic description of those early pioneers in the days when machine time was precious and every byte was worth fighting for.
Covering the period from the 1950s to the early 1980s, the book charts the rise (and sometimes the fall), of the small band of techies for whom working with computers was the be all and end all. These were the people who worshipped at the altar of the machine, even when the machine was a hulking beast with little in the way of I/O, tiny amounts of memory and nothing in the way of development tools and technologies. They were pioneers in every sense of the word. They locked themselves away for hours and days at a time, trying to get everything out of these strange machines.
There's little point in this review of outlining the stories of these first waves of hackers. Some of them are still household names, some are still known to legions of developers and some, sadly, would have been long forgotten were it not for Levy's book.
However, it's not just the hackers themselves that Levy describes. More importantly he describes the evolution of the hacker ethic. And this ethic remains as true and valuable today in the era of massive amounts of machine time, memory and storage as it did in the day when these things were scarce. Even in the days of super platforms (Java and .Net) and in a time when there are vast libraries of code and components for us to use, the hacker ethic is valuable. It puts technique and dedication high on the list of virtues, it values expertise, knowledge and algorithmic virtuosity over job titles and formal qualifications.
Is the hacker still important? Does the hacker ethic really mean anything anymore? Take a look at the open source world. Take a look at the proliferation of new languages. It's there still, lurking away on techie forums, gently teasing apart new bits of hardware to see how they can be reused, hacked open, extended. It's there in the wish to get past the proprietary system to see what's inside and how it can be opened up and used by all.
This is a great book. It should be on the required reading list of every aspiring developer. Sure, there's a certain level of mythologising going on, but this after all is the story of the 'heroic' era of computing. Read it, you know you want to.