Hackers, the hacker ethic, and beach reading
Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 05:57AM
Political Mammal in Open source

I spent Memorial Day weekend at a beach house on the outer banks of North Carolina with three other families. Four couples with six kids under the age of five, all girls. Quite amusing. Interspersed with making sand castles, watching the kids, eating, talking with the adults, and watching my daughter fall asleep in a careening go-kart, I read Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy.

Hackers is about the period from the early sixties to the early eighties; it is the story of the “true hackers” of the early computers at MIT who programmed when every bit of storage mattered, the “hardware hackers” of the first homebrew personal computers, and the “game hackers” who wrote the first personal computer games. There was a ton of excitement for all of those pioneers.

By the way, the term hacker is “appellation of honor, rather than a pejorative.” The use of the word to describe people who break into computers is erroneous. Hackers are those who immerse themselves in the world of computers and become very adept with programming them or building them.

The book first came out in 1984, and definitely reads like ancient history, but I liked it because I had multiple points of contact with it. If I had not spent many all-nighters programming in languages ranging from Lisp to BASIC to C, studied for a number of years at MIT, owned an Apple II Plus, played and pirated many of the early personal computer games, entered and watched the LIFE simulations, and so on, I would have found the history and character sketches a lot less interesting.

I did find the main theme of the book compelling, the tension between a “hacker ethic” and business. According to Levy, the following characterize the hacker ethic:

Access to computers should be unlimited and total

All information should be free

Mistrust authority—promote decentralization

Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not degrees, race, age, position

You can create art and beauty on a computer

Computers can change your life for the better

Levy describes how the hacker ethic was challenged by the rapid development of real industries for manufacturing personal computers and packaged propriety software, and by the opportunities for royalties for programmers.

For example, what was a minor anecdote in the book was new to me and seems important now. It turns out that Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a version of BASIC for the Altair, an early kit-based personal computer and sold that language with the agreement that they would get royalties from every copy. When they found that their version of Altair BASIC was getting passed around for free, Gates (then about 20) wrote an “open letter to hobbyists” pointing out that most of the people praising the software had not bought it, saying “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”

I recommend Hackers to today’s programmers for a sense of history and perspective.

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