Notes for Steven Levy Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Key concepts: .

Related theorists: .

Notes originally started in April, 1996; needs reread in light of scholarly study.


Classical definition of hacker.

(7) I was first drawn to writing about hackers – those computer programmers and designers who regarded computing as the most important thing in the world – because they were such fascinating people. . . . Among themselves, they knew how far one could go by immersion into the deep concentration of the hacking mind-set: one could go infinitely far. I came to understand why true hackers consider the term an appellation of honor rather than a perjorative.

The Wizards and their Machines

Compare to selection of wizards in Programmers At Work, Out of Their Minds, and other histories.

The Fifties and Sixties



(39)Something new was coalescing around the TX-0: a new way of life, with a philosophy, an ethic, and a dream.

No accident that monasteries, writing centers, later cathedrals, are used for the comparison in devotion, given trajectory of orality, literacy, and what comes next.

(39) There was no one moment when it started to dawn on the TX-0 hackers that by devoting their technical abilities to computing with a devotion rarely seen outside of monasteries they were the vanguard of a daring symbiosis between man and machine.

Contrast to deliberate evangelism of Stallman and recovery of evangelists from other historical studies.

(39) The precepts of this revolutionary Hacker Ethic were not so much debated and discussed as silently agreed upon. No manifestos were issued. No missionaries tried to gather converts. The computer did the converting.

Hacker Ethic: unlimited access, mistrust authority, promote decentralization, judge by work, computer work can be beautiful art, working code can better your life.

(40) The Hacker Ethic:
Access to computers--and anything which might teach you something about the way the world work--should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
All information should be free.
(41) instead of everybody writing his own version of the same program, the best version would be available to everyone, and everyone would be free to delve into the code and improve on that.
Mistrust Authority--Promote Decentralization.

Edwards, Golumbia and others point out that computerization has concentrated authority and centralization in many respects.

(42) Those people could never understand the obvious superiority of a decentralized system, with no one giving orders: a system where people could follow their interests, and if along the way they discovered a flaw in the system, they could embark on ambitious surgery. No need to get a requisition form. Just a need to get something done.
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
You can create art and beauty on a computer.
(43) The code of the program held a beauty of its own.
Computers can change your life for the better.

Contrast positive view of time spent hacking to Weizenbaum computer bums.

(46) According to the standard thinking on computers, their time was so precious that one should only attempt things which took maximum advantage of the computer, things that otherwise would take roomfuls of mathematicians days of mindless calculating. Hackers felt otherwise: anything that seemed interesting or fun was fodder for computing--and using interactive computers, with on one looking over your shoulder and demanding clearance for your specific project, you could act on that belief.
(48) At other universities, professors were making public proclamations that computers would never be able to beat a human being in chess. Hackers knew better. They would be the ones who would guide computers to greater heights than anyone expected. And the hackers, by fruitful, meaningful association with the computer, would be foremost among the beneficiaries.
(49) If everyone could interact with computers with the same innocent, productive, creative impulse that hackers did, the Hacker Ethic might spread through society like a benevolent ripple, and computers would indeed change the world for the better.

Levy, Stephen. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Bantam, 1984. Print.