Just why Peter Samson was wandering around in Building 26 in the middle of the night is a matter that he would find difficult to explain.
My first programming class was in 1977 at a local community college. What I took away from it was the idea that you could solve any problem, no matter how overwhelming, by breaking it down into smaller and smaller functional pieces, then reassembling the pieces into a solution.
The opening sentence to Steven Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution neatly encapsulates the book’s theme. It’s about very smart people who are compelled to act in ways that are hard for them to describe to others and even sometimes to themselves. Some of them are looking for money, others for redemption, On a higher level, it’s a book about exploration. It’s about compulsion. It’s about obsession. It’s about passion. It’s about America.
It’s difficult to write about computers for a general audience. The problem is similar to what Hollywood faces when they use computers as a story element. Simply put, it’s hard to make typing seem interesting.
This is where Hollywood gets it wrong. Computing isn’t about the technology, it’s about the people.
A good technology writer understands this and Steven Levy is a very good technology writer. He was a senior writer for Wired magazine and chief technology writer for Newsweek. Hackers was his first book and it’s a very engaging read.
The story starts at M.I.T. in 1958 and takes us on a journey across the country and spans almost three decades. It describes a tumultuous time in our modern history, not just politically and socially but technologically. Levy takes us from the Tech Model Railroad Club at M.I.T. to the hardware hackers of the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley to the first computer game hackers and ends up back in Cambridge with the ‘Last of the True Hackers’. Along the way we see how what was once unimaginable became commonplace.
Most important to me, this book showed I wasn’t alone. I understood these people. They were flawed like everyone else but they had a passion and the skill to make the thoughts inside their heads into reality for the rest of us.
Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.