Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Week Thirty - Jeanette

Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution by Steven Levy (1984)
Recommended by Simon

Simon and I were together for over eleven years, and in 2012 we broke up.

Hackers is a seminal text. Even the title itself emits history. The word ‘hacker’ has migrated significantly since Levy originally wrote the book: then, ‘hacker’ was really only used within the computer community. However, since then, it has become common negative currency. The hacker is stereotyped as a socially challenged nerd who, at best, fiddles about with technology he’s not entitled to and, at worst, sabotages organisations and governments because he’s can’t get a girlfriend.

Therefore, that subtitle is very important. While acknowledging that hackers did plenty of unauthorized and illegal things (and that many of them were awkward bachelors with interesting personal hygiene), Levy argues – very, very convincingly – without them we wouldn’t have the technology that we have today.

Think back to (or imagine, if you’re more youthful than I) where computers were in 1984. On one hand there was this:

But on the other, more realistic hand, I was in Magdalen Gates First School in Norwich, and we had but one BBC Micro for the whole school. It was wheeled out on special occasions from its cupboard. Each class could only use it for half an hour to play a spelling game before it got taken away again. In private, some kids were starting to get ZX Spectrums or Commodore 64s. I got my first one circa 1986, despite luddite opposition from my mother (‘God gave you a computer – your brain’), and I played games like Pippo until the power pack overheated.

I knew vaguely, back then, that the computers I used evolved from metal-and-LED walls of mystery. However, I had very little idea of how these digital ancestors worked, or even what they had ultimately been for: that is, beyond space travel, global thermonuclear war, and mismatching lonely hearts in British sitcoms.

Hackers begins in the late 1950s, at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT). Here, a group of boffins sought access to the EAM Room – ‘Electric Accounting Machinery’ – where gigantic contraptions blinked teasing lights and hummed a siren song. Getting into the EAM Room was harder than getting into the special computer cupboard at Magdalen Gates First School, i.e. very hard indeed.

Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems – about the world – from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things. They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.

Those early MIT hackers, when they did gain entry to the hallowed EAM Room, set about pushing boundaries. They adhered to The Hacker Ethic: all information should be free, art and beauty can be created on a computer, and, the most dearly held principle of all, that computers can change your life for the better.

Even just reading of an early hack, Spacewar, changed my life for the better. Developed in 1962 initially by Slug Russell, Spacewar may look like an experimental film by Tony Conrad, but it is actually one of the very first computer games:

It was a two-player affair, where you tried to destroy your foe's rocket while a sun pulled at your tailfins. However, Peter Samson, another MIT hacker, had a real problem with one aspect of Spacewar.

[He] could not abide the randomly generated dots that passed themselves off as the sky. ‘We’ll have the real thing,’ Samson vowed. He obtained a thick atlas of the universe, and set about entering data into a routine he wrote that would generate the actual constellations visible to someone standing on the equator on a clear night. All stars down to the fifth magnitude were represented; Samson duplicated their relative brightness by controlling how often the computer lit the dot on the screen.

Dedication, that’s what you need, if you want to be a hacker.

In their wake came others, and Levy tells these hacker tales of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties with clarity and wit. One part of the story I found especially moving was how, as computers become big business, the original hackers – and those youngsters who adhere to the Hacker Ethic – floated away from the new corporate empires.

The Hacker Ethic, of course, held that every program should be as good as you can make it (or better), infinitely flexible, admired for its brilliance of concept and execution, and designed to extend the user’s powers. Selling computers like toothpaste was heresy. But it was happening.

The era of exactly replicating the Ursa Major constellation was over. Even more contentious was the use of copyright and copy-protection technology.

This was not MIT where software was subsidized by some institution. […] They were products. And if a person coveted a product of any sort in the United States of America, he or she had to reach into a pocket for folding green bills.

It wasn’t that hackers were broke, because many were doing well by this point, given the exploding computer industry. It wasn’t that hackers were stingy – well, some clearly were, but that wasn’t their reason for antipathy to the marketization of computers. It was that they thought information should always be at liberty, and that software should be open to improvements as the only way to drive progress. Byte-eating data protection programs harmed these principles in an unforgivable way. I’m not defending the hackers who did become pirates (or, more seriously, cyber-terrorists); but I can understand the motivation behind it.

In a rather downbeat afterword, written for the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Levy catches up with many of the hackers he interviewed. In the case of Richard Greenblatt, he finds a disillusioned man.

‘There’s a dynamic now that says, “Let’s format our web page so people have to push the button a lot so that they’ll see lots of ads,”’ Greenblatt says. ‘Basically, the people who win are the people who manage to make things the most inconvenient for you.’

Although all of us can nod sadly at the truth in Greenblatt’s words, for the hacker himself this must amount to nothing less than a scorching betrayal of all he holds dearest.

You don’t have to be a hacker to enjoy this book. I learned a little of computer natter when I was with Simon – one can’t help picking up, almost by osmosis, certain concepts when one lives with a PhD in Computer Science – but I rarely needed to mine this insider knowledge. My only real gripe with Hackers is that a few pictures would have been nice. However, scratching the itch of what these people and their machines look like can be easily done with this great programme.

Simon too believes that computers improve life itself: ‘they’re friends’, he once wrote to me. He’s well-placed to practice this, for now he’s in hacker heartland, living in Oakland and working in Palo Alto.

I learned a lot from Simon of silicon warmth, of how – when the right humans are at the keyboard – computers can mimic positive states: selflessness, intelligence, even compassion. Steven Levy's hackers made the world better, just as Simon made my world better.