Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution – Steven Levy

“There was the great chess showdown of 1965, when MacHack won a chess game against a critic of artificial intelligence named Herbert Dreyfus, who had bluntly asserted that no computer program would ever be able to beat even a 10-year- old. None of the computer specialists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cheered when the program won, because they knew it was going to happen. They lived in the world of hackers, a mere extension of the incredible computer environment. There was the Great Subway Hack, in which an M.I.T. student programmed a computer to figure out a route by which someone could ride the entire New York City subway system on a single token, and then a bunch of his fellow students went out and actually did it. And there was the incident when the security people in charge of M.I.T.’s Artificial Intelligence laboratory had to ask one of the hackers to crack a safe that had been acquired precisely to secure certain information from the hackers, who regarded any secret as an insult to their ingenuity. A remarkable spirit of fun and adventure prevailed at M.I.T.’s Artificial Intelligence lab in the 1950’s, and Steven Levy has captured it alive in the opening section of his Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. He has introduced and made us understand those weird kids ‘with owl- like glasses and underdeveloped pectorals who dazzled math teachers and flunked PE, who dreamed not of scoring on prom night, but of getting to the finals of the General Electric Science Fair competition.’ No wonder they evolved such a peculiar style of living, with nonstop 30-hour work sessions, and forays deep into the arcana of the Cambridge Chinese-restaurant system, and a colorful jargon full of odd, teddy-bearish words like ‘winnitude,’ ‘gronk,’ ‘foo’ and ‘milliblatt’ (the last coined to designate a new ‘olfactory measure’ in honor of a particularly ‘grungy’ hacker named Greenblatt). They were a unique band of adventurers. And if the spirit of ‘Hackers’ is sometimes reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s ‘Right Stuff,’ it is neither a coincidence nor a result of imitation. If Mr. Wolfe’s test pilots and astronauts were pushing back the boundaries of outer space, then Mr. Levy’s heroes are just as courageously exploring mindspace, an inner world where nobody had ever been before. Why then does Mr. Levy’s book begin to limp halfway through – to bog down in details that are somehow less and less exciting? Partly it has to do with the decline and death of what Mr. Levy calls ‘the hacker ethic,’ which is what his book is really all about. The M.I.T. hackers believed that working with computers was an end in itself, that whatever they discovered was to be shared with anyone else who was interested, that there were no secrets and that no one was to earn a profit. Mr. Levy captures this spirit wonderfully, and its inevitable decline is a depressing thing to witness. …”
NY Times: Books of The Times; Hackers as Heroes (Dec. 1984)
W – Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
YouTube: Steven Levy Talks about Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution – 25th Anniversary Edition 27:35

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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