BOOK REVIEW: Hackers Illustrates Our Early Years

The computer and Internet industries are old enough now that one can feel nostalgic about their early days. Many of us remember the first computer we used (mine was an Apple II Plus) or the year we first used the Internet (1994) and the web browser we used (NCSA Mosaic).

Those who might reminisce about their “computer youth” would enjoy the 25th anniversary edition of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy. I have enjoyed learning about computing history since the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds, and Hackers is more thorough and dives deeper into the very early days of computers in the 1960s and 1970s. Computing used to be a cutting-edge activity isolated to nerds and hackers, but it has been mainstream for years now and the computer industry has enough history behind it now to be studied and enjoyed like any other venture.

Hackers is very well-written—there’s a reason it’s being republished 25 years after its initial release—and what I really appreciate is the fact that the anecdotes and stories are colorful and vibrant. Moreover, the book is thick with interviews from the hackers being portrayed in the book and what they say makes the stories even more memorable. One would think hackers and techies would be bad interview subjects and would focus on mundane technical material, but it’s not true at all. These are people who are passionate about their craft and proud of what they accomplished, and that passion energizes what they say in Hackers. That is what makes this book a joy to read.

There is one significant drawback to the book: it’s quite dated. The original edition was published in 1985, when computer memory was one-hundredth of one percent of what it is now. This anniversary edition does have the 1995 afterword and a new afterword for 2010 but they are small and a quick read. The Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are covered in the original’s pages—Woz has a full chapter devoted to him—but in 1985 their eventual impact with the Macintosh and Apple’s future consumer products had not yet hit the industry. Jobs in particular is only mentioned a few times in the book.

I think the question is whether Hackers is an artifact of its time or should be a history book for the future. There’s no right answer to this question, and today Levy and the publisher O’Reilly have decided to keep Hackers as an artifact of its time, and in that regard it is a beautiful artifact of those early years in hacker history. Those who want to learn about hackers and hacker culture beyond 1985 will want to read other books for the full picture.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Steven Levy
Published by O’Reilly
US $21.99
Rating: 9/10