Geek Power

Science & Technology — POSTED BY Cosmo on May 1, 2010 at 11:10 am

“It’s funny in a way”, says Bill Gates, relaxing in an armchair in his office. “When I was young, I didn’t know any old people. When we did the microprocessor revolution, there was nobody old, nobody. It’s weird how old this industry has become.” The Microsoft cofounder and I, a couple of fiftysomething codgers, are following up on an interview I had with a tousle-headed Gates more than a quarter century ago. I was trying to capture what I thought was the red-hot core of the then-burgeoning computer revolution — the scarily obsessive, absurdly brainy, and endlessly inventive people known as hackers. Back then, Gates had just pulled off a deal to supply his DOS operating system to IBM. His name was not yet a household word; even Word was not yet a household word. I would interview Gates many times over the years, but that first conversation was special. I saw his passion for computers as a matter of historic import. Gates himself saw my reverence as an intriguing novelty. But by then I was convinced that I was documenting a movement that would affect everybody.

From Wired Magazine by Steven Levy

The book I was writing, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, came out just over 25 years ago, in the waning days of 1984. My editor had urged me to be ambitious, and so I shot high, crafting a 450-page narrative in three parts, making the case that hackers — brilliant programmers who discovered worlds of possibility within the coded confines of a computer — were the key players in a sweeping digital transformation.

I hadn’t expected to reach that conclusion. When I embarked on my project, I thought of hackers as little more than an interesting subculture. But as I researched them, I found that their playfulness, as well as their blithe disregard for what others said was impossible, led to the breakthroughs that would define the computing experience for millions of people. Early MIT hackers realized it was possible to use computers for what we now call word processing. (Their initial program was called Expensive Typewriter, appropriate since the one machine it ran on cost $120,000.) They also invented the digital videogame. The rebel engineers of the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley were the first to take advantage of new low-cost chips to build personal computers. They may have begun as a fringe cohort, but hackers alchemized the hard math of Moore’s law into a relentless series of technological advances that changed the world and touched all of our lives. And most of them did it simply for the joy of pulling off an awesome trick.

But behind the inventiveness was something even more marvelous — all real hackers shared a set of values that has turned out to be a credo for the information age. I attempted to codify this unspoken ethos into a series of principles called the hacker ethic. Some of the notions now seem forehead-smackingly obvious but at the time were far from accepted (”You can create art and beauty on a computer”). Others spoke to the meritocratic possibilities of a digital age (”Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position”). Another axiom identified computers as instruments of insurrection, granting power to any individual with a keyboard and sufficient brainpower (”Mistrust authority — promote decentralization”). But the precept I perceived as most central to hacker culture turned out to be the most controversial: “All information should be free.”

Stewart Brand, hacker godfather and Whole Earth Catalog founder, hacked even that statement. It happened at the first Hackers’ Conference, the week my book was published, during a session I moderated on the future of the hacker ethic. “On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable,” he said. “On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” His words neatly encapsulate the tension that has since defined the hacker movement — a sometimes pitched battle between geeky idealism and icy-hearted commerce.

Though Hackers initially landed with a bit of a thud (The New York Times called it “a monstrously overblown magazine article”), it eventually found an audience greater than even my overheated expectations. Through chance encounters, email, and tweets, people are constantly telling me that reading the book inspired them in their careers. Thumbing through David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, I learned that reading Hackers as a geeky teenager reassured Doom creator John Carmack that he was not alone in the world. When I recently interviewed Ben Fried, Google’s chief information officer, he showed up with a dog-eared copy of the book for me to sign. “I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t read this,” he told me.


But it was the hackers themselves who inspired a generation of programmers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs — and not just fellow techies. Everyone who has ever used a computer has benefited. The Internet itself exists thanks to hacker ideals — its expansion was lubricated by a design that enabled free access. The word hacker entered the popular lexicon, although its meaning has changed: In the mid-’80s, following a rash of computer break-ins by teenagers with personal computers, true hackers stood by in horror as the general public began to equate the word — their word — with people who used computers not as instruments of innovation and creation but as tools of thievery and surveillance. The kind of hacker I wrote about was motivated by the desire to learn and build, not steal and destroy. On the positive side of the ledger, this friendly hacker type has also become a cultural icon — the fuzzy, genial whiz kid who wields a keyboard to get Jack Bauer out of a jam, or the brainy billionaire in a T-shirt — even if today he’s more likely to be called a geek.

Geek PowerThe Hackers: Digital Revolutionaries, the Early Years: 1, 5: Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft; 2: Richard Stallman, leader of the GNU Project and founder of the Free Software Foundation; 3: Steve Wozniak, developer of the Apple II computer; 4, 6: Lee Felsenstein, creator of the Osborne 1 computer; 7: Paul Graham, cocreator of Viaweb and cofounder of Y Combinator.
Photos: 1: Corbis; 2:; 3: Margaret Wozniak; 4: Matt Herron/Takestock; 6: Cindy Charles

In the last chapters of Hackers, I focused on the threat of commercialism, which I feared would corrupt the hacker ethic. I didn’t anticipate that those ideals would remake the very nature of commerce. Yet the fact that the hacker ethic spread so widely — and mingled with mammon in so many ways — guaranteed that the movement, like any subculture that breaks into the mainstream, would change dramatically. So as Hackers was about to appear in a new edition (this spring, O’Reilly Media is releasing a reprint, including the first digital version), I set out to revisit both the individuals and the culture. Like the movie Broken Flowers, in which Bill Murray embarks on a road trip to search out his former girlfriends, I wanted to extract some meaning from seeing what had happened to my subjects over the years, hoping their experiences would provide new insights as to how hacking has changed the world — and vice versa.

I could visit only a small sample, but in their examples I found a reflection of how the tech world has developed over the past 25 years. While the hacker movement may have triumphed, not all of the people who created it enjoyed the same fate. Like Gates, some of my original subjects are now rich, famous, and powerful. They thrived in the movement’s transition from insular subculture to multibillion-dollar industry, even if it meant rejecting some of the core hacker tenets. Others, unwilling or unable to adapt to a world that had discovered and exploited their passion — or else just unlucky — toiled in obscurity and fought to stave off bitterness. I also found a third group: the present-day heirs to the hacker legacy, who grew up in a world where commerce and hacking were never seen as opposing values. They are bringing their worldview into fertile new territories and, in doing so, are molding the future of the movement.

The Titans

Real hackers don’t take vacations. And by that standard, Bill Gates is no longer a real hacker.

Gates himself admits as much. “I believe in intensity, and I have to agree totally; by objective measures my intensity in my teens and twenties was more extreme,” he says. “In my twenties, I just worked. Now I go home for dinner. When you choose to get married and have kids, if you’re going to do it well you are going to give up some of the fanaticism.”

Indeed, looking back, Gates says that the key period of his hackerhood came even earlier. “The hardcore years, the most fanatical years, are 13 to 16,” he says.

“So you were over the hill by the time you got to Harvard?” I ask.

“In terms of programming 24 hours a day? Oh yeah,” he says. “Certainly by the time I was 17 my software mind had been shaped.”

He still seemed plenty intense when I met him as a 27-year-old, brash but not given to making direct eye contact. For half of the interview, he stared at a computer screen, testing software with one of those newfangled mouses. But he engaged fully with my questions, rattling off his highly opinionated take on some of the people he worked with — and against — in the early days of the PC. That intensity would inform his work and his company, helping him turn Microsoft into a software behemoth and himself into the richest human being on the planet (for quite a while, anyway). Gates’ faith in hacking underscored everything he did, right down to his staffing decisions. “If you want to hire an engineer,” he says, “look at the guy’s code. That’s all. If he hasn’t written a lot of code, don’t hire him.”

Gates occupies a special place in the history of hacking. Most consider him one of the best coders ever. His first version of Basic, written so efficiently that it could run in the 4-KB memory space of the Altair, was a marvel. (Yes, that’s 4 kilobytes, not mega, giga, or today’s darling, tera.) When people picture a computer geek, they typically think of someone like the young Gates. And yet Gates, along with several other subjects of my book, went on to transcend his hacker roots. This group helped turn hacking from an obscure vocation into a global economic and cultural force and then reaped the rewards of that transition: money, influence, and even fame.

This wouldn’t have happened if Gates had been just another hacker. Indeed, it was only by discarding key aspects of the hacker ethic that he was able to embrace computing’s commercial potential and bring it to the masses. Pure hackers encouraged anyone to copy, examine, and improve any piece of code. But Gates insisted that software was no different from other intellectual property and that copying a digital product was just as illegal as swiping a shirt from Kmart. In 1976, he wrote an open letter to computer hobbyists who copied his software, accusing them of theft. His missive was considered blasphemous by some hackers, who believed that Gates was polluting their avocation by introducing commercial restrictions that would stifle knowledge and creativity. Gates found these arguments ludicrous — this was a business, after all. “I raised the issue in the sense of, jeez, if people paid more for software, I’d be able to hire more people,” he says more than 30 years later.

That conflict continues to rage. Gates puts the argument in perspective by pointing out that centuries ago, European publishers printed American writers’ works without compensation. “Benjamin Franklin was so ripped off — he could have written exactly what I wrote in that letter,” he says. Today, journalists are trying to figure out how to sustain their business when their product can be copied and distributed so easily — it’s the same dynamic. Gates seems to take some satisfaction in this turn of events. “Maybe magazine writers will still get paid 20 years from now,” he says to me. “Or maybe you’ll have to cut hair during the day and just write articles at night. Who knows?”

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