author: Steven Levy
average rating: 4.09
book published: 1984
read at: 2010/09/14
date added: 2010/11/11
shelves: biography, history, non-fiction, science, sociology, technology
I’m still sort of processing this book a week later. All the status updates I posted are notes I wrote on paper while I was reading, alas I ran out of scraps while sick in bed, somewhere around pg 350. (the goodreads entry says this has more pages than the copy I have, btw.)
Note: this is a really long and somewhat rambling review.
A few themes stick out, notably West coast vs East coast. No, seriously. The first section is all MIT hackers, the other two are west coast focused (hippie hackers and the gaming biz). Shockingly, the hippie hacker community actually manage to get more shit done.
My pet theory is that it relates to engagement with the rest of the world. Those MIT guys really got to lock themselves away from everything, and they really liked it that way. (There’s some interesting moments of cognitive dissonance of the radical openness within the lab vs the military funding for the lab.) Which meant they were doing fascinating crazy stuff, but it didn’t necessarily have any effect on the masses. Whereas the hippies — or at least some of the influential folks in that scene — actually cared about the rest of the world. And of course the gamers were out to make money. So they were the ones who got computing and the hacker ethos out into the world.
Another thing that I kept running into: I’d be excited about the hackers’ excitement, totally understanding that sense of flow…and then: ugh, thoroughly unpleasant people. Not just unpleasant individuals, but a repellent culture. I found that most true of the MIT hackers and the gamers, FWIW.
Possibly related: the overwhelming maleness of the hacker culture throughout the entire book. A lack of balance?
Also possibly related: a quote about Stallman (p 438) – "He recognized that his personality was unyielding to the give-and-take of common human interaction." (That line? Made me bust up laughing.)
Another somewhat random observation: baby boomers. Didn’t occur to me until reading the last afterword, and the conversation between Levy & Gates, that all these hackers were boomers. I’d never really thought about the hacker ethos/community as also being a creation of that generation. Huh.
What does all this mean to the things I’ve ranted about on my blog? (I had that in the back of my head while I was reading, based on an email conversation with the person who sent me the book.) I’m still not sure. It does make the underlying ethos of Facebook make more sense, although not any less repellent. In fact, maybe it’s more so, because there’s a historical thread connecting it to guys crawling through the ceiling to steal keys out of desks. (WTF? That still blows my mind.) And thus, a lack of learning how the rest of the world perceives reality.
And for the gender thing? I see it even more, and I keep wondering how much of our current situation is "inevitable" given the history, what would have happened if the history had been different, etc. It also contexualizes the history of sexism in computing against the history of sexism in general (wait, did that sentence make any sense?) – the whole damn world was sexist then. My mother was one of three women in her high school trig class, and IIRC she was the only one who finished. Whereas when I took higher math in high school, I’d say the class was split more like 50/50. So the idea of the MIT hackers that there’s some biological difference that kept women out of their world is nuts. Their world — despite its lack of football — was hyper-masculine, disconnected from anything that wasn’t the guys and the machines. The story of the woman whose program got screwed up because of an unauthorized upgrade by hackers — and she was doing something "real" — made a impression on me as far as that’s concerned. But that impression of hackerdom being a male province only fed on itself, so that women who were interested in computers were an oddity. (For example, what happened to the "housewives" who disappeared into the community center computer? Why weren’t they able to become part of the hacker community?)
As I said, I’m still processing.
And that said, it was a well-written book; fantastic story-telling. The follow-ups were interesting as well, given that the book ends basically with a reference to the movie Wargames. Good stuff, overall, and definitely recommended.