Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition
by Steven Levy
O'Reilly Media HK$176

Set aside your prejudices. Hackers are not the virus-writing rogues that people think, argues tech analyst Steven Levy in his re-released hymn to the digital revolution.

Through Levy's eyes, hackers are hands-on seers who glory in the intricacies of computers and networks. Hackers charts their triumphal march from the 1950s to the 80s - the age when personal computing booted up.

In a bonus, this edition features fresh material from the likes of Bill Gates. In the appendix, Gates laments the advanced age of modern computing gurus. 'When we did the microprocessor revolution, there was nobody old, nobody,' Gates says.

Levy's homage to 'scarily obsessive, absurdly brainy, and endlessly inventive' uber-geeks opens in a pre-revolution research complex. 'Wandering around the labyrinth of laboratories and storerooms, searching for the secrets of telephone switching in machine rooms, tracing paths of wires or relays in subterranean steam tunnels - for some, it was common behaviour, and there was no need to justify the impulse, when confronted with a closed door with an unbearably intriguing noise behind it, to open the door uninvited,' Levy writes.

That description's rolling rhythm deftly reflects the contextual sense of sprawl. Elsewhere, strained in his bid to paint hackers as heroes, Levy overwrites. He ratchets up the exultation with italics, block-capital flurries and - every editor's bugbear - exclamation marks.

Between the passages of hyperbole come chunks of tedious technical detail. Few but hard-core computing enthusiasts may want to read about the various programming languages cited - Lisp and the like.

Like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth trilogy, which wins a mention, the book meanders. Unless you are a hacking 'evangelist', as innovation buffs say, you may struggle to get through all 528 pages, despite or because of Levy's heavyweight credentials.

Levy is a senior writer for Wired. Before, he was chief technology writer and a senior editor for Newsweek. With six books to his name, he has won several awards. PC Magazine named Hackers the best sci-tech book written in the past 20 years.

Hackers' strongest suit is the appendix and the potted profiles of tech wizards. Take the description of Stewart Nelson: 'Buck-toothed, diminutive, but fiery AI lab hacker who connected the PDP-1 computer to hack the phone system ...' Succinct.

That said, you may need to hit Google and type 'define: PDP-1' to learn that the acronym is the name of a key hacker computer produced in 1960. Despite the stabs at entertainment, Levy's good geeks guide is hard work. Readers seeking an accessible tech fix might do better flipping or clicking through Wired.