Hackers is Steven Ley’s attempt to trace the roots of hacker culture to its beginnings. That is, hackers in the sense of people for whom learning about and building upon technology is a way of life, not hackers in the sense of criminals breaking into computer systems. This is one of those books that everybody seems to feel you ought to read if you are involved with technology. So what’s it all about?
Hackers is broken down into three sections. The first addresses the origins of the culture at MIT in the 60s, where hackers worked in the AI lab, building sophisticated programs and modifying existing ones. The second pushes into the 70s, examining the genesis of the microcomputer revolution, from its roots in attempts at making computers available to the general public via shared terminals to the Altair (the first microcomputer kit) and later the Apple 2. The third and final section looks mostly at the early 80s, especially at game programmers at Sierra Online. This segment looks at the lives of a few individual programmers at Sierra Online, and highlights the evolution of the game companies from being informal and encouraging typical hacker traits (like perfectionism) to more highly structured companies that elevated the professional programmer over the hacker.
In the end, I’d recommend Hackers if you are interested in getting a general background in the history of the culture, but want an easy read. Hackers tends to focus in on telling individual narratives, which detracted from telling the overarching history, but make for a good story. This is especially true in the final section, which focuses almost exclusively on Sierra Online, leaving the reader to wonder what happened at other companies, what went on at universities, and on individual’s home computers.