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Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Image for Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Author Steven Levy
Date Published 1984
Wikipedia Article Heroes of the Computer Revolution Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Hackers chronicles the story of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club from the point of view of Peter Samson, a freshman at the school as he finds his way into the club and watches the TMRC's focus move from Model Railroad to all things computational.


What is a Hacker?

The early days of hacking were closely associated to phone hacking, or phreaking, whereby skilled individuals would construct devices in order to bypass certain elements of the telephone system. Phreakers would hack the phone system as a hobby or in order to gain free telephone calls or gain access to seemingly-secure telephone lines. Many prominent computer figures today, such as Steve Wozniak, were once phreakers.

Quoting Wikipedia:

In computing, a hacker is a person in one of several distinct (but not completely disjoint) communities and subcultures:
  1. The hobbyist home computing community, focusing on hardware in the late 1970s (e.g. the Homebrew Computer Club) and on software (computer games, software cracking, the demoscene) in the 1980s/1990s. The community included Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates and created the personal computing industry.
  2. A community of enthusiast computer programmers and systems designers, originated in the 1960s around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) and MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. This community is notable for launching the free software movement. The World Wide Web and the Internet itself are also hacker artifacts. The Request for Comments RFC 1392 amplifies this meaning as "[a] person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular." See Hacker (programmer subculture).
  3. People committed to circumvention of computer security. This primarily concerns unauthorized remote computer break-ins via a communication networks such as the Internet (Black hats), but also includes those who debug or fix security problems (White hats), and the morally ambiguous Grey hats.
Today, mainstream usage of “hacker” mostly refers to computer criminals, due to the mass media usage of the word since the 1980s. This includes what hacker slang calls “script kiddies,” people breaking into computers using programs written by others, with very little knowledge about the way they work. This usage has become so predominant that the general public is unaware that different meanings exist. While the self-designation of hobbyists as hackers is acknowledged by all three kinds of hackers, and the computer security hackers accept all uses of the word, people from the programmer subculture consider the computer intrusion related usage incorrect, and emphasize the difference between the two by calling to security breakers “crackers” (analogous to a safecracker).[1]

Selection Summary

                                The team.jpg

The Tech Model Railroad

This story depicts the rise of the hacker ethic at MIT in the late 50s and early 60s. It initially follows Peter Samson from before college to the Model Railroad Club. It shows how he always harbored a desire to tinker with objects and how he expressed this desire at MIT. As a freshman, he joined the Railroad club which was a secret clubs for hackers, which resulted in his abandoning of classes and the falling of his grades.

Initially, his desire to tinker with a computer was thwarted by the thick layer of intermediaries around MIT's IBM 704, a technological "priesthood" which zealously protected their temple which was represented by the computer. A new computer called the TX0 was donated to MIT. It did not have the same protection around it, and the hackers used it extensively. They booked it whenever possible and kept a constant vigil for cancellations among the other users. The TX0 was revolutionary not only because it was so much more accessible, but because it allowed immediate feedback. The hackers soon started developing all sorts of applications for it, including assemblers, debuggers, and even a calculator emulator.

The hackers began to lay the foundations for what might be considered the "modern" view of technology: that it is endlessly capable of changing and reducing the barrier between man and machine. Composing music as Samson did, writing a chess-playing program as Kotok did, and the Expensive Desk Calculator program written by Wagner are all examples of this barrier being torn down. These men were hacking and improving the interface of man and machine.

The Hacker Ethic

The story continues with a narrative explanation of the hacker ethic. There are many things hackers wish to make clear about their ideology.

  • Access to computers - and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works - should be unlimited and total. Always yield the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust Authority - Promote Decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.


Hackers believe that all information should be free. A free flow of information leads to greater creativity. Instead of everyone competing with each other everyone else would be collaborating, thus bolstering the creative output. Accessing to computers and everything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the hands-on imperative.

Hackers also mistrust the authorities and they promote decentralization. They believe the Bureaucracy prevents the free flow of information and stop the constructive impulses of hackers. At the time period, the ultimate bureaucratic authority is IBM who deem that only certain people may have access to computers.

Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position. Again the author uses the example of Peter Deutsch who is not discriminated against even though he is younger than the other hackers. You can create art and beauty on a computer. Levy gives the example of actually making a computer beep in a way that music is actually created.

Finally, computers can change your life for the better. Hackers predicted that computers would become an essential part of our lives. They also believed that a world were the hacker ethic ruled would be a better one. Hackers believe their work is for the better. They see each other not as criminally minded, but more so as saviors. In summary, they believe their work to be 'morally right' and justifiable do to what they believe in.

Discussion for Reading Cyberpunk/Being Cyberpunk

Who or what decides how technology will be used? Who or what should decide?

Today the government, for the most part, decides how technology can be used. For example, if the government sees something happening online or somewhere with new technology they do not like, they surely have the power to stop it. And the government is who should decide, because if the power is in the hands of the hackers, they may not use it for the good of majority. The same thing can be said for the government: it may not use it for the good of everyone, but there is a higher chance the government will than an individual hacker. This is because the government is responsible for the masses, and if it does things against the will of the masses then it could lead to a revolution or something of that nature. 

In technology today, it is the government that decides how technology should be used. If there is some piece of technology that is being used in a way that the government doesn't like they have the power to stop it or put laws on it to stop or punish those that use the technology in improper ways. The government is the one that should be in charge of how technology is used. They are the most likely to state how technology should be used in order to benefit the people of society. If the power of how technology should be used rested in the hands of the people technology would not really be considered technology it would be a piece of art that has many different uses some for its intended purpose but most uses would not be.

Technology is constantly developed and improved not just by the government but also by everyday people. The massive use of technology around the world allows anyone to find flaws in the programming or make of it. Because of this, they have the power to fix it or have someone who has the capability of fixing it fix it. Just because society has power in how to create technology doesn't mean they have the control to do it. Overall, the government should overview what we can and cannot do with technology. There comes a point where it goes to far. The atomic bomb, for example, has many to believe the technology expanded past what it needed and should have been. With a control in how far technology reaches out allows us to be a civil society where one doesn't push the buttons farther than what's best for the rest of us.

Technology is created and used and in my view it is the creator's role to make decisions regarding how their technology will be used especially since they are the ones who created it. Hackers do not have the right and can only be allowed if the creator of the technology allows them to decide on how it would be used. Hackers, however, think they are better suited because they find new purposes in technology that was not necessarily meant to be used. Thus by finding an alternate use of technology hackers believe they can change its purpose. Moreover, these hackers do not really include "ordinary people" in fact it is the opposite. Hackers consist of brilliant and educated people that have their respective talents and are educated in a variety of fields of technology. These hacker communities however does leave out the normal everyday person who is basically just average and wouldn't know much about the layout of technology or how it works. Overall, the evidence presented by Levy supports cultural determinism in that society makes the decisions regarding technology even if they do not have the right to.

Throughout the many readings we have done, we have seen many arguments for both cultural determinism and technological determinism.  We have also often discussed the role of the government vs. society in determining how technology is used.  Though many can argue that in society today, the government decides how technology is used, in "Hackers", we see society determining how technology should be used. IBM, representative of major corporations, attempted to exert control over the hackers in the form of restrictions and limitations in terms of access to the actual machines.  Hackers managed to find a way around this, playing around with the machines for the purposes of exploration and innovation, showing that they are the ones making decisions about how the technology is used.  

Technology should be left mostly on its own to develop and grow; however, technology will grow in ways that are detrimental to society, so governments should step in. But most of the time, the government creates new laws not to prevent detrimental grow in technology but to prevent the possibility of such grow. This hinders the grow of technology and the benefits that society reaps because the prevention of possibilities blocks progress. If the MIT AI lab had block any use of the computers to the early hackers, the rate technology would have grown would be significantly different.

In today’s society, it is the government who decides how technology will be used and how could be used. I think it is really great to have government and laws to prevent technology get used in bad ways. Although we could say that every technology has their dark side, the most important part is to have the government or experts to regulate the usage which is good for everyone.

Much of the "Hacker Ethic" described by Levy is really an argument that hackers should make decisions about technology, and distant authority figures (like owners, professors, college administrators) should not. What do you think of this argument? Why do the hackers think they are better suited to make technological decisions? What hints does Levy give us that might support a counter-argument?

The "Hacker Ethic" as a concept and argument that hackers should make decisions about technology is a completely valid one. Those who take the time to "break" technologies in order to learn everything about them and gain a better understanding of these technologies deserve to make decisions about them. It is disingenuous to these "Hackers" to say that an arbitrary entity, whose grasp of a technology is inferior, has the authority to make decisions regarding it. In the case of Levy's telling, the owners, professors and other members of the arbitrary entity were unable to see the direction that the computer was moving functionality-wise like the hackers were. Levy hints at the prospect of a hierarchical infrastructure where the hackers are seated firmly at the top and are the arbitrators of technological decisions. This begs the question of an alternative: How is the idea of the hackers making decisions about technology different than any entity that does not share the passion and knowledge about the technology? What gives this entity the authority? It's a completely subjective manner in that regard. though it makes more sense for decisions to be dominated by those who know the most and are the experts in a field. Regardless of who developed the technology or who crafted it from its bare parts, the users of a technology will, no matter how hard you try to stop it, determine its use. In the case of this account, it was the hackers who were the closest to using the technology to its fullest and not the distant authority figures.

It is a dangerous assertion to assume that because one can hold and maintain power that they should.  Certainly at this early stage the antics of the hackers may seem harmless but "None of the hackers...seemed to equate this with 'stealing.'  A willful blindness." (p.40) that could easily be used to justify other unlawful acts in the name of the Hands-On Imperative.  In fact between the "Mistrust Authority - Promote Decentralization" and fanatic fascination that 'burned like a hunger' (p. 30) the group almost begins to sound like Anarchists.  In a world without laws those who understand the new power of this technology are by default on top.  Levy makes no secret that the obsessive nature of the hackers had 'ample justification in the feeling of power' (p.33) a kind of dynamic that leads to anarchistic or authoritarian society revolving around technology (an occurrence we see in other works of the cyberpunk genre).  Although this may represent the ultimate hacker culture, it is unlikely that there is any equality in a system where those who have grasped one small field of knowledge should have power over all.  In fact, hackers should definitely not have control over their own technology, they are so consumed by the pursuit of knowledge that they lack the diversification and empathy necessary to make decisions that can benefit the majority of society.  Although they make valid points concerning technology hackers should be treated like any other interest group (big tobacco, pharmaceuticals, oil industry), a strong advocate for their individual area of knowledge but still working within a larger system of governance.

The crux of this question (2) lies in how one would define “ordinary.” The hackers of the S&P section of the TMRC are ordinary because they are not part of the elite group of people who are authorized to use the IBM machines. “Ordinary” implies a state of inferiority, and to define the group as ordinary, the proper users and owners of the IBM computers would have to view the group as inferior. This is the case, as is told by the narrator, that the priesthood were a group of people who considered themselves superior. These kids are certainly finding their own use for these machines, where the zenith of this behavior can be seen when Wagner uses the multimillion dollar machine TX-0 to act as a simple, inexpensive desk calculator. This is, of course, one of many examples in the excerpt where the group does things with the IBM machines that they were not originally intended to do. Though these kids are ordinary people by the elite bureaucracy standards, most other people, including non-programmers and computer non-believers are left out of this group.

Some truth is presented that hackers should make decisions about technology. As shown in the reading, hackers had a better understanding of the systems, and could take the computer and make it go past it original limitations; however, giving complete control of the cyber world to hackers could be dangerous as well. Some hackers utilize technology in twisted ways and if people with little experience were guided by these disruptive people, society could be tricked in using machines for evil motives. In the context of the story, it must be remembered that the purpose of these technologies were to fight nuclear war. This is far removed from simply taking apart a school computer. The fact remains that these students are still just that - students. They are not fully educated on all the areas that is required to develop a weapons system. It is completely understandable for the owners of this technology to be completely alarmed when mere students are fiddling with their work. Of course the superiors will make the assumption that the students don't understand the system. This is a necessary assumption - sure, there may be very bright kids that will be safe and not take risks, but why take the chance? This debate goes beyond who should use technology - in this case, it is a simply a question of following rules. Why do the students feel that they are above the rules? Because they believe they understand the technology as well as or better than the people who designed it?

The hacker ethic first states that access to computers should be unlimited and total. By being part of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), they learned technology by taking it apart, so if they had access to computers they would be able to learn more. The hackers learn and become proficient with the railroad tracks by taking them apart and learning about them. They do the same with the IBM 704, and TX-0, they try to spend however much time they can, in order to learn the workings of the computer. They would go in at night, wait outside the room, and use every opportunity they could to learn about the computer. The ethic also states that all information should be free, giving support that if you don't have the information to fix things, how can you fix it. For example, Peter became interested in programming, when he encountered a book. This access to information helped the hackers go farther, and do things that others thought were impossible. The ethic also says to mistrust authority, because it places unnecessary boundaries, that could be broken for more interaction. The IBM machine was blocked off from much student use, and no one was allowed to tamper with the computer. This goes against hacker ethic, because they learn through a hands-on approach. The hacker ethic then states that computers change your life for the better. The hacker ethic is a new way of life.This is certainly true in the case of the hackers. When FORTRAN coding came into being, it made coding easier. At that time the hackers were able to see it would make life easier, but others did not. For example, when Kotok built the calculator, it was extremely complicated, and expensive, but it could be improved upon. The "ordinary people" were not impressed at all with his code. Nowadays, we find calculators on every piece of technology. The hackers also competed to see who could finish a certain project, with the least lines of code. They preached efficiency, and in the end this efficiency helped the computer in making our lives easier. Finally, the computer allows us to do complicated calculations and problems with minimal effort.

Levy’s text is quite an outline of the basic birth of any new phenomenon; these historical events of sort are paralleled in practically any new technological and sociological advancement. (I.E. The “internet’s” initial birth in the academic and military community which was later introduced to the public for “ordinary people” to manipulate, mod and practically hack for unintended use --which in turn created complex communities on website, IRC’s, and newsgroups.) First came the hardware, then it was “modded” into an extensive computer that could run software, and now we have programmers that are able to manipulate it like Peter Deutsch. It has been nature of an elitist group in society to control new innovation and to make a profit by it, and it is this which gives birth to the purpose of hacker’s: they are the arch nemesis of such authoritative figures. They are able to configure what hasn’t yet been optimized. Like the prompt it can be seen as ordinary people with skill and motive to make decisions naturally. One great example is Kotok and his goose egg of a grade. The teacher assigned a question, but Kotok’s answer was out-of-bounds, meaning by thinking outside of the box and presenting an answer that fulfilled the requirements of the assignment in a clever yet unappreciated way, Kotok landed himself a 0. It is this conflict between hackers and authorities that hackers both detest and thrive on. They detest being limited in their actions by authority figures, and being kept from working with computers and machines to create new hacks. They thrive on the thwarting of authority as they relish the feeling of a hack accomplished.

There is a question of if this back and forth conflict between hackers and authority drove the hackers to greater heights.  Would they have ever been able to achieve such focus and dedication, such intellectual joy without the thrill of overcoming the obstacle of authority?  Challenges often raise individuals to new heights.

Hackers should not be allowed to make technological decisions. Just because they understand the systems better does not provide them with better judgment on how to use them--it may, in fact, make them use them for the wrong reasons, if they are full of pride on how good they are. Levy gives the example of a traffic light and how a hacker would simply change it to work how he thought it should work if it was pissing him off. This is a ridiculous idea, as changing the traffic light would cause so many problems and may even put lives in danger. Hackers would likely cause similar problems if they were always in control; they would do what is best for them and disregard what is best for the entire community, which may cause problems. The hackers are not the ordinary people; they are the informed people who know how things work. The real ordinary people are those who do not know how the machines work, and also have no say in what they are used for. These are the people that would likely be shafted in the system if the hackers controlled everything, and it is the responsibility of the decision makers to watch over the ordinary people.

"Hackers" are certainly an important part of our development of technology. While it is not best to ever give one entity total control over something, whether it be hackers or the established authority, it is very important to not write hackers out of the equation just because of potential "manipulations" of the system. If anything, a hacker's curiosity takes a piece of technology back to the design phase, dissecting what it is and what it does, and then turning it into things it could be. Promoting this form of culture is important simply for technological innovation, if nothing else, as an enthusiast is not likely to be as motivated by monetary gain as, say, a corporate giant. If someone is willing to cleverly innovate a new use for a current technology, it only furthers our species as a whole, as current technology is being used to more efficiently address a wider range of needs.

The term "hacker" has definitely changed over the years into a less complementing word. For that time, in the early 1960's, hackers were people who were determined to use technology and break it down, see how it works, and make it better, faster, and easier to use. They believed that technology could change people's lives for the better, and it has in some ways. Hackers back then were not as selfish as hackers are now, who most exploit technology for their own gain rather than for the free flow of information. They have a lot more understanding of technology than ordinary people do, so it does make sense to put hackers in charge of making decisions about technology, yet hackers nowadays, who now have a much different reputation than the early hackers had, have made it much more difficult for ordinary people to trust them with technological decisions. This does not mean that all hackers only hack to make a profit off of technology, but there are hackers who do this. Because of these hackers, you cannot run a system based on an unrestricted flow of information, for bad hackers can use this free information to hurt society.

In opposition to the stand above that hackers should not be allowed to make technological decisions, it must be stated that it does put quite a stereotype on hackers. Who says all hackers are full of pride? In reference to the example given in the selection about traffic lights and general overall traffic control, the hacker would only take the system and improve it. What would the point be if the hacker turned the system into something more inefficient? Levy says "…oddly laid out one-way streets cause delays that are so God damned 'unnecessary'…". The hacker saw it as inefficient and would take the task on to make the system more efficient. From reading the entire selection, one can infer that hackers would do anything to improve a system in which they are directly related to. Though the stand above does have some truth as Levy write saying "…rules that prevent you from taking matters like that into your own hands are too ridiculous to even consider abiding by." does show the darker side of the hacker mentality and is part of the hacker ethics. Although it should be said that once you understand how a system works, you have the power to stand back and see all the pros and cons of the system. From there on you can make the choice to improve the system, enjoy the system, or make evil using the system.

Hackers think they are better suited to make decisions about technology because they have a better understanding, and they have had a lot of experience working with technology. It becomes their life.For example, when Marge asks Bob to bring in the groceries, he wouldn't reply unless the syntax of the sentence was correct. The hackers incorporated the idea of the computer into their lives. They also did not have restrictions like the IBM employees, these reasons are probably why they felt they were better suited.

Hackers may not have a better understanding of technology per say, but they believe in a better way to utilize the technology. Some hackers feel that by using their skills they can improve lives almost like any other engineer. This is support by the situation of a person being frustrated by the timing of the traffic light and fixes it himself. Hackers differ because nobody ask them to make their lives better.

However, this argument is only correct to some extent. The hackers love to "fix" or "improve" the computers and what they are doing is something better than before but there should be someone to control them because in the future, the computers would be biased to do whatever the hackers want them to do and not what maybe would be beneficial for everyone.

In a sort of summary of what has been said, there are obvious benefits of allowing hackers to make decisions about technology. As the text said, they are a sort of "pioneers"of computing and without them the world of computers would be lagging by present standards, because the hackers succeeded in pushing further and exceeding limits that others thought insurmountable. On the other side of the debate, many claim that "hackers" need to have limited and regulated because their skills allow them the ability do a number of harmful activities including stealing from online monetary transactions, stealing identities, discovering seemingly unshared secrets, and a number of other unwanted activities. However, the debate over how much liberty "hackers" should be given is largely confusing because of the terminology. By the author's standpoint all "hackers"have constructive purposes or in the least neutral, they definitely do not intend detriment to others. The author bases his idea of what constitutes a hacker based on the "originals" from MIT. By this definition it is easy to agree with Steven Levy that hackers are beneficial and should not be controlled and limited, because this definition of hackers only includes those with constructive intent, to improve. However, the general consensus of what constitutes a "hacker" presently is much more inclusive and includes an evolving group of people, some of which who benefit and many more with malicious intent. Consequently, when comparing Levy's argument that hackers should be given complete liberty with technological decisions to the present conception of what "hacking" constitutes has become, an apples-to-oranges comparison presents itself.

It is important to take into account that the "hackers" in the novel is not the kind we know about in our world, they are just a group of MIT students who wants to utilize the computer technology and "make the world better". Most of their activities are still legal. As read in the "hacker ethic", the hackers believes that all computing resources should be shared among people so the "hackers" can make them better. They have the capability to improve system as shown in the book, and sometimes they are better than priests or even IBM.  However, the idea of technology sharing is against the idea of property rights; since these hackers are just average students, they don't have the money to actually own the computer, nor should they be able to access the machine that doesn't belongs to them. The hackers are a group of people who are hungry for access to the computer, as they rely on programming as a form of entertainment.  From this point, they don't control the technology; rather, they are being dominated by technology (slaves of programming). Technological determinism is especially true when the school switch from IBM's old 704 to more advanced TX-0--to the hackers, TX-0 is a better toy to play with, and they are seduced by the beauty of technology.

Hackers shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions about technology and leave it to those who already do. They can hack their own things individually and be just as happy as the person who isn’t using the technology’s full potential. If something is never introduced to someone, someone never thinks of it. Hackers would use those decisions if given them to make technology more personal to themselves and not to others, basically using it for their own selfish wants and desires. Yes they know the systems and programming of the technology better than probably most of the people using them, but they don’t know what people want. Hackers aren’t ordinary people; they may look like them, but they think differently. Hackers are technologically talented, making them think more about technology than probably anything else.  Football players, for example, think about what they can do on the field or how they can make themselves and their them better.  They don’t think about how the owners are marketing and selling the hotdogs.  It is not that they are selfish; rather, it's just the way their minds work. Hackers should only make the decisions that they are allowed to make, and if it takes being an individual to get your point across than so be i.  They don’t have the right to be able to make the decisions because they don’t have better judgment than the people that do.

In the excerpts from "Hackers", Levy presents a case for these hackers and the merits of their work. In these arguments we are shown the contrasting ideals and ethics of the "bureaucracy" (the IBM group) and the hackers, and while the merits of the "Hacker Ethic" are plainly stated in the text the merits of the bureaucracy can be inferred. It is not a binary decision, the one between the Hacker Ethic and the system, because both sides have pro's and cons. It's disingenuous to say that the Hacker Ethic is inherently dangerous, because it concentrates much power into the hands of the few who understand it (which could in the wrong hands be used for malicious purposes) just as much as its disingenuous to say that bureaucracy, or a system governing the use of this technology, is all bad because it stifles innovation and restricts the freedoms of those who wish to push the boundaries of what is possible with said technologies. Neither are completely true assertions. Yes, bureaucracy can stifle innovation, and yes some "hackers" (note: the modern usage of the word is vastly different than what it meant during the events of Hackers) will use their technological know how to control or deceive people, but as much bad as both systems can bring (dependent on the intentions behind a person's actions) much good can be had from them. The hacker ethic promotes the idea of pushing the boundaries of what is possible not just because its enjoyable but because of the good it can do for society as a whole. It champions the power of the individual to change and innovate in ways never before seen or even dreamed about. The idea of the freedom of information is an extremely powerful one, as instead of restricting knowledge to only those in an elite ring, it is the idea of freely disseminating information for the benefit of the whole (an idea that is being challenged in our legal system right now, both in the legislation on Net Neutrality [or a lack thereof] and the government's responses to Wikileaks). On the other side of this coin, bureaucracy in moderation is not a bad thing. Rules and limits can keep people from harming others (or in the story's case possibly damaging expensive equipment), as well as making sure that the maximum good can be obtained from a technology. The hackers believe they were better suited to make these technological decisions because they understand the true power behind the technology they were working with; the current closed system was limiting the wealth of possibilities they saw for the future of computing, and in this case they were right.

If hackers were to decide how technology was to be used, then it wouldn't be much – assuming any – different from the distant authority figures. Ideally, the individual possessing the technology makes the final call as to how the device would be used. The only difference is who the individual would call up for help when troubleshooting a broken device, which would be where hackers are better suited compared to the distant authority figures. Such an instance would be when Peter Deutsch was described as someone capable to write programs better than other people and really succeed at doing it. However, Levy hints that some external administration is not all that bad when describing Jack Dennis's involvement with the hackers and when using the TX-0.
The concept of ordinary people being hackers would not be accurate for there are still people at the time of the story against the use of computers or unable to use the computer at the extent of which Levy would consider the individual a hacker. Even more, most “ordinary people” would follow the authority figures' intended use of technology rather than make the final call and hacker communities do not seek to convert other individuals and depend on technology reeling in new hackers. Overall, people with no interest or the capability to meet the standards Levy and other hackers deem as a hacker will be excluded from the hacker community.

Levy portrays the rise of hackers as a sort of case of "the street finding its own uses for things." That is to say, of "ordinary people" making decisions about technology (decisions the authorities in charge of that technology may never have dreamed of). Is this really accurate? Are the hackers "ordinary people?" Who has been left out of the hacker communities Levy portrays?

The hackers are not the ordinary people, they are the informed people who know how things work. The real ordinary people are those who do not know how the machines work, and also have no say in what they are used for. These are the people that would likely be shafted in the system if the hackers controlled everything, and it is the responsibility of the decision makers to watch over the ordinary people.

It is not completely true that, as Levy stated, hackers were "ordinary people." Where Levy's definition of a hacker fails is in the way that hackers have evolved since the days of the TMRC and the resulting difference in the modern understanding of a hacker. As Levy states himself as various points throughout the text, some of the most notorious of the hackers like Peter Deutsch were social misfits, preferring to work on science projects rather than "banging heads together and learning social skills on the field of sport." This squarely places Levy's hackers as intellectuals, fitting into the stereotypical role of a "nerd." Being enrolled in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alone disqualifies the hackers from being "ordinary people". MIT was and still is known for its academic rigor and the brilliance of its students. The "ordinary person" is far from being able to compete intellectually with these students. The actual MIT hackers themselves were part of an elite group that were able to grasp the logic behind programming. This elite group differed from the "ordinary person" attending MIT because the hackers missed classes in order to pursue their sole interest: discover and surpass the limitations of computers. As mentioned several times in the story, only exceptional programming capable of awing the best of the hackers could be considered a legitimate hack. The hackers had the power to impact the way that technology was being used by programming or reprogramming computer algorithms to do their bidding. It could be argued that "the streets find its own use for things" in the sense that the students are taking over control from big companies such as IBM. However, a counterargument could be made that the students are part of an elite and that "ordinary people" of average intelligence would still have no control over the technology.

Although the MIT hackers are clearly extraordinary individuals in the eyes of hackers and non-hackers alike, in the scope of professional computing they are "ordinary" simply because they are not professionally linked to the computers. They just happen to be using them in their own free time. They did not build the computers. They are not contracted to write programs or given federal grants for research. They are wholly ordinary in that anybody could do what they were doing given sufficient intelligence and passion. Therefore, Levy correctly portrays "ordinary people" making a substantial impact in the world of computing.

Today, though, hackers do not necessarily have to have this dedicated academic genius to be considered hackers since the pervasiveness of computers and digital electronics allows anyone with the slightest curiosity to begin dipping their toes in the hacker ethical code. In Levy's definition of a hacker, full devotion to understanding computers was required to be considered a hacker, and so only those with an undivided attention focused toward that end would qualify. For instance, after explaining how difficult it was to create an efficient decimal print routine, Levy admits that only "if you wrote a great decimal print routine, you might be able to call yourself a hacker." In this way, Levy's concept of a hacker is not fit for the current era of technology in which anyone can dabble in the art that people like Samson and Saunders established. The story also shows splits in different kinds of people at MIT. The hackers feel the students who are studying the material for a degree are just "tools." Also the others at that time, did not believe computers could perform functions that are necessary, one professor didn't even know what a computer was. There is definitely a separation between the hackers and the rest of society.

It's an important point that today, being a hacker still requires full devotion to understanding computers. While exploits and the like may have evolved beyond the close-to-the-hardware aspects present in this story, the themes are analogous.

The hackers are not ordinary people at all. The only moment that they are described as ordinary is when Levy compares their clothes to the looks of the IBM world. Furthermore, the first description that the author uses for Samson is that he was one of "those weird high school kids with owl-like glasses .. but of getting to the finals of the General Electric Science Fair competition."

Hackers may feel like they're ordinary people because they feel shun by the groups "above" them, but in reality they put themselves above others who don't share their same ideology.

Levy even mentions that Saunders described themselves as "an elite group". Hackers are not ordinary people, and are not even from ordinary circumstances. Their access to the TX-O is by no means an ordinary circumstance for people of that time. The very fact that they had the opportunity to work and play and tinker with the computer shows their extraordinary circumstances, and the fact that they had the ability to work and play and tinker with the computer shows that they are not ordinary people.

Even among the academic elite of MIT, the hackers were unique in that they could envision the future applications of computers. As Levy mentions, many people at the time believed computers to be quite limited. The hackers, on the other hand, knew that the applications of computers were boundless, and their desire to experiment with this freedom set them apart from their peers. The hackers believed that technology should be accessible everywhere and by everyone. They believed that their informal experimentation with programming could offer more than their Ivy-league education. It is clear that the hackers’ beliefs deviated considerably from those of “ordinary” people, and therefore they should not be considered as such.

Does the evidence Levy presents support cultural determinism (society makes decisions about technology) or technological determinism (technology makes decisions about society)?

Levy's work does not seem to clearly support either cultural or technological determinism, but rather a mix of both. Cultural determinism was present in the way in which the hackers' own curiosity and ambitions were used to stretch the limits of the computers they were using. When Bob Wagner was determined to emulate the functions of his simple electromechanical calculator with the TX-0, which was condemned by some as being a "misappropriation of valuable machine time," he was clearly molding the present technology to fit his needs beyond (or more appropriately, below) the intended functioning of the computer. Society at the time was not ready to accept what the computer was able to do. Even fellow member of academia were skeptical about the limits of machines. When Kotok proposed the idea of artificial intelligence, skeptics argued that at best a computer could follow inputted instructions but would never have the ability to think. In response to his chess playing program, "professors were making public proclamations that computer would never be able to beat a human being in chess." Because the current culture was not willing to accept possible uses for the computer, it really was not used practically. Instead it became the toy of the select few who used the computer as an outlet for their logical compulsions. Another good example would be, Samson creating music on the TX-0, which was an unheard of feat. He was able to create music, and was able to stretch the computers limits. Others were disappointing with the low level playing of the Bach music, but they didn't realize that Samson had just done something extraordinary. In the beginning, he wanted to use computers, because they could do "his bidding." Therefore, making decisions on technology.

Technological determinism appeared in that much of the goals of the hackers and even the hackers' lifestyles themselves were changed to conform to the constraints of the machines they were using. This becomes evident in the way the hackers' lives and approaches to programming changed dramatically when they largely ceased vying for use of the IBM 7090 and began using the TX-0. In this instance, the technology experienced a paradigm shift: instead of assembling vast stacks of punch cards and waiting for long periods of time to see the results of their programs, hackers could use a Flexowriter to prepare code and then could actively debug it as it was running. As a result of this change, the hackers' goals became loftier and their use of the university's machines became less restricted and personal. Instead of having to "vulture time" and appeal to the IBM priests, a hacker could do preliminary programming work in the Kluge Room and, when their hour came, work directly with the computer with "a few fellow hackers kibitzing behind him, laughing and joking and drinking Cokes and eating some junk food they'd extracted from the machine downstairs." As much as the hackers were deciding what to do with the machines, then, the machines were shaping the way in which the hackers interacted with technology.

Although at the beginning it seems that Peter and his friends do what they do out of curiosity and passion, as the author describes it, the hackers "changed their life-style to accommodate the computer." They are so desperate to get some time alone to work with the machines that they skip classes and adjust their eating and sleeping schedules. The Tech Model Railroad Club meetings further reveal the control technology has over the MIT students, through the "infiltration of Tixo-mania into the club." The signals and power group continuously tries to steer the meetings toward discussions of computing rather than the usual club meeting topics. Another example is how Bob answers to Marge, his wife. The important thing to notice here is, aside from how Bob interacts with society, the way he thinks: like a computer.

Not only does he (Bob) think like a computer, he also acts like a computer in his day to day life. He has come to regard eating and sleeping as more of a simple need than anything else. Almost like the need to restart a computer after a long day. Even the way he behaves toward his friends mimics how computers talk to each other with today's internet. They keep everything to what they need and everything is done with a purpose, from going to the junkyards on the weekends, to staying up late trying to get time with the TX-0. The main character and his friends seem to have been "reprogrammed" to need the computers instead of the S&P work on the railroads.

The "Hacker Ethic" is more consistent with cultural determinism, but it's not all of society that is making the decision about how technology should be used.  Instead of the society as a whole making decisions, the hackers wish for decisions to be made solely by themselves.  The excerpt of reading states they wish to allow anyone access to a computer for any purpose. However, this desire is only driven by the fact the companies like IBM only grant the desired access to certain people (the High Priests) thereby hindering the hacker's ability to hack.

Levy suggested that both cultural and technological determinism took place. There were times when one of the hackers had a real life situation that would inspire them to create a program. Wagner created his program which acted as a calculator because he had taken a math class and was told to use what he believed was low tech machines. Another time was when Samson had the TX-0 produce music because he simply wanted to. Yet the machines also decided what the hackers did. When the TX-0 arrived it only understand binary, which was confusing and looked like a garbled mess. So Dennis created a compiler which would translate assembly language, which is much easier to understand than binary, into binary. This made using the TX-) considerably easier. So in the end, like in most cases, neither extreme is correct. The solution is a mic of both. Technology decides how society operates and society decides how technology is used.

Levy always uses diction and sentence structure to suggest that the hackers are subsumed by the power of the TX-0. The were 'awed' (p. 28) by the 'ethereal din' (p.29) of this machine.They considered the idea of real time interaction with a computer 'a miracle' (p.29), just one of the many subtle word choices made by Levy with the intent of paralleling the computer to a deity and the hackers to religious devotees. Levy sums up his view of how the hackers see both society and the TX-0 by reiterating Samson's error message "To err is human to forgive divine" (p. 34) which clearly implies the latter being the characteristic nature of the computer which will faithfully run your logic sequence again and again until the error of your human ways is overcome. By showing us that this is the general consensus of the hacker community at this time we can see that they viewed computers as almost god-like and were therefore controlled by it.

Given how Levy and other hackers leave technology to reel in new individuals into the hacker community, technological determinism is strongly evident. Further evidence lie in how the limitation of the current technology at the time held control over the hackers' lifestyle such as making hackers seek a rather nocturnal lifestyle to obtain hours before the TX-0, having hackers spend long hours finding ways to decrease the number of instructions to input for a given program, and even orienting the mindset of the hackers. A strong example of technological determinism is when the hackers prefer using machine language rather than a higher-leveled language or how it was referred “less elegant.”

In these excerpts, hackers are defined as people who avoid bureaucracy.  Many of the IBM programmers belonged to a structured system, with people allowed varying degrees of access to the machines.  The hackers avoided this system, which did not allow for creativity but instead promoted structured assessment and a process to attaining results.  The group that worked on the TX-0 pursued individual projects and and worked together in an open environment without rules and regulation.  In this sense, hacking is not about how a piece of technology is used, but the process behind using it.

In the selection, hackers are portrayed as those who simply want to know how a specific system, in this selection a computer, works and use it to do "cool" and new things never thought to be possible. For the most part, this appears to represent who hackers were in the early days of hackers. However, a few people with the knowledge attained by "hacking", used their skills for evil instead of good and committed crimes. Sadly, this is usually the image of hackers that is thought of today when one hears the word "hackers". While this image is true, it does not mean that all people who like to be identified as "hackers" are not evil - many exist because they find the original ideology interesting (to learn by examining a system at its most core level) or they love to find the limits and interesting uses for a specific system. For example, there is a community called [Make] that focuses on creating something new out of raw materials or something that was never intended to be used for its new purpose. The [Maker Bill of Rights] shows a bit of this. While the word is not often associated with the tinkers in today's world, it still applies to them. Hackers are just not criminals. One could use the comparison of accusing all those who enjoy shooting guns for sport murders simply because a number of people have chosen guns to commit murder. One could get into the technicalities with hunting, but on a basic level the same theory applies.

Hackers Don't Control Technology

Levy provides a huge counter argument against hackers controlling technology by subtly linking the Hacker Ethic to religious fanaticism.  What begins as simply a pursuit of knowledge slowly turns into themes of obsession and religious fervor.  Beginning on page 18, he uses diction such as 'drawn' and 'gravitational pull' to hint that Samson, and by extension the other members of the TMRC, were almost incapable of resisting the allure of computers.  The first connection Levy makes with religion on page 19 compares interactions with computers to 'ritualistic exchange[s]'. They treat the computer almost as if it were a god figure, and normal humans were not even worthy of direct access to it.  The ultimate thrill for the TRMC hackers was getting word 'from the source itself' (p.25), any direct interaction they had with the computer allowed them to attain a state of 'pure concentration' (p.37)referred to as almost meditative.  By the time TMRC are working on the TX-0, Levy continues his religious references when Dennis asks "Hey you nuns! Would you like to meet the Pope?" (p.28), because as far as he was concerned, they hadn't even come close to the true technological deity.  The cult-like diction associated with the TMRC reinforces the beginning of a closed and rigid hacker culture.  It is no surprise that they believed their Hacker Ethic to be almost divinely 'inspired' set of 'edicts' (p.30) which were superior to ordinary human laws.

Additionally the contrast and juxtaposition between the priesthood of the IBM machines and the loose operations of the TX-0 give some insight to a possible counter argument to the Hacker Ethic. The priesthood as noted on page 27, had set rules designed to keep 'crazy young computer fans' physically distant from the machines. Samson, Kotok, and Saunders were noted as examples of crazy young computer fans. It can be assumed that the rules were set with the intention of protecting the machines from misuse or disruptive behavior. Although in the context of this narrative the TMRC had no disruptive intentions, the rules set by the priesthood allude to a specific group of people that exists who may have disruptive intentions. This specific group may be composed of those who display proficiency in programming or fanaticism for computers like Samson, Kotok, and Saunders. However, the intentions of a specific group create the dichotomy between a 'good' hacker and a 'bad' hacker: those who abide by the Hacker Ethic with honest and good intentions and those who take advantage of it.

Hackers are the people who truly know the theory behind the technology, which is why they're the best people to work with it and optimize it. However, they should do this under the supervision of not just one, but several non-hacker members to avoid the possibility of them becoming corrupt to use the technology to their own advantage. Although in a way, this goes on daily in our society. For instance, cell phone companies charge users a large amount of money while all they really have to do is keep building reception towers, which in returns attracts even more users.  Instead of lowering the price, however, cell phone companies usually raise their price as they expand to having more coverage. Hackers like those who are knowledgeable behind the technology of cell phone towers are essential because they keep the technology working to its fullest potential, but they should not necessarily make decisions about the technology because too much power corrupts even the best of men. Hackers should not be considered as "ordinary people," corroborated by the quote that "Hackers may feel like they're ordinary people because they feel shunned by the groups "above" them, but in reality they put themselves above others who don't share their same ideology." They are shunned by the world for being different, whether it be the way the act, dress, talk, or simply their interest. In feeling rejected, their defense mechanisms makes them cover up the pain of rejection by implementing a sense of superiority above other "ordinary people" in them. Levy presents cultural determinism by showing that hackers are inspired by their surroundings to create technology, and not the other way around.

There is evidence that Levy currently supports social determinism. This can be seen by the "priests" dictating who could use the IBM computer, and thus the IBM computers were restricted to performing statistics and other computational tasks.  With the introduction of the TX-0, the Hackers were given free access to the computer. It was the Hackers who would be deciding what the TX-0 purpose was.  Even though everyone in world might not use the programs the Hackers made or even use a computer the way the Hackers would, the fact that the Hackers or the Priests decided what the computers did shows that it is social determinism.  Also, even though the technology was not very "evolved" or capable compared to present day computers, the Hackers and everyone else found ways to go around this obstacle and make the computers do there bidding,which is classified as social determinism.

This particular selection of Levy's story of the tech model railroad club from MIT is certainly an example of technological determinism. From the very beginning, the story talks about how the main character almost obsesses with technology and finding out how things work. This obsession controls him throughout the entire story. For example, on the third page of the given PDF document, technology controls him into joining the model railroad club because of the "massive matrix of wires and relays and crossbar switches...and achingly regular rows of dull bronze relays, and a long, rambling tangle of red, blue, and yellow wires..." Obviously, technology controls him into joining the group. Later, when the hackers have access to the TX-0, the computer controls their lives. On multiple occasions, Levy describes how the guys would go to the TX-0 at all hours of the day and night, monitoring its occupancy with lookouts unless they were sitting in front of the computer themselves. This is not necessarily implying that the control the computer has on them is a bad thing because they are learning about exactly what they want to learn, which is what college is all about. However, their grades continually dropped, and their lives were quickly engulfed by this incredible opportunity to work with this newfangled technology. Another example of technological determinism in the book that lead to social deficiency in one of the hackers occurred on page 38. "Marge Saunders would drive to the Safeway every Saturday morning in the Volkswagen and upon her return ask her husband, 'Would you like to help me bring in the groceries?'...'No.'" Why did he say no to his wife when asked if he would help do a simple action? Because the syntax of her question asked if he would "like" to help as opposed to "will you help?"


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_(computing)
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