Where Are The 'Hackers' Now?

In his 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, author Steven Levy profiled some of the personalities whose work brought PCs to the people, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Levy discusses his book, recently reissued, and hacker ethics in the Internet age.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next this hour: "Hackers." It's been 25 years since the book came out, and my, how things have changed. Even the meaning of the word hackers has evolved.

I remember when the book was written. A hacker was a computer geek, someone who stayed up all night writing code, building machines, sharing information, helping people out with problems with their computers, extracting data if they got stuck in all different places.

They were guys with white hats one. Well, that was part of the hacker ethic. The information, the information wanted to be free. Free information probably isn't what comes to mind, though, when you think of what's going on in the world today. I don't think Microsoft is giving very much away free these days, or any of the other big software companies.

But he is, Bill Gates, one of the personalities featured in the original book, along with Steve Wozniak, Richard Stallman and Steve Jobs.

Joining me now to talk more about the book and who the new generation of hackers might be is Steven Levy, senior writer for Wired. His book, "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution," has been reissued by O'Reilly(ph) this year. It's also available as an iPhone app.

And joining us now is the insanely great Steven Levy. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Steve.

Mr. STEVEN LEVY (Author, "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution"): Thank you. Thank you very much(ph).

FLATOW: Nice to have you back. Let's just move on to a quick question about the iPhone news conference today. Steve Jobs' news conference basically said if you don't like your new iPhone, bring it back.

Mr. LEVY: Right. You know, he was unrepentant. He basically said this thing is overblown. All smartphones have a problem like this. All right, we're going to give you a case, if you want a case. If you want to take it back, then you can use an inferior phone.

FLATOW: Yeah, and he said he'll give you a 30-day money-back guarantee if you buy a new one.

Mr. LEVY: That's right. I think you have a guarantee anyway. You can take a phone back anyway. But he was reiterating that and essentially saying that we've looked into it, and it's overblown.

FLATOW: And he was showing all these all these phones had problems with antennas.

Mr. LEVY: That's right, and you know, it's interesting - the one really telling moment there was - he was talking about dropped calls. He did say that the new phones dropped slightly more calls than the previous ones, and really, the ongoing complaint about iPhones has been they don't do as well in actual making telephone calls as some other phones there.

I would've liked to hear some data about how iPhones compare to some other phones just in terms of dropping calls, but he wasn't sharing that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Steven Levy, a reissue of the book "Hackers." You can also tweet us @scifri, that's @S-C-I-F-R-I. You can join the conversation over on our website at sciencefriday.com.

So that's so do you think that's going to tamp down? Do you think by staying the course and saying, look, you know, we're going to give you a case, right, we're going to give you a case for the phone, keep your fingers off the phone...

Mr. LEVY: Well, I think, really, you know, as someone who's been using the iPhone for I would agree, it doesn't make much difference between the previous one in terms of the calls it makes.

You don't get the iPhone because you say I want the very best phone for making telephone calls. You get it because it offers you so much more. And the new one is a better phone in those aspects than the previous ones, and arguably it's the best smartphone around for, you know, all the information and stuff. It's got the most apps.

So I think that the customers who use it will continue to like it. The interesting thing will be is, where are the people who might otherwise have switched to an iPhone going to stand on this? Will the noise scare them away? That's really an issue. It becomes a public relations issue.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's move on to talk about "Hackers." Your book came out 25 years ago. When you wrote it, hackers had a different meaning back then. Didn't it?

Mr. LEVY: That's right. You know, when I was first introduced to the idea, the subject of hackers, mostly they were thought of as these asocial, nocturnal creatures - thought of as a little ill, really, you know, addicted in a sad way to these impersonal machines.

Now, when I started talking to these people and hanging out with them and looking into a bit of what was then a brief history of hacking, I found them to be different, that they were exciting people who saw possibilities that other people didn't see and what computers were going to bring to all our lives.

And that's why I really call them the heroes of the computer revolution. A few years after the book came out, the idea of hackers applied the word applied to people who just broke into computers, not even necessarily people who were experts in computer programming but just knew ways to break into computers or vandalize other people's computer systems - became the way that people used the word. The deterioration (unintelligible) the number of years, and upset a lot of the original hackers.

FLATOW: And the original idea of the computer movement and of hackers was the expression that information wants to be free, does it not? Who coined that? Do you remember?

Mr. LEVY: Yeah, it's an interesting story. I wrote in this book something that I - was my interpretation, really, of the way hackers think. Their base principles that they may not articulate it, but they believe it in their hearts and their souls, and this goes for hackers of all generations. And I call that the hacker ethic.

And one principal was information should be free. That's the way they operate in their daily life, and the idea of breaking into computers for these original folks was because they needed the information. They didn't know they needed to know how things worked, and they needed to talk to other people who were doing these things so they could share this information.

Computers were incredibly expensive, and time was very precious on them. So they needed to know all they could about them there.

Now, when the book came out, there was a conference called the hacker conference. It was organized by Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly of the Whole Earth, you know, organization. Kevin Kelly went on to be one of the founding editors of Wired.

And during a session that I was hosting there, Stewart Brand gave his spin on it, and he said that he felt that information wants to be free. He also said some information wants to be expensive, but people picked up his hack on the original hacker ethic and use it to describe now a lot of behavior which might be of the Napster kind, of people just wanting to get stuff for free because it's so easy to do on the Internet.

FLATOW: Well, with so many of those people getting rich since then, are there still anybody around who still want it to be free?

Mr. LEVY: Well, there are a lot of people around, and interestingly, one person who I sort of discovered in "Hackers" and wrote a chapter about, this fellow Richard Stallman, you know, went on to become probably the best evangelist for the pure freedom of software.

And he's actually had quite a significant impact on the world, though he is quite an extremist. He doesn't think software should be sold. But a lot of people have been inspired by him to do things that get information out to the people, and some people who were excited by him went on to find, found what was the free software movement, really, the open-source software movement. And you know, that really benefits us all.

Big companies like Google and even Apple use open-source software in a lot of their products.

FLATOW: Well, some of the newer products now are still sort of free, like I'm thinking of the latest rage, which is Twitter.

Mr. LEVY: Right. Well, you know, there's a lot of the Internet really encourages a lot of companies to give away their product for free, and you monetize it on the back end. Google is probably the best example of that, and you know, they had a couple years before they figured out a way where they could make the money from the free search they gave to people, and they came across with a great plan to do that.

You know, basically it's just a very elegant way to take people's impulses when they were searching for something - they might want to buy something at the same time - and to match those, and you know, deliver the ad to you just at the right time, in a non-intrusive way. And Twitter is still looking for that magic formula to take their free service and make them all filthy rich.

FLATOW: Talking with Steven Levy, senior write for Wired and author of "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution," which was been reissued by O'Reilly this year. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Nick in Detroit. Hi, Nick.

NICK (Caller): Hello, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

NICK: Basically, I'm calling from (unintelligible), Detroit, the Detroit Hacker Space, and I was just curious: Do you think Detroit and kind of hackers in general can have a positive effect on the economy? And if so, what can, like, the average kind of DIY hacker do, not like the really high-up, you know, giant economy guy?

FLATOW: Nick, can you tell us what the Detroit Hacker Space is and what you're doing over there?

NICK: Oh, sure. Detroit Hacker Space is a collective of entrepreneurs and DIY guys that are we have 8,000 square feet of tools and electronics, and we get people to encourage them to be creative and artistic.

Mr. LEVY: You know, it's interesting. You know, Detroit is sort of a center of hackers' activities these days. The big Maker Fair(ph), which is sort of a giant event in the DIY world, the do-it-yourself world, is going to be held there, you know, this year. And I think that, you know, there's plenty you folks can do.

The impact of what hackers can do with the tools of today and a good idea is really unlimited. And I think this is something that just only began at the time, you know, that I was writing the book there. And I traced this, you know, back to the original hackers at MIT in the late '50s and early '60s, when the computers were $1 million. Now, the computers are a few hundred dollars, everyone has it. The Internet spreads these ideas very widely. And it's never been so easy as now to change the world of - you know, on just a few bucks.

FLATOW: And the fact that we have crowd sourcing now, which you didn't have back then.

Mr. LEVY: Right. And, you know, in terms of developing products, there's sort of form of that that you could use that - companies that used to cost millions and millions of dollars to get off the ground, it can be done on, you know, just a few thousand dollars because the software is free, if it's open source software. And they could spread it very widely and they could get help from the general community. And the viral spreading of information becomes their publicity.

FLATOW: Let's go to Linda in Menlo Park, California. Hi, Linda.

LINDA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

LINDA: I just wanted to say that I was at college in the early '70s with both Richard Stallman and Bill Gates. And for one year, in the early '70s, I lived in the same dorm, which is kind of ironic because, as you said, Richard Stallman, Free Software, and Bill Gates, the richest guy in the world on software, right? But we used to say that Richard created the world's first personal computer because he ran a little wire from the computer lab up to his room, which is upstairs. And I was just back from my 35th reunion and, of course, now everybody has their own computer, there is no more computer lab, and that room is a wait room. So time marches on, but...

Mr. LEVY: No, that's - I would have hated to have to be the janitor to clean up that Harvard dorm that year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDA: And, of course, the reason why all these guys were doing this at night is because that's - it was a timesharing environment, and that was the only time they can get on the machine. So it's not...

Mr. LEVY: Right.

LINDA: ...necessarily that they were nocturnal. They were kind of forced to be, so...

FLATOW: Were there a lot of hackers, Linda, hanging around...

LINDA: Yes, there were and there were in Currier House because Currier House was one of the few houses that actually had computers. You didn't have to go to the science center, and I married one of them. So one of the other things about the computer hackers that maybe doesn't get enough attention is that they really respected intelligent women, which in the early '70s was not something we took for granted. And now, of course, everybody has adopted ethic. And that's another way that the hackers have changed the world, is that, you know, women professionals are now pretty much accepted on a one-on basis. But hackers were one of the first ones to do that, so...

FLATOW: Talking about hackers this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

When did Twinkies enter into the picture?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVY: Well, the quick, you know, quick nourishment, instant nourishment doesn't (unintelligible), it caused, you know, a lot of disruption has always been part of the hackers. Twinkies a little less so because they crushed all over the keyboard there, but munchies of all sorts, you know, are pretty popular in the hacker spaces.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Judy(ph) in Louisville. Hi, Joey(ph) - Judy.

JUDY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine.

JUDY: Well, the question that I have is just do you think or does your guest believe that hackers have contributed to a sense of unease for those of us who aren't when we're navigating the Internet? You know, we're always being warned about where to go, what information to parcel out, how easily information is captured. And do you think that that has maybe reduced the flow of, I don't know, consumerism would be my first guess because I'm an avid consumer, you know, that hackers and those warnings would have slowed down some progress that might have been made.

Mr. LEVY: Right. Well, I think in the sense you're using the term in the sense of, you know, of malefactors, malicious people, thieves who do plague our lives - and I agree with you - help slow down to some degree the adoption of e-commerce and just, you know, plagued the computer world in general. But these aren't really the hackers that I write about. The hackers in the book are people who really are defined by their wizardry and their passion and their sense of doing the impossible, as opposed to someone who is going to use the technology, in the case of the Internet, the openness of the technology, to cause problems to people or steal from them.

FLATOW: Who would you classify today in that category as the great hacker innovator?

Mr. LEVY: Well, it's kind of interesting that - I went and wrote a new chapter for the book, the 25th anniversary edition. And I - in addition to revisiting the some of the people I spoke to, like Stallman and Bill Gates, I figured, well, who would I talk to if I were doing the book now? The one person who I knew I wanted to talk to was Mark Zuckerberg, the young man who is the founder of Facebook.

And, you know, we had a great conversation, actually, where, you know, he actually was sort of scholar of this history there and, you know, placed himself very firmly in that realm. And, you know, it's interesting. Some people would say, well, Facebook, they keep your information. They're not open and sharing. But in a larger sense, Zuckerberg believes in sharing in a very large sense - this makes some people uncomfortable - but thinks that, you know, just in general, people should share their information more.

And that connection to Stallman, in a sense, because I remember when passwords were first introduced at MIT, to Richard Stallman who thinks that everything should be open, this was, you know, an abomination. And he really campaigned to have people put a carriage return as their passwords so everyone could see everything else.

FLATOW: And so, the idea of if you got on the Internet, everything was going to be open, you should not expect privacy. It would all be free, information wants to be free.

Mr. LEVY: It's an interesting philosophical stance. I mean, you know, if you really get down to it, I mean, really, what is privacy? What are we keeping to ourselves here?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And good luck on your book.

Mr. LEVY: Oh, thank you.

FLATOW: Any new books coming up?

Mr. LEVY: Yeah, I'm doing a book on Google now.

FLATOW: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVY: And that will be out next year.

FLATOW: All right. We'll have you back. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. LEVY: Thank you. Have a great day.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

Steven Levy is senior writer for Wired. His book, "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution," it's been reissued by O'Reilly this year. And it's also available as an iPhone app if you'd like to get it.

We're going to take a short break and stick with high technology. We're not going to be talking about - oh, sort of a hacker. We'll talk about a guy who's hacked away of making new kinds of clothing, clothing that actually makes noise, can sort of talk back to us. It can monitor your bodily functions. High-tech. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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