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<nettime> The Five Commandments of Hackerdom
Tilman Baumgärtel on Wed, 12 Nov 2014 02:29:13 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> The Five Commandments of Hackerdom


Ever since I read Steven Levy?s "Hackers. Heroes of the Information 
Revolution" (a work I never stopped admiring for its combination of 
journalistic rigor and unbiased, open perspective on its subject), I 
asked myself how he came up with the "Hacker Ethics" that he codified in 
this book.

The "Hacker Ethics" seems to me to be among the most important documents 
of intellectual history of the last decades, and without it there would 
probably be not be any theoretical justification of the internet, no 
Wikipedia, no Microsoft, Apple or Google and no Pirate Parties.

As the book has its 30th anniversary this month, I decided to use the 
opportunity to ask the writer personally about how he came up with these 
Five Commandments of Hackerdom...

Read and learn!

T.

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Interview with Steven Levy

?: How did you get to write this book? The publisher apparently was not 
such a big company. Did they commission it?

Levy: I never thought of writing a book about hackers, until an editor 
asked me if I?d be interested. I said ?Sure?, because I just wanted to 
write a book, and I figured this topic was as good as anything. He also 
told me: ?I want you to be ambitious here, don?t just dash off 
something.? And I took that to heart, and decided to write THE book on 
hackers. But the scope of it is so large, that?s why the scope of it is 
so broad. It begins at MIT, and goes on until what was then the present.

?: Who was this editor?

Levy: The suggestion came from my wife?s former editor at the Village 
Voice, who had started to work for Jane Fonda?s film company. She was a 
producer, and her job was to get magazine writers to research topics, 
but under the guise of writing magazine stories. So she said: ?Do you 
think there could be a good movie to be made about hackers? Would you be 
interested to write a magazine article about it? And we would take an 
option on the movie rights.? So I did that, and I wrote it for Rolling 
Stone. Again, at that time I did not know anything about hackers or 
computers or anything.

?: Did you have a computer at that time?

Levy: Of course not. That was in 1981, and at that time everybody was 
deciding whether they should get a word processor or an electronic 
typewriter, you know, one of those that could only memorize a line. 
After I came back from California, where I researched the Rolling Stone 
story, I said: ?I need to get a computer, right now.? My girlfriend and 
I both got Apple computers, and that clinched the deal. The article on 
hackers was written on a typewriter, but the book was written on an 
Apple II.

?: I understand that ?Saturday Night Fever? was based on a magazine 
story. Was the idea to develop story ideas for that kind of movie?

Levy. Yes, that was the impetus, films like ?Saturday Night Fever? or 
?Urban Cowboy?. They felt that rather than having to bid for articles 
after they came out, they?d have a head start. I don?t know if anything 
was ever made from that. Certainly, I went with the key producers of 
Jane Fonda?s company to MIT. We hung out there, and met Marvin Minsky, 
but nothing ever came out of that. They couldn?t figure out a way to do 
it. And then ?War Games? came out, and they probably figured: ?Well, 
that has been done.? So the movie was never made, but I had a new career.

?: What else did you write about at that time?

Levy: Just anything. I started as a music critic actually.

?: It seems that significant research went into this book. Was the fee 
that you got for it enough to pay for your work on that book?

Levy: Barely. There was a very small advance. I wrote the book in a year 
and a half, maybe a little bit more. I got the contract in early 1982 
and I handed the manuscript in by the end of 1982. It was very intense. 
It was the main thing I did. I wasn?t at home very much, and I worked 
very hard. Everyone?s first book makes ?em crazy, I guess.

?: So you did not think you?d be writing something that would still be 
in print 30 years later?

Levy. No way. I was just hoping they?d accept the manuscript.

?: Tell me about your research for the book. Even back then, the origins 
of hackerdom were 20 years in the past. Today, we know about the MIT 
Tech Model Railroad Club because of your book. How did you learn about 
them?

Levy: Well, I knew I had come across something very important. MIT was 
not supposed to be in the book originally. I wanted to start with the 
Homebrew Computer Club, and then go into this other section about the 
games. But as I was researching the book, I realized: Wait a minute, 
there is a place where hacking began. I kept hearing about this, so I 
decided to look into this whole culture at MIT. It was sort of magical 
talking to these people, because their amazing story had never been 
told. They invented computer culture, the whole way we approach 
computers. Sometimes I came back from an interview, and said to myself: 
?Wow, nobody has ever talked to this person before.?

?: A reporter?s dream. Did Usenet play a role in the dissemination of 
this information about hackers and their history?

Levy: I don?t know if I had internet access at that time. I heard about 
the MIT hackers from interviewing people in Stanford. Some of them had 
been at MIT, others had had interaction with this group. At that point 
that information wasn?t much in circulation, but as you get deeper and 
deeper into a story, you learn more and more things. With every story it 
is always a shame to stop researching, because the layers of the onion 
keep peeling. You get so much more out of interviews you do later, 
because you know what to ask for and you?re up to speed about the topic. 
To be honest, I don?t remember when I first came across the Tech Model 
Railroad Club, but once I started to do interviews at MIT it started to 
come up very quickly, and that was a surprise. And I was able to find 
the people and tell the story.

One other helpful connection was Stuart Brand who I had started to work 
with. I had become the games editor of the Whole Earth Software Catalog 
that was being prepared then. Stuart had written an article for Rolling 
Stone ten years before my Rolling Stone article that was mostly about 
the Stanford AI Lab and about the game Spacewar.

?: Today a lot of people think of hackers as bad people, who break into 
people?s computers and steal their data. Did you have any preconceptions 
of that kind?

Levy: No. That whole definition of the word did not exist then. Most 
people did not know the word. And if people who were not in the 
community used it, they used it pejoratively for somebody who was a 
computer addict and not a very social person. In the community, of 
course, the word had a very positive meaning, and it was complementary 
if you called someone a hacker. It wasn?t until the movie ?War Games? 
that the term got this definition of somebody who breaks into computers. 
So, the main definition is kind of a perversion of the original meaning 
of the word, but that happened after my book came out.

?: Let?s talk about the hacker ethic. How did you come up with this? 
Were any of these principles statements things you heard from the people 
you interviewed? Or is it your version of things you were told and 
observed?

Levy: As I was researching, I realized that there were these different 
generations of hackers. There were the MIT people, the Homebrew hardware 
hackers, and then these young game hackers, who learned computing on the 
machines that the Homebrew computer people invented. So, on the one hand 
they were very different, but at the same time, a hacker was a hacker. 
They had these shared values. They had a very similar mindset, and they 
implicitly believed a lot of things. So I decided to codify these rules, 
and called it the ?hacker ethic?. I pulled them together, and started to 
explain that in the second chapter of the book.

?: So let?s go through the different doctrines of the Hacker Ethic. 
Please tell me if you have any specific recollection about how you came 
up with this wording. The first principle is: ?Access to computers?and 
anything which might teach you something about the way the world 
works?should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On 
Imperative!?

Levy: I remember I was riding in a car with one of my subjects once, and 
we started to talk about how we should program all the red lights, and 
if it was possible to open their boxes and tinker with them. And I 
realized that hackers really want to get their hands on everything! Not 
just computers, but particularly computers. And I thought back to the 
MIT people, and the habit there was to stay up all night to get on the 
computers. Sometimes they would jimmy locks to get into the computer 
centers. Anything that prevented them from getting on the computers was 
a bad thing.

?: The second doctrine is: ?All information should be free.? I guess 
that comes from Stuart Brand?

Levy: No, Stuart was inspired by me, really. Stu gave this definition at 
the First Hackers Conference. He was playing on ?All information should 
be free?, and said ?Information wants to be free.? He also said: ?It 
wants to be expensive, too.? That was kind of a hack of the hack.

?: ?Mistrust authority ? promote decentralization.? Was there any 
episode or observation that inspired you here?

Levy: Hackers identified authorities as people who wanted to keep 
secrets and to keep them away from computers. If that power was 
centralized, it would always be abused, they felt. The thing about 
computers is that it empowers the people who have them. So by spreading 
that, you spread power and empowered people. Any centralized authority 
would be top-down and would not promote the flow of information.

?: ?Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as 
degrees, age, race, sex, or position.?

Levy: The person who triggered that was this guy Peter Deutsch. He was 
boy, really. He was 12 or 13, when he appeared within the hacker 
community at MIT. And instead of saying ?Get away, kid?, they let him 
prove himself by the hacking. Whereas some distinguished computer 
science professors did not sustain, because they did not hack well. It 
became non-discriminatory, because they judged you by how you hacked, 
not who you were.

?: ?You can create art and beauty on a computer.? Today it is hard to 
see why one would even have to point that out, but at that time this 
must have been an outlandish claim.

Levy: Absolutely. It would be ridiculous today to argue otherwise. But 
back then, it was very widely thought that computers were mechanistic 
and not creative. What I found out, even when I wrote the Rolling Stone 
story, was that hackers were incredibly creative in the way they wrote 
code and how they approached problems.

?: ?Computers can change your life for the better.?

Levy: I talk a lot about the childhoods of the people I interviewed. 
Many of them felt out of place, because they were unusual. They took 
things apart or they blew things up to understand the way they worked. 
And when they met the computerists, they found a way to map out who they 
were. It was a perfect playground for them. It really improved their 
lives, it gave them a home.

?: ?Hackers? is not an academic work. There are very few footnotes. How 
about your sources ? did you keep any records?

Levy: I think I cited some books. But basically very little had been 
done on hackers. There was no research on hackers. I?d like to say: ?I 
went to the library?, and of course, the internet did not have this kind 
of stuff back then. There was nothing written about hackers, there were 
almost no articles. There was another book that came out at the same 
time that talked about Homebrew. It was called ?Fire in the Valley?, and 
it talked about the beginnings of the Personal Computer industry, a very 
good book. We were working in parallel. Basically, it was fresh 
material, so I did not have a lot to cite.

I talked to these people for the first time. The bulk of the book is 
hours and hours of interviewing people, and I still have the transcripts 
of these conversations in my basement. Maybe the mice ate some of it, 
but it cannot be too much. I probably hand them over to the Computer 
History Museum at one point.

?: What do you think about groups like Anonymous? Do you think they 
adhere to the hacker ethics?

Levy: I don?t respect people who use their computer just to steal or to 
vandalize for the hell of it. But people who have a legitimate political 
component behind what they are doing are activists. I grew up in the 
60s, and I have respect for civil disobedience. I don?t agree with 
everything they do, though. For instance, if you hack a news site, 
because you do not like what they write, that?s censorship.

?: You went on to write books about Apple and Google, who both came from 
a hacker background. Do you feel that these two companies crossed a line 
at one point, and betrayed their hacker roots?

Levy: It is funny, even in ?Hackers? I talk about how Apple moves away 
from being a hacker company, how they started to have secrets and things 
like that, which is sort of inevitable. If you are a big, powerful 
public company you cannot run it like a hacker. Even though now, the big 
tech companies start to realize that the hacker spirit really helps. A 
good example is Facebook. If you visit the Facebook campus, there is a 
giant sign: ?The Hacker Company?. It is a big company, that tries to 
portray itself under the guidance of Mark Zuckerberg as a hacker company.

?: Do you think that the way you phrased the hacker ethic still makes 
sense today?

Levy: I think it still holds water. Today you would not include things 
anymore like ?You can create art and beauty on a computer.? But I am 
happy it is in there, because it shows how far ahead of their time these 
people were.


-- 
Dr. Tilman Baumg?rtel
mail {AT} tilmanbaumgaertel.net


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