Thursday, 29 April 2010

Revisiting Steven Levy's "Hackers"

Wired magazine, this month, marks 25 years since the publication of Steven Levy's "Hackers" with the author revisiting some of the themes and characters that 'starred' in his book, and reflecting on how culture and the industry have changed, with computing moving from the geekish territory of the school outcast to being all pervasive in our lives.

I first read "Hackers" over 10 years ago, and found it an engaging book, talking a lot to the time when I started tinkering with technology and being a pleasing tale of wonder about creative people. It's not a perfect book, The New York Times, reviewing it in 1984 see it as starting brightly, then running out of steam, and they've probably got it on the money. The latter half of the book doesn't have the creative flame burning quite as brightly, there's a sense of ennui and hubris setting in, perhaps connected with people Levy chose to look at, perhaps a reflection that the mid-80s weren't as creative a time computing wise.

This doesn't alter the fact that "Hackers" is a deeply informative book, and perhaps more relevant now, when the roots of the way computing worms its way into everyday life are perhaps a lot less familiar to the population now. Starting to understand where things like the semantic web and Vannevar Bush's idea of linking information came from all help to drive understanding of what goes on under the hood of our machines, and were that more pervasive it might help recapture some of the 'hacker spirit' that Levy celebrated.

Steven Levy's also capable of writing some wonderful prose. His "Insanely Great" on the development of the Mac is a fascinating read, and "The Perfect Thing", on Apple's iPod still sits on my bookshelf at work as a study in how to develop and manage a product in the 21st century.

Not least, "Hackers" is worth a read because it's so superficially misunderstood. Okay that's probably because the word has been appropriated with more criminal connotations, but it's still entertaining when you see that Bromley libraries file it under "crime", a case study if ever one was needed for the use of faceted navigation in library catalogues.

Even if you're not moved to read the book, have a look at the Wired article, and if you're not familiar with Levy, give him a try, he has a knack for making a potentially very dry subject human and attractive, and that's something that really should be encouraged.

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