It all started with model trains.
More specifically, the MIT Tech Railroad Club gave birth to Steven Levy’s infatuation with technology, and consequently landed him in Kiva Auditorium Monday to host “How the hacker ethic drives technology and the Internet.”
A graduate of Temple in 1972, Levy began his career as a journalist disinterested in computers. Now an executive editor at Newsweek and one of the most highly regarded science and technology aficionados, Levy credits his discovery of the model railroad “hackers” as the turning point in his career.
“It was there that I stumbled across the source of all computer controversy,” Levy said. “Underneath their layout [of model trains] was a labyrinth of connectors and cables that allowed them to control their trains. These people were the first to call themselves ‘hackers’ in the technological sense.”
The club at MIT used the word “hack” to explain a creative solution to a problem, whether it was a clever way to support their model train set, pull a prank or decipher and write code on large-scale computers. Levy first found the group after an assignment from Rolling Stone had him on a plane to cover the “overweight, unfriendly and antisocial” world of hackers. When Levy landed, he was more than pleasantly surprised.
“These people weren’t antisocial weirdos, but rather fascinating people who were on to something big,” Levy said. “They were artists, explorers, adventurers. They were doing things that couldn’t be done on a computer, and that’s what excited me.”
To hackers in this era, production was of the utmost importance. Levy saw this group of enthusiasts disregard gender, religion, age and background in the name of progress. He also saw hackers build themselves upon a foundation of shared principles – namely, find a programming problem, fix it and then share it with everyone else.
“Hackers regarded software as shared information that anybody could add to or improve” Levy said. “That was a trait all hackers had.”
This “hacker ethic” is what spurred Levy to write his first book. Published in 1984, “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” is a veritable bible for those interested in the topic. Ever since, he has been preaching on the effects hackers have had on the world of technology and the groundwork they have laid for free-flowing information that blossomed into the Internet of today.
“Bureaucracies particularly made hackers go nuts,” Levy said. “The systems [hackers] build are where information moves as freely, easily and widely as possible…If you look at the big success stories of the net – the World Wide Web, Netscape, Amazon, Ebay – they’re all based on maximizing input of a collective group. With Amazon, it isn’t just a store, it’s a community that’s built from the bottom up.”
The hacker ethic where “nobody knows more than everybody” marches on. Levy’s latest passion, examining the Internet search giant Google, has given him more than enough support for his argument. His story on Google’s co-founders saw its way to the cover of Newsweek’s March 28 issue.
“Here you have two guys from Stanford [Larry Page and Sergey Brin] in pure hacker tradition who did something you couldn’t do,” Levy said. “They tapped into the collective mind.”
They tapped into the collective mind indeed. The realm of Internet searching, at first a dream and now a multi-billion dollar industry, has caught the attention of millions of users – per day. Despite the success, cynics of Google believe the company is unfocused and will lose their foothold on the industry.
Levy summed up Google’s response as well as the hacker ethic with words from Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “He said to me, ‘Disorganization is a feature’- which is a total hacker thing to say.”
Brandon Lausch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.