Forty years ago, the word "hacker" was little known. Its march from obscurity to newspaper headlines owes a great deal to tech journalist Steven Levy, who in 1984 defied the advice of his publisher to call his first book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.11 Hackers were a subculture of computer enthusiasts for whom programming was a vocation and playing around with computers constituted a lifestyle. Levy locates the origins of hacker culture among MIT undergraduates of the late-1950s and 1960s, before tracing its development through the Californian personal computer movement of the 1970s and the home videogame industry of the early 1980s. (The most common current meaning of hacker, online thieves and vandals, was not established until a few years later).
Hackers was published only three years after Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, explored in my last column (January 2021, p. 32–37), but a lot had changed during the interval. Kidder's assumed readers had never seen a minicomputer, still less designed one. By 1984, in contrast, the computer geek was a prominent part of popular culture. Unlike Kidder, Levy had to make people reconsider what they thought they already knew. Computers were suddenly everywhere, but they remained unfamiliar enough to inspire a host of popular books to ponder the personal and social transformations triggered by the microchip. The short-lived home computer boom had brought computer programming into the living rooms and basements of millions of middle-class Americans, sparking warnings about the perils of computer addiction. A satirical guide, published the same year, warned of "micromania."15 The year before, the film Wargames suggested computer-obsessed youth might accidentally trigger nuclear war.