Steven Levy was not interested in technology when he growing up. Rather, he was into music in a big way. Coming of age in the 1960s, he wanted to be a music critic because they were almost like rock stars themselves. But the times were, unfortunately, a-changin’.
“I started writing about rock, but it was too late — the revolution was over. It was no longer the centre of the universe and I couldn’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life,” said Levy, “so I started writing about all kinds of stuff.”
That “stuff” ended up being more and more about the coming digital revolution.
Although the term actually originated in the 1960s at MIT (it was what the Tech Model Railroad Club called themselves), Levy first wrote about “hackers” for Rolling Stone magazine more than 30 years ago, in 1981.
At the time, all he could find on the subject was a Stanford paper about the dangers of computer addiction and the student programmers who would stay up all night at their machines writing code. It described them as miserable “computer bums” who didn’t bath and who ate only junk food (if they ate at all).
Intrigued, Levy decided to investigate. Rather than antisocial and depressed nerds, he found the hackers to be fascinating, joyful and excited about what they were doing. They were the first to realise that we were all going to be transformed by computers.
In those days, business leaders mocked the notion of computers being in every person’s home. This derision was underlined by arrogance and fear, as they disliked the idea of ordinary people having control over technology. However, many hackers were working inside these big “command-and-control” corporations and subverting them by smuggling in forbidden technology so that they could experiment with it.
Levy decided to write a book, Hackers, which featured the original computer geeks — the Homebrew Computer Club. The club helped give birth to Silicon Valley culture and its members, who included Apple co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, saw the computer as a tool for social change.
“By then, I grasped that the computer revolution was a social revolution — not a technological one — and it would be as big a cultural change as the 1960s were,” said Levy.
Levy also came to understand that intrinsic to the very nature of computer programming is the sharing of code and the resulting evolution of ideas. “The early MIT hackers did not treat anything as proprietary — nobody owned the code. It would just be passed along so that the next person could improve on it.”
The hackers’ ideology was that “information should be free”, as in “freely distributed”. Copying was (and is) so built into computers that it turned the idea of intellectual property on its head. Computer technology forced the world to re-examine restrictions, laws and ideas. “It was like being dropped into a series of fantasy novels, with villains and heroes battling over a new frontier.”
Today, the laws of our physical world are difficult to enforce online because the Internet is about the free flow of information, and one of the earliest tech wars — the fight between open and closed systems — continues.
Levy also weighed in on the most obvious tech battle of the moment. “Google believes in the algorithm, Facebook believes in the tribe. But Google fighting a war against Facebook is like having the world’s best navy and fighting a land war.”
However, the most crucial battle to come is one in which governments and companies impose limits on online freedom. “Algorithms have politics, too.”
Unfortunately, most tech writing still gets relegated to the business pages, but when we talk or write about technology, it’s not just about bits and bytes – it’s about culture, religion, free will and, of course, power. “The wars of tech are the real battlefield of our times – not grasping them means you don’t really understand this century.” — Amanda Sevasti Whitehouse, TechCentral
- Levy’s latest book is In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, And Shapes Our Lives
- Image: Joi/Flickr
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