Chapter 2-8 

Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution


Surely everyone could benefit from experiencing this power.
Surely everyone could benefit from a world based on the Hacker
Ethic.  This was the implicit belief of the hackers, and the
hackers irreverently extended the conventional point of view of
what computers could and should do--leading the world to a new
way of looking and interacting with computers. 

This was not easily done.  Even at such an advanced institution
as MIT, some professors considered a manic affinity for computers
as frivolous, even demented.  TMRC hacker Bob Wagner once had to
explain to an engineering professor what a computer was.  Wagner
experienced this clash of computer versus anti-computer even more
vividly when he took a Numerical Analysis class in which the
professor required each student to do homework using rattling,
clunky electromechanical calculators.  Kotok was in the same
class, and both of them were appalled at the prospect of working
with those lo-tech machines.  "Why should we," they asked, "when
we've got this computer?" 

So Wagner began working on a computer program that would emulate
the behavior of a calculator.  The idea was outrageous.  To some,
it was a misappropriation of valuable machine time.  According to
the standard thinking on computers, their time was too precious
that one should only attempt things which took maximum advantage
of the computer, things that otherwise would take roomfuls of
mathematicians days of mindless calculating.  Hackers felt
otherwise: anything that seemed interesting or fun was fodder for
computing--and using interactive computers, with no one looking
over your shoulder and demanding clearance for your specific
project, you could act on that belief.  After two or three months
of tangling with intricacies of floating-point arithmetic
(necessary to allow the program to know where to place the
decimal point) on a machine that had no simple method to perform
elementary multiplication, Wagner had written three thousand
lines of code that did the job.  He had made a ridiculously
expensive computer perform the function of a calculator that cost
a thousand times less.  To honor this irony, he called the
program Expensive Desk Calculator, and proudly did the homework
for his class on it. 

His grade--zero.  "You used a computer!" the professor told him.
"This CAN'T be right." 

Wagner didn't even bother to explain.  How could he convey to his
teacher that the computer was making realities out of what were
once incredible possibilities?  Or that another hacker had even
written a program called Expensive Typewriter that converted the
TX-0 to something you could write text on, could process your
writing in strings of characters and print it out on the
Flexowriter--could you imagine a professor accepting a classwork
report WRITTEN BY THE COMPUTER?  How could that professor--how
could, in fact, anyone who hadn't been immersed in this uncharted
man-machine universe--understand how Wagner and his fellow
hackers were routinely using the computer to simulate, according
to Wagner, "strange situations which one could scarcely envision
otherwise"?  The professor would learn in time, as would
everyone, that the world opened up by the computer was a
limitless one. 

If anyone needed further proof, you could cite the project that
Kotok was working on in the Computation Center, the chess program
that bearded Al professor "Uncle" John McCarthy, as he was
becoming known to his hacker students, had begun on the IBM 704.
Even though Kotok and the several other hackers helping him on
the program had only contempt for the IBM batch-processing
mentality that pervaded the machine and the people around it,
they had managed to scrounge some late-night time to use it
interactively, and had been engaging in an informal battle with
the systems programmers on the 704 to see which group would be
known as the biggest consumer of computer time.  The lead would
bounce back and forth, and the white-shirt-and-black-tie 704
people were impressed enough to actually let Kotok and his group
touch the buttons and switches on the 704:  rare sensual contact
with a vaunted IBM beast. 

Kotok's role in bringing the chess program to life was indicative
of what was to become the hacker role in Artificial Intelligence:
a Heavy Head like McCarthy or like his colleague Marvin Minsky
would begin a project or wonder aloud whether something might be
possible, and the hackers, if it interested them, would set about
doing it. 

The chess program had been started using FORTRAN, one of the
early computer languages.  Computer languages look more like
English than assembly language, are easier to write with, and do
more things with fewer instructions; however, each time an
instruction is given in a computer language like FORTRAN, the
computer must first translate that command into its own binary
language.  A program called a compiler does this, and the
compiler takes up time to do its job, as well as occupying
valuable space within the computer.  In effect, using a computer
language puts you an extra step away from direct contact with the
computer, and hackers generally preferred assembly or, as they
called it, "machine" language to less elegant, "higher-level"
languages like FORTRAN. 

Kotok, though, recognized that because of the huge amounts of
numbers that would have to be crunched in a chess program, part
of the program would have to be done in FORTRAN, and part in
assembly.  They hacked it part by part, with "move generators,"
basic data structures, and all kinds of innovative algorithms for
strategy.  After feeding the machine the rules for moving each
piece, they gave it some parameters by which to evaluate its
position, consider various moves, and make the move which would
advance it to the most advantageous situation.  Kotok kept at it
for years, the program growing as MIT kept upgrading its IBM
computers, and one memorable night a few hackers gathered to see
the program make some of its first moves in a real game.  Its opener
was quite respectable, but after eight or so exchanges there was real
trouble, with the computer about to be checkmated.  Everybody
wondered how the computer would react.  It too a while (everyone
knew that during those pauses the computer was actually "thinking,"
if your idea of thinking included mechanically considering
various moves, evaluating them, rejecting most, and using a
predefined set of parameters to ultimately make a choice).  Finally,
the computer moved a pawn two squares forward--illegally jumping
over another piece.  A bug!  But a clever one--it got the computer
out of check.  Maybe the program was figuring out some new
algorithm with which to conquer chess.

At other universities, professors were making public proclamations
that computers would never be able to beat a human being in chess.
Hackers knew better.  They would be the ones who would guide
computers to greater heights than anyone expected.  And the hackers,
by fruitful, meaningful association with the computer, would be
foremost among the beneficiaries.

But they would not be the only beneficiaries.  Everyone could gain
something by the use of thinking computers in an intellectually
automated world.  And wouldn't everyone benefit even more by
approaching the world with the same inquisitive intensity,
skepticism toward bureaucracy, openness to creativity,
unselfishness in sharing accomplishments, urge to make improvements,
and desire to build as those who followed the Hacker Ethic?
By accepting others on the same unprejudiced basis by which
computers accepted anyone who entered code into a Flexowriter?
Wouldn't we benefit if we learned from computers the means of
creating a perfect system?  If EVERYONE could interact with
computers with the same innocent, productive, creative impulse
that hackers did, the Hacker Ethic might spread through society
like a benevolent ripple, and computers would indeed change
the world for the better.

In the monastic confines of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
people had the freedom to live out this dream--the hacker dream.
No one dared suggest that the dream might spread.  Instead, people
set about building, right there at MIT, a hacker Xanadu the likes
of which might never be duplicated.