Chapter 7 

Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution


Outside the ninth floor or Tech Square, life was very different. At one point it was the late 1960s and many students were protesting the war, and everything involved in the war. The AI Lab was funded by the Department of Defense so they were also the target of protests. Many hackers were also anti-war, but they did not feel that what they were doing had any direct effect on the war. When the protesters took their protest to the ninth floor itself, security was tightened and locks added. This was against the Hacker Ethic, but they felt that it had to be done in order to protect the equipment. The hacker way of life was also the target of criticism. Many felt that hackers were obsessed or even addicted to computers, and hardly had any social interactions in the real world. For some hackers the lack of sleep, malnutrition, the pressure of finishing a hack, and the entire lifestyle was too much. A hacker was even doing drugs, and later attempted suicide. He was not the only one.

In this chapter, Levy explores the hacker lifestyle, and its effect on the hackers. The hacker culture though was spreading outside of MIT as computers became more common. One other center of hacker culture was Stanford's AI Lab (SAIL) which had been started by John McCarthy. At SAIL the atmosphere was more laid back. Whereas MIT's lab developed Spacewar!, SAIL developed an Adventure game. SAIL even had a sauna, in which some “willing young coeds” once participated in a sex orgy captured by video camera and transmitted at computer terminals for the hackers to watch. The Stanford hackers could be just as eccentric however, and they also lived by the Hacker Ethic. One hacker lived in his car parked outside the SAIL building, whereas others would sometimes sleep in the crawl space between the roof and the artificial ceiling.

Some hackers moved to Stanford, whereas others stayed at MIT. The Hacker Ethic spread even further with the creation of ARPAnet (the precursor to the Internet) that connected several computer systems in different parts of the country in a network. LIFE was a computer simulation written by John Horton Conway, and it became the focus of Gosper in 1970. This resulted in some arguments with Greenblatt, who was not as fascinated with LIFE, and did not think that Gosper and others should be monopolizing the machine with this simulation. Gosper was fascinated because LIFE was uncharted territory and it posed the question of what could be called real life.

Funding started to dry up from ARPA after Congress passed the Mansfield Amendment. The AI Lab could not hire any hacker who showed talent anymore. Instead, they started looking for more professors to teach computer courses. Gosper left MIT for Stanford where he would study under Donald Knuth, while still hacking on the PDP-6 at Tech Square via ARPAnet. A new generation of hackers was coming along that would spread the gospel of computers by making them smaller and more affordable.