Computer heroes or criminal vandals?by NAT FRIEDLAND, Antic Editor
As you may have noticed, the word "hacker" does not appear very often in Antic Magazine. That's because there are at least three conflicting definitions of hackers and it can get very confusing.
Personally we're most comfortable with the earliest good-guy definition-hackers simply as skilled, intensely committed programmers.
But not long afterward, elements of the "nerd" lifestyle got added onto the definition. Hackers were often thought of as being socially inept and completely losing track of time during their marathon sessions at the computer.
And of course in recent years the public has come to see hackers primarily as maliciously mischievous teenagers who break into high security mainframe computer systems and vandalize them. In other words, the "WarGames" movie definition.
In this essay we will look at three major new books that use all these conflicting hacker definitions and more. . . And ultimately we'll seek to understand what hackers have really meant in the revolutionary development of personal computing.
PART I: HERO HACKERS
HACKERS by Steven levy Anchor Press/Doubleday 501 Franklin Avenue Garden City, NY 11530 458 pages, hardcover $17.95Steven Levy covers technology for "Rolling Stone" and he has taken the high road in his evaluation of hacking. The subtitle of his book Hackers clearly shows his viewpoint-"Heroes of the Computer Revolution."
The approach is in the tradition of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine. There's a kind of breathlessly amazed quality to the writing, as the style pushes to reveal significant meanings out of gritty real-life details.
Hackers is divided into three parts. The first (and best) part covers the dawn of hacking at Massachusetts Institute of Technology starting in the late '50s.
Getting started as a hacker in those days was not as simple as buying (or getting your parents to buy) a personal computer.
The only computers in existence were huge, hulking, air-conditioned mainframes that were ridiculously crude and puny by today's standards. The conversion from punch-card batch programming to more interactive video terminals was just getting underway.
In 1961, Digital Equipment Company's second manufactured PDP-1 unit showed up on the ninth floor of MIT Building 26. This was the first true minicomputer and its price was an astoundingly low $120,000. But even before that, the hacker subculture was well established at Cambridge's Tech Square. Some of the nation's brightest students of science and engineering had converged on MIT and found themselves hypnotically attracted to computer programming as an emerging art form.
The only way they could get at the PDP-1 and its ancestors was to sign up for late-night time slots after the "official" graduate students had gone home. The only way to learn how to program was by looking over the shoulder of a more experienced hacker and asking questions.
The programs that needed to be written at this point were the basics of machine operation-screen editors, assemblers. And then came prototypes of chess programs, music programs, and the breakthrough game Spacewar.
The fascination of creating these new software forms was so overwhelmingly satisfying to the hackers that they literally put the rest of their lives on hold for years. Many of the MIT hackers could never be bothered completing their degree requirements.
However, the most talented of the hackers were quickly named to the staff at the MIT computer center and went on to have distinguished careers as professional programmers-particularly in the development of Artificial Intelligence.
Author Levy sees the MIT hackers as computer Johnny Appleseeds, moving on to other universities like Stanford and spreading the purest form of Hacker Ethic. The key elements of this ethic include:
Access to computers and information should be unlimited. How else can you fix things that need improvement?
Computers can create beautiful art and improve life.
WOZ WITHOUT JOBS
The middle third of Hackers deals with Northern California's "Hardware Hackers" of the 70s. The main theme is how Steve Wozniak created the first Apple microcomputer because he was so inspired by the free-swinging meetings of Lee Felsenstein's Homebrew Computer Club.
Frankly, this material is handled with more depth in Fire In The Valley ($9.95, Osborne, McGraw-Hill) which was Antic's favorite general computer book of 1984 and devoted a full 288 pages to "The Making of the Personal Computer" in Silicon Valley.
For example, Hackers hardly mentions Wozniak's partner Steve Jobs, presumably because the author sees Jobs as some kind of high tech hustler rather than a hacker. However, even this section of the book contains many new details and is well worth reading.
MONEY IN EDEN
The final section shows how the skyrocketing popularity of the Apple II created the first large-scale market for computer software. And big money destroyed the purest form of the Hacker Ethic, even though there were still great programming feats to come.
This story is told mostly through Ken and Roberta Williams of Sierra On-Line, creators of the first graphics adventure games-Mystery House and Wizard And The Princess. Although Ken Williams was as much of an entrepreneur as a programming whiz, he and his shy, game-writing wife Roberta were not exactly into the traditional business ethic. In 1981, Sierra On-Line even organized a white-water rafting trip for the bosses of all the competing entertainment software houses, including Broderbund and Electronic Arts.
ATARI WHIZ KID
Antic readers will be particularly interested in the tale of Sierra On-Line programmer John Harris, a nice-looking but awkwardly shy San Diego teenager who earned over $100,000 a year as the first star independent programmer of games for Atari computers.
The Harris masterpieces were the Atari version of Frogger and the superior Pac-Man clone, Jaw-breaker. Harris turned down a huge Atari offer for Jawbreaker because he wanted to punish the company for withholding information about the memory map.
Despite his negative feelings about the old Atari management, Harris loved the outstanding graphics and sound capabilities of his model 800. He had such contempt for the Apple that "At the very mention of the machine, Harris would recoil and make the sign of the cross, as if warding off a vampire."
In fact, Harris eventually quit Sierra On-Line and joined Atari-oriented Synapse Software largely because he believed Sierra was downgrading the Atari in favor of the Apple.
PART II: "DARK SIDE" HACKING
OUT OF THE INNER CIRCLE by 'The Cracker" Bill Landreth Microsoft Press 10700 Northup Way, Box 92700 Bellevue, WA 98009 230 pages, trade paperbound $9.95The intention of this book is also given away by its subtitle, 'A Hacker's Guide To Computer Security." Out Of The Inner Circle represents the grand old literary tradition of a "reformed" lawbreaker warning the public against his former gang.
Authors of this kind of book are rarely able to avoid giving the impression that they had much more fun before they went straight.
Inner Circle is an extremely well designed large-format paperback from the Microsoft software company. Interestingly enough, according to Fire In The Valley, Microsoft founder Bill Gates started out as a teenage large-system hacker before hitting it big in commercial programming.
Bill Landreth, "The Teenage Computer Wizard Who Was Apprehended by the FBI," is at his best when describing what motivates the kind of online hackers who devote their talent and time to gaining unauthorized entry onto large telecommunications systems.
According to Landreth, whose hacker bulletin board "handle" was The Cracker, most online hackers are not destructive. They are usually "Tourists" seeking the challenge of solving puzzles, or "Students" like himself who prize computer knowledge for its own sake.
Landreth writes that a high-level online hacker like one of his fellow members of the Inner Circle network "would never intentionally damage a system. He spent as much as 40 hours just to get access, and he wants to remain undiscovered so he can keep using your system. Besides, someday he may want to apply for a job as a system operator with your company...
He complains that the tiny minority of crashers "give all hackers a bad name. They close down accounts that other hackers spend much time and effort to get."
This book gives candid critiques of the attractiveness and vulnerabilities of popular operating systems that run on large computers such as DEC, VAX and IBM models. Landreth also reviews much of the online security equipment on the market.
Particularly valuable are the author's descriptions of online hacking techniques. The Hack-Hack method would consist of autodialing possible passwords in every combination of letters. This is guaranteed to catch the notice of an alert sysop and is considered overly crude.
A more experienced online hacker would prefer subtler approaches such as programming a Decoy screen display and tricking legitimate users into leaving their passwords. This technique is why CompuServe always warns subscribers never to type in their passwords while participating in a CB conference. Some of the other hacking techniques discussed are the Trapdoor (made famous in "WarGames"); the Trojan Horse, an inviting file that users would have to log onto with their passwords; Rapid-Fire buffer command shifts; and the dangerous logic Bombs.
Landreth says he doesn't do online hacking any more, in the aftermath of plea bargaining with the FBI for three years probation and the return of his computer equipment.
There were originally three counts of Wire Fraud against "The Cracker." Landreth insists that helping create an unauthorized bulletin board for hackers on the GTE Telemail system did not actually damage it. But unfortunately the number of hackers using GTE soon grew to nearly 200 and a few of them carelessly left traces online. GTE panicked and called in the FBI.
PART III: SCI-Fl HACKING
NEUROMANCER by William Gibson Ace Science Fiction 200 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016 271 pages, paperbound $2.95Case was only 24 and he had been one of the best interface cowboys roaming the computer matrix!
Jacked into a customized cyberspace navigation deck, Case used biofeedback cues and keyboard commands to project his disembodied consciousness into the earth-spanning digital matrix. He carefully made his way through the deadly ICE security software and stole confidential data for corporate spies.
Then he double-crossed one of his employers and was punished by injection with a nerve poison that burned out his talent. It was a revenge worse than death. Now Case's mind couldn't fly through cyberspace any more and he was trapped in the meat of his body...
At this writing, Neuromancer was considered a top contender for the year's major science fiction awards, the Hugo and Nebula. Certainly the quality of William Gibson's imaginative writing is very high. This first novel reads like a wildly hyped-up version of "Blade Runner" and is set in a convincingly gritty and dangerous near-future where computer crime takes on a whole new meaning.
Case gets his talent restored by Tokyo underworld microsurgeons in return for taking part in what turns out to be a battle between two of the world's most powerful Artificial Intelligences, Wintermute and Neuromancer.
Dodging the AI police, Case teams up with Molly, a female street samurai who has silver radar eyes and retractable fingernail razors. Prior to the big caper, Case and Molly must steal well-guarded microchips containing the taped personality of his dead former mentor; the Dixie Flatline, who had been "hard-wired into ROM."
To help them, they hire the Panther Moderns, a gang of teenage terrorist mercenaries who get high on software tubes plugged into implanted sockets behind their ears. And so it goes...
The science fiction vision of Neurornancer projects vivid images of a rapidly changing technology that creates human effects both disturbing and intriguing. Even if only a few of author Gibson's predictions come true, there could still be many great adventures waiting for hackers.
Getting back to today's world, it's true that persons labeled as hackers sometimes get carried away and pick up a bad name from the public. But it also seems true that much of what we know as the Computer Revolution really could not have happened with-out the self-motivated explorations of hackers in the '60s, 70s and '80s.