In the last chapters of Hackers, I focused on the threat of commercialism, which I feared would corrupt the hacker ethic. I didn't anticipate that those ideals would remake the very nature of commerce. Yet the fact that the hacker ethic spread so widely—and mingled with mammon in so many ways—guaranteed that the movement, like any subculture that breaks into the mainstream, would change dramatically. So as Hackers was about to appear in a new edition (this spring, O’Reilly Media is releasing a reprint, including the first digital version), I set out to revisit both the individuals and the culture. Like the movie Broken Flowers, in which Bill Murray embarks on a road trip to search out his former girlfriends, I wanted to extract some meaning from seeing what had happened to my subjects over the years, hoping their experiences would provide new insights as to how hacking has changed the world—and vice versa.
I could visit only a small sample, but in their examples I found a reflection of how the tech world has developed over the past 25 years. While the hacker movement may have triumphed, not all of the people who created it enjoyed the same fate. Like Gates, some of my original subjects are now rich, famous, and powerful. They thrived in the movement's transition from insular subculture to multibillion-dollar industry, even if it meant rejecting some of the core hacker tenets. Others, unwilling or unable to adapt to a world that had discovered and exploited their passion— or else just unlucky—toiled in obscurity and fought to stave off bitterness. I also found a third group: the present-day heirs to the hacker legacy, who grew up in a world where commerce and hacking were never seen as opposing values. They are bringing their worldview into fertile new territories and, in doing so, are molding the future of the movement.
My own copy of Hackers: Heros of the Computer Revolution is worn out from so many readings and re-readings that it's falling apart (and when I first got it, back in 1986 or so, I read the entire book in one sitting, which lasted all night—not something I should have done on a school night).
So now here is Steven Levy, revisiting his own book from a twenty-five year perspective, and following up on the changes to the industry, and the people he interviews, since the early 80s.