Hackers – Wizards of the Electronic Age is a PBS documentary directed by Fabrice Florin filmed at the first Hacker Conference that took place at the Headlands Institute Conference Center in 1984. The conference was organized as a result of Steven Levy’s book ‘Hackers – Heroes of the Computer Revolution’ published the same year. The documentary explores the cultural phenomenon that helped launch a multi-billion dollar computer industry and changed the way people live, communicate, work and play.
The documentary begins by introducing us to the hacker conference area filled with iconic figures such as Steven Wozniak, Andy Hertzfeld, Richard Stallman and many others. Programmers, hardware hackers, game designers were all brought together to discuss the unique set of values that made the computer revolution possible and brainstorm the future. Hackers are described a extremely talented and driven individuals who hack away at the computer until a program works. Andy Hertzfeld is described as a best example of a modern day hacker who is driven by the same pure spirit has MIT hackers before him, yet someone who works within a commercial framework. It was later mentioned that Andy sold a program called “switcher” he hacked together at the conference to Apple for $100,000. For Richard Greenblatt hacking is a way of life, you can not be a hacker on Sunday afternoons and do something else the rest of the time. For Richard hacking is a way of life. Various software developers describe their fascination with writing computer instructions which make computers perform amazing functionality at a speed of thousands of instructions per second. During the interview with Cheshire “Catalyst” we are introduced to a separate category of computer crackers who instead of writing software spend their time hacking away at a keyboard until they break or crack the security of the computer. Cheshire “Catalyst” himself is described as a reformed cracker.
A large segment of the film covers the origins and different generations of hackers closely following Steven Levy’s book. It begins by covering the original MIT hackers of the 1960s. Richard Greenblatt discusses the difficulty he had reserving computer time. Richard Stallman is described as the last pure hacker who stayed at MIT’s AI Lab to continue hacking and creating software despite the temptations of the commercial world. At the same time, we are presented with the Midnight Programmers from Stanford University where hackers like Bruce Baumgart were hacking computer in parallel with their MIT counterparts. The second generation of hackers or hardware hackers appeared after the introduction of low cost microprocessors. As the result of their drive to build a personal computer several new systems appeared in 1970s. Lee Felsenstein, a founder of the Homebrew Computer Club, talks about the tight knit community of hardware hackers sharing knowledge in the quest to build a usable personal computer. Steve Wozniak describes his work on the Apple computer. At last, the third generation of hackers – the software hackers – are covered by interviewing famous game designers such as Bill Budge and Robert Woodhead.
One of the issues that the hacker conference is set out to discuss is whether software should be shared or not. On one hand you have the original MIT Hackers like Richard Stallman describing distributing software without source code equivalent to selling a house with a locked basement. On the other hand you have software developers like Robert Woodhead who describe their software as a final product that should not be changed or hacked up. For people like Robert, changing his final product is insulting. Several alternatives were described to combat software piracy by freeware or shareware distributors like Andrew Fluegelman, author of PC Talk, and Bob Wallace, author of PC Write. Their proposal was to give out software for free. If people like the software they can pay a full fee to receive support and newer versions.
With the growth of bulletin board systems (BBS) in that era several concerns were voiced regarding information overload. With so many ideas and software becoming readily available some conference attendees worried that soon it will no longer be possible to make sense of it all. At the same time Steve Wozniak voices his concerns about the explosion of hackers creating too many useless gadgets. According to Steve, more money has been lost in the computer industry than it was created by a few successes.
The documentary concludes with a coverage of various hardware gadgets and fun software that people brought to the conference. There is a segment on the future of computer assisted painting and video editing. Entire encyclopedias were being recorded on a single laser disk. The attendees played a video game which averaged joystick movements of several people creating a kind of a team sport.
With the amount of vision and creativity captured in this documentary it is hard not to watch it again and again. From topics of software copy protection to the future of communications this documentary covers issues that defined computer industry for decades to come. Interestingly, the documentary and the conference completely ignore several subcultures which follow closely all the same hacker ethics such as phone phreaks and even “crackers”. There is an inner conflict that was mentioned briefly where according to conference organizers hackers are the people who enjoy pushing the envelope and discovering knowledge as long as it does not involve security of the systems. People who enjoy pushing the envelope and discovering knowledge in the security of the very same systems are labeled crackers and not considered hackers. This contradiction is inherited from Steven Levy’s book on the subject and survives to this day.