MIT Railroad Club. PHOTO: Wikipedia.

History Of Hacking: Back To The Future

Steven Levy recounts how the first generation of hackers was in on a secret that would change our world forever

Charlie Osborne

London – Mar. 18, 2022

Renowned technology journalist Steven Levy has explained how talking to hackers in the 1980s led to the documentation of “a revolution that people didn’t know was happening.”

It might seem strange, but hacking, and arguably cybersecurity as the industry we know today, had a very humble beginning.

To explain how it all began, Levy, editor-at-large at WIRED, a U.S. publication covering innovation, emerging technologies, economics, and politics in print and online, spoke to us about the history of hacking. 

Levy has been a contributor to WIRED since its inception in 1993 and is a veteran author of popular technology reads including “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,” “Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government – Saving Privacy in the Digital Age,” and his latest book, “Facebook: The Inside Story,” published in 2020 and described by The Financial Times as one of the best technology books of the year.

“Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” was originally published in 1984. The IT field was a very different place back then, where few had even heard the term “hacker.”

Indeed, it was in the same year that Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, first heard of hacking. The source? Levy’s reporting.

Although the word had been around for some time, Levy said in a podcast interview with Cybersecurity Ventures that hackers didn’t necessarily refer to themselves as such back then, but it was “certainly in the air.”

Cybercrime Radio: Where hacking came from

A history lesson from Steven Levy

In the 1980s, the general public considered hackers to be simply people who used the computer too much, Levy says, and with that, they were “addicted” to their PCs and were potentially antisocial.

You only need to look at hacker stock photos, full of hooded, scruffy figures in the dark and in front of a machine, to see this stereotype still stands.

Levy wasn’t sure what to expect when he began his journey into the hacking space, but once he met members of the community, his “mind was blown.”

Levy hadn’t considered that these people were involved in projects he described as “thrilling,” adding that “the stuff that these hackers were doing wasn’t something kept inside themselves [or that] made them unfit for society.”

“There were definitely some strange people,” Levy told us. “But they were in on a secret — that what was going on in these machines was going to change the world.”

Levy’s inspiration for his writing was his growing fascination with the hacking community, and it wasn’t long before magazine articles transformed into a book.

Levy’s exploration was meant to focus on two sections: the Homebrew Computer Club, which started as a hobbyist community that drew together in 1975 once the first personal computers were announced, and separately, commercial applications. 

It wasn’t long before the author realized that he was missing an important aspect of hacking history in his reporting: what had taken place before the creation of the club.

The source? MIT, where Levy says that hacker culture was “invented, in a way.”

“It was kind of the Mesopotamia of computer culture. You were able to pinpoint it: where the word ‘hacker’ became applied to computing, the personality traits… all in this little hotbed, in one little building, in a model railroad club in MIT.”

This is where it started: people were building trains, and at the same time, were discussing how best to hack their control systems. As Levy told us, the term hacking at MIT was “multidimensional” and meant everything from a prank to creative or improbable action, although it was not intended to describe malicious acts or vandalism. 

The word “hacking” was then applied to computers, paving the way for what has become a billion-dollar industry today, engaging researchers, defenders, cybercriminals, and as we’ve seen due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, even warfare on a virtual battleground.

“I was documenting a revolution that people didn’t know was happening,” Levy said.

To learn more, listen to our podcast interview with Steven Levy.

Charlie Osborne is a journalist covering security for ZDNet. Her work also appears on TechRepublic, Cybercrime Magazine, and other media outlets. 

Go here to read all of Charlie’s Cybercrime Magazine articles.