June 29, 2005

VIRGINIA POSTREL is feeling sorry for Steven Levy, who’s suffering at the hands of a clueless boss. She’s right that Levy’s Hackers is a great book, and she’s also right that it’s painfully obvious that Levy’s boss has no idea — even at the Amazon-blurb level — what it’s about.

UPDATE: In an update to Virginia’s post, Levy defends his boss. But that produced this email from reader Paul Snively:

I’m a former Apple employee and have made my living writing software or supporting other people who do (Macintosh Developer Technical Support at Apple) my entire career. I’ve met Steven Levy, although he wouldn’t remember it. . . .

From this we learn that Mr. Levy is just as clueless as his boss is, if not more so. The unwritten secret is that all of us who can write software and have had to learn the vagaries of the various operating systems and networks that we work on “CAN break into computers.” The various reasons that we don’t are the same as the various reasons other people don’t steal, assault people, rape, murder, etc. (It literally never occurs to us, it occurs to us but we believe it’s wrong, it might be tempting but we’re afraid of being caught, we wouldn’t mind getting caught but jail is a boring place, whatever).

We’re a lot like locksmiths. The reason you can feel reasonably physically secure behind locked doors is that locksmiths do a reasonable job of guarding the knowledge that would make it possible to subvert all but the highest-grade industrial locks. Magicians– escape artists–basically study the same materials that locksmiths do and then build a show around it (Erich Weiss, aka Harry Houdini, was a former locksmith’s apprentice).

None of this would be worth noting at all, except for one thing: it seems to me like yet another instance of a disturbing general trend to fail to distinguish among classes of people according to what they do, as opposed to what they can do. Levy’s comment means that it’s OK to call both MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club of the mid 1950s and Kevin Mitnick “Hackers” because both “CAN break into computers.” That’s a ludicrous, and dangerous, conflation of definitions.

All definitions are permitted to the definer, if clear. But I can see why computer professionals would object to this choice.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Lowell McCormick emails:

Hi Glenn, I read the book “Hackers” back in 1987(?). It is very entertaining, informative and full of computer history. I loved it. I loaned it out back then and never got it back. I bought another copy in the last couple of years and read it again. It was just as good as the first time. I highly recommend it.

Yes, I’ve assigned it in my Internet Law class before. It’s excellent.