Hackers in Paradise

Don Woods is acknowledged to have the Right Stuff. With long, stringy black hair and a bearish grin, he looks somewhat older than his twenty-nine years. He works at Xerox and wears a dark GAMES T-shirt that contrasts with his almost chalk-colored skin. Pinned next to the Xerox employee badge on his shirt is a button that reads question authority. Wood is known as a classic, or canonical, hacker. “Here’s a quick hack I’ve been working on,” he says. He types a few characters on his keyboard, and from the computer come the calliopelike sounds of a rousing, Sousa-style marching song. “I put it together in a couple of days,” he says.

One of the results of Woods’ epic hacks is Adventure, a collaboration with Will Crowther. Ostensibly a game, Adventure is a metaphor for hacking. When you begin Adventure, the computer tells you your location: at a stream, near a forest, within sight of a small brick building. From there you embark on a Tolkeinesque journey through the caverns and glens of a medieval land, encountering murderous midgets, poisonous snakes, treacherous rapids, thieving pirates and magazines written in dwarf language. By telling the computer the direction you wish to move (typing n for north or u for up, for example), the computer calculates where, on the unseen map created in Woods’ imagination, you will wind up next, and displays a written description of your next location. You go deeper and deeper into this netherworld, hoping to emerge by the same path with treasure in hand. There are almost 200 rooms you pass through on your way to the treasure, many dotted with hazards, and the path crosses and intertwines in ways impossible to divine without hours of exploration. Adventure is the most popular game at LOTS, and indeed it is a national craze among those with access to computers. “I would show it to people on a Friday afternoon,” Woods says, “and they wouldn’t leave their terminals until they finished it, maybe on Monday.”

Adventure is a kind of litmus test for hackers: if you can lose yourself in the gullies and misty caverns, you might be susceptible to computer addiction. Just as the plot of Adventure is a world unto itself, the vast memory and operating system of a mainframe computer is a gigantic landscape, seeming impenetrable but eventually accessible to the most devoted seekers. Just as everything in the physical world is constructed of atoms, everything a computer processes or reads is ultimately reduced to bits of either one or zero. Like treasure seekers in the subterranean Adventure world, hackers are electronic spelunkers who have developed the skill to burrow down from the more superficial programming languages to the bedrock machine language of digits. Woods call this “going down and doing the grudgies.” To get involved this deeply, you must be able to think in dizzyingly abstract terms. Your mental concentration is so intense that your consciousness is subsumed by the computer. —Steven LevyHackers in ParadiseRolling Stone 1982)

Levy expanded the theme of this article into the excellent book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.