In the mid-'80s I happened across a book called Hackers, by an author whose name is now synonymous with cutting-edge computer reporting, Stephen Levy.
Hackers is an in-depth look at the history of the rise of the computer, from the first behemoths to the Altair and the first Apple.
It's also a historical record of the people behind the machine, profiling the proud subculture of weirdos that proliferated in the computer labs of universities (nourished only by coffee and Department of Defense grants) and later emerged as industry's first giants. You know, the nerds who singlehandedly created a multibillion-dollar industry in a matter of years.
The truth is, I make the book sound boring. Hackers is a great read, mostly because Levy succeeded in capturing the bizarre stories behind the first generations of hardcore computer-heads. Levy pins a personality to the men and women who huddled behind a screen for those first 10 years, quietly and steadily devoting their lives to the Machine.
And when I say 'hacker' I'm not talking the cheesy image propagated by people like this. I'm talking about the birth of an archetype. The original hackers were a group prone to eccentric personal quirks, highly technical pranks and a penchant for
vending-machine food and sugary, caffeine-loaded beverages. Back then, computer programmers were the people punching cards for IBM, not the late-night freaks who would spend six straight days awake at a terminal writing the first graphical computer game, or figuring out how to make the computer run that much faster. These were the hackers, and they formed their own subculture while nobody else was looking.
But I digress. This isn't a book review and unless you're truly into this sort of historical erratta you probably aren't too interested in the past.
This is a college campus, though, and as I've found myself in the computer lab later and later at night during these last few weeks, Levy's book keeps popping into my head. More precisely, I've been wondering what happened to that culture of early-morning geniuses I expected to encounter when I came to college. Where are they? Where have they gone?
There has to be someone out there carrying on in the hacker tradition, especially on a campus as large as this, and I aim to find them. It's 3 a.m. Thursday morning, and I'm off to search the UA's only all hours computer labs to see what kind of people I encounter. Besides, it's finals week, and the chances of finding people awake at these hours is better than usual.
First on my list is the Gould-Simpson building, home of the Department of Computer Science's Macintosh lab.
Although the lab is only open to CS students, there is still some entertainment to be had by simply sitting in the building's south courtyard and watching the inhabitants through the lab's glass walls. At night it's the only lit room in the building, and the effect is vaguely like peering into an aquarium full of sleepy students.
Tonight, where I would expect to find a late-night haven for the computer crowd, there are three people huddled behind their respective screens. Two are working on legitimate computer science homework and don't want to be bothered. The third is clandstinely working on a paper for an Art class, explaining that he got "sidetracked" at a bar on Fourth Avenue earlier in the evening and only now, at 3 a.m., can he finish his assignment.
At this point, I give up on the CS Lab.
I know there is a graduate lab on the 7th floor, and a quick check shows me a handful of people are online from upstaris. However, the last thing I want to be doing is creeping around the 7th floor of Gould-Simpson at 3 a.m. looking for a lab I've never seen, so I head off to the next lab.
My next stop is the 24-hour terminal site at the Apache-Santa Cruz Residence Hall. There's only one person inside, and she sidesteps my attempt at conversation with an 'It's 3 a.m., leave me alone' smile.
I don't blame her. This bombshelter-turned-lab is a dark and sketchy place during the day, let alone in the wee hours of the morning, so I decide to hit to the last place on campus open at this insane hour.
The Harshbarger lab, tucked inside the engineering building, gets the award for being the most nondescript terminal site on campus.
Here that I encounter the best crowd, though, as the three people I encounter are not only awake, but friendly. I actually get smiles from a trio of tired faces when I walk in, and I think they're glad to know they aren't the only ones undergoing forced insomnia. Although nobody speaks English, they don't have to - one look tells you everything they could possibly have to say, including "I'm sick of this program" and "It's WHAT o'clock in the morning?"
So that's it. Seven people spread around three labs in the darkest hours of the morning. And while the people I encountered are more along the lines of stressed-out college kids than they are closet computer geniuses, it's still good to know that others have a need to frequent these places at bizarre hours.
My faith restored in the UA's all-night crowd, I'm going to sleep.
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