Despite the cold rain and spare accommodations, the very best of them came from all over the country last week to meet their fellow hackers and hack into the wee hours of the night.
"This is the Woodstock of the computer elite," exulted Ted Nelson, author of "Computer Lib" and a spiritual godfather to a generation of hackers. By Saturday, there were more than 150 current and ex-hackers from institutes of higher learning or companies such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Apple Computer, Lotus Development, Software Arts, and dozens of other participants in one of the quirkiest meetings in computerdom -- the first-ever "Hackers' Conference."
Before there ever was a Silicon Valley or a Route 128, there were the hackers. These were not the digital vandals of the "War Games" genre who break into computer systems. The real hackers were creatures of technology, they were the hardware and software jockeys who could "hack around" with silicon chips or lines of code and build computers and programs that actually worked. Hackers, who began to appear in significant numbers in the mid-1960s, were the first guerrillas of the information age. They were the ones who were called nerds in high school and college.
But they were also the people who, by a weird blend of accident and design, created the multibillion-dollar personal computer industry. Most of the industry's founders started as hobbyist/hackers who didn't initially realize the potential of their technologies. A few hackers turned entrepreneur and became millionaires overnight. Many stayed in academe to hack. Still others are searching for their fortune. They all still are shaping the computer industry, and they were here to soak up some nostalgia and decide what they want the future of computers to look like.
The catch, though, is that the realities of the marketplace have begun to undermine the thrill of hacking. Hackers are losing -- or have lost -- their innocence as a hobby has become a business.
"Can we still have fun hacking and be commercially successful?" asked Burrell Smith, the hardware designer for Apple's Macintosh who has "Hardware Wizard" printed on his business cards. The world has become more complicated because of stock options and salary.
Some of the hackers argue that there shouldn't even be such a thing as for-profit software.
"I'd like to argue against the notion of intellectual property for software," said one hacker, asserting that, because all hacking is inextricably intertwined, no one should have any special rights to profit.
The ranks of hackers were just about evenly split between those who sell software for a living and those who promote "freeware" and "shareware" -- programs that are given away for a nominal fee to cover the programmer's expenses.
"I've made money giving software away for free," said Andrew Fleugelman, the editor of PC World magazine and creator of a communications software package called PC Talk.
"I distribute free software to a company called 'No Visible Means Of Support,' " said another hacker, who contended that it is wrong to charge hundreds of dollars for programs.
"I feel like I'm the one that chose the dark side," said Doug Carlson, president of the for-profit Broderbund Software, alluding to the evil force in the Star Wars movie series.
This tension reflects the origins of hacking, in which hackers traded and swapped their tricks and secrets with hackers at other universities, in the days when the only way a teenager could get access to a computer was by going to the university computer center.
But as the "home brew hackers" -- the ones who actually built personal computers -- proliferated, a software market came into being. What once was free soon had a price tag attached. As personal computers exploded into the marketplace, intellectual property and software piracy became overriding concerns.
"There's nothing on earth that's so easy to distribute to people as software," one hacker said. "It's a trivial matter to make a perfect copy."
"Information wants to be free," said Stewart Brand, creator of the award-winning Whole Earth Catalog and the recently published Whole Earth Software Catalog. "But it also wants to be valuable," a paradox he said is giving the fledging software industry such fits.
Brand, now in his 40s, is one of the co-sponsors of the conference, which drew its inspiration from "Hackers," a recently published book by Steve Levy. Brand's group, which is a superb scout of cultural trends, received a $1.3 million advance from Doubleday to put together the Whole Earth Software Catalog, a compendium of personal computer information. It sells for $17.50. "It's not freeware," Brand noted.
Apparently, economics has become the dominant theme in computers today. At times, listening to these superbly gifted programmers talk is like listening to Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Monet complain about artists' commissions and gallery fees.
The concerns here span the spectrum of hackers, from in the late teens to the mid-50s. Some of them have been in computers since the earliest days of the IBM mainframes; others have only laid hands on personal computers. Ironically, each generation of hackers demonstrates the technological obsolescence of the previous generation as computers continue to become smaller, cheaper and easier to use.
The very software that the hackers create to make programming easier for others makes their own skills less valuable as their own software is being used to replace their skills. A few of the hackers here fear that the machines they helped to create are going to threaten them, but for the most part the hackers here are bright, quick-witted, sarcastic and prone to an arrogance based on the belief that they can hack a computer into doing anything.
"Hacking is primarily an ego trip," said Bruce Baumgart, a veteran of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence laboratory who now runs a small ticket reservation software company in Campbell, Calif. Baumgart, a Harvard graduate in his 30s who still wears his blond hair long, is widely regarded as one of the most gifted hackers.
But he and others pointed out that, despite the colossal egos in the field, there has always been a tremendous sense of community since computerdom's early days. The fear is that the commercial side of hacking is squeezing out that community.
"I want to get back to the old days," said Lee Felsenstein, a designer of several popular personal computers -- including the original Osborne. He proposed that the hackers present begin to cooperate in designing 'Macintosh-oid' machine as a community project.
Some hackers, saying that the personal-computer field has become too congested for their taste, want to put incredibly sophisticated software on a single sliver of silicon the size of a thumbnail, funneling the power of dozens of personal computers into a single chip.
Others wanted to go beyond even that. "Giving a computer self-hood," said Baumgart. "The greatest hack is artificial consciousness."
"My vision of hacking," said Ken Agre, a 24-year-old MIT doctoral candidate, "is a fuzzy little intelligent creature growing inside each machine."