More a visual snack than a substantive documentary, "Hackers -- Wizards of the Electronic Age" (Channel 26 at 10:30 p.m.) is a video version of a USA Today cover story: slick, clever, colorful and "info-taining."
Superficiality and failed cutesiness aside, "Hackers" offers a pleasant way to peek into the hearts, minds and keyboards of the ultratalented computerniks (a k a hackers) who spawned the personal computer revolution by dint of their hardware/software skills. The world may stereotype them as technonerds, but they see themselves as artists who have transformed the computer into their own medium.
For truth-in-advertising purposes, understand that this is not a show about pimply teen-agers who use their home computers to break into other computer systems -- (they're called "crackers") -- this is about people who are obsessed with devising elegant and intriguing ways to get computers to do things. It's a look at a uniquely American subculture.
The bulk of "Hackers" is drawn from interviews and events occurring at the hackers' conference that took place in Sausalito, Calif., back in 1984. Sponsored by Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Catalog" crowd and inspired by Steven Levy's "Hackers" book, the conference featured an all-star cast of hacker heavyweights including Apple Computer cofounder Steven Wozniak; Burrell Smith, who built the Apple Macintosh; and Lee Felsenstein, designer of the original Osborne 1 "luggable" personal computer.
To a man (there are very, very few female hackers), these people are all energetic, passionate and extraordinarily articulate. Yes, they may look a little on the nerdy side, but they know what they're saying and how to say it. In a way, they're an incarnation of the American dream: growing fabulously rich by doing something they love -- hacking.
Indeed, it's that fabulous wealth that's prompting schisms in the hacker community. In a wonderful loss-of-innocence irony (that this show zeros in on), personal computer fanatics who have made a mint plying their wares talk about the importance of intellectual property protection. The old-time hackers -- who were once college kids staying up to the wee hours learning how to program clunky PDP-1s -- reminisce about how software was once "free" to be given away to interested colleagues and peers.
It appears that the emergence of a multibillion-dollar personal computer industry has sapped some of the zest and cooperation of the hacker community.
Similarly, the TV program features a nice little interplay between one late-generation hacker who believes that another's computer program should just be a starting point for innovation, and his early-generation counterpart who insists that modifying programs is like changing the colors of a painting.
What this show cleverly reveals is a subculture struggling to cope with the onset of maturity: Coming of Age in Silicon Valley.
"There are [now] too many hackers!" a nostalgic Wozniak exclaims.
But for a quick introduction to the best and brightest of them, "Hackers" is a quality bet.