Late one night in the fall of 2005, Mark Zuckerberg was showing me around his crappy little apartment in Palo Alto, California. Facebook, the company he’d founded the year before in his Harvard dorm room, was in its infancy, and the slight 21-year-old, dressed in jeans and a Patagonia hoodie, still lived like an undergraduate. There was just a mattress on the floor, 10 pairs of Adidas sandals in the closet and an electric guitar leaning against a bare wall. “I don’t even think the shower has a shower curtain,” he said with a shrug.
Although the moguls of Silicon Valley were already courting him, Zuckerberg seemed genuinely uninterested in cashing in. He had started his career as a hacker, busting into Harvard’s online student database to create a better way for people to keep track of their friends—an online face-book of his own. (“Let the hacking begin,” he famously blogged that night.) As he brewed a pot of green tea in his kitchenette during my visit, he still lived by those words. “I just want to build something cool,” he told me. And so he did.
For the past two decades, I’ve traveled the world for publications including Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Playboy to find and write about the most innovative people online. Most had begun as hackers. Often they were in the early stages of their careers. Some became billionaires (like Zuckerberg, two years after we met). Some became prisoners (WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange). Others remained unknown (the hacker collective Anonymous). Dozens crashed and burned.
But as I’ve observed firsthand, a singular obsession drives this generation of hackers, gamers, activists and geeks: building access to information and one another, even if it means breaking something old—or the law. Their work has turned the web into a kind of Wild West—a no-holds-barred fight over freedom and information that reached a fever pitch this year. Whether these “hacktivists” end up loved, hated, feared, politically exiled (as in the case of “traitor” National Security Agency hacker Edward Snowden) or even dead (Aaron Swartz and Barnaby Jack, both master hackers who died this year), there’s one crucial legacy they all share.
The internet would suck without them.
If you want to understand why the world needs hackers, you have to start with games. I first learned this one afternoon in the early 1980s. I was around 13 and, like many guys my age, blew my time and my lawn money on video games. In Tampa that meant biking down to ShowBiz Pizza, a strip mall restaurant that had all the latest arcade games: Donkey Kong, Defender, Spy Hunter and the rest. Although we all had Atari 2600s at home, we preferred to get our game on away from our parents. Arcades were our secret frats, places to wiggle our joysticks, curse and get high.
But one day we discovered that ShowBiz was a place for something else too: hacking. The arcade had just gotten a few personal computers, technology that was emerging at the time. For a couple of tokens you could sit at the machines and play some rudimentary computer games. You could also type in words and listen to the computer read them back to you. It took about three seconds for us to type “Fuck the manager,” but some kind of security program prevented the machines from saying profanities. With a little experimentation, however, we realized that “Phuck the manager” circumvented the restrictions—until the old guy chased us out the door.
That discovery taught us something important: You don’t have to be a programmer to know how to hack. Hacking isn’t really about coding. It’s about questioning and modifying a system, whether that system is a computer or a way of life. Yes, we were young punks at ShowBiz, and it sucked to get booted from the place. But our little hack was a good thing for one fundamental reason: It questioned a system and exposed a vulnerability. We wanted more freedom, more access, and we figured out how to get it. Little did we know there was a generation of kids like us seeking freedom with new technology, and by hacking games, they were paving the way for the digital revolution to come.
I met two of the most important ones 15 years later when I was writing my book Masters of Doom, about the ultraviolent shooter franchises Doom and Quake. Co-founders John Carmack and John Romero, also known as the Two Johns, had grown up in arcades as we had and were considerably more skilled as hackers. They got their break by hacking their own version of Super Mario Bros. 3 on a PC—an astonishing feat at the time—and building around it one of the most successful game companies ever, id Software.
Instead of building games that prevented hackers from messing with their code, Carmack, the lead programmer, specifically designed his games so they would be easier to hack. With a little time and will an industrious player could, say, tweak the code in Doom to make an entire level of the game’s playing world look like the Millennium Falcon instead of an underground labyrinth. The internet of the mid-1990s began to teem with modified versions—or “mods”—of Doom and Quake, giving rise to a subculture of hackers who would later make some of today’s biggest game franchises, from Halo to Gears of War.
The Two Johns understood an essential tenet of the nascent digital age: By breaking systems and building something new, hackers developed the skill and passion for driving innovation. As Carmack explains in Masters of Doom, “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there. The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on and the dedication to go through with it.”
In the early days of the internet, anyone with a modem and a computer could freely exchange information with others. Deadheads swapped music. College students traded games. Scientists shared research. Prescient geeks knew it was only a matter of time before commercial interests invaded the space, and early freedom fighters took up the cause.