Dynamist Blog

Poor Steven Levy

Newsweek's star technology writer co-authors a big cover story on identity theft only to have the Big Boss make it painfully obvious in his editor's letter that neither he nor anyone on the copy desk has a clue what Levy's most famous book was about. Bragging about Levy's widely recognized expertise, Mark Whitaker declares that "Steven Levy has written books on the people who can break into computers ("Hackers") and on the tools to thwart them ("Crypto")."

But, of course, Hackers--a great book, and a touchstone for anyone interested in the history of computers--is not about people who break into computers. Subtitled "Heroes of the Computer Revolution," Hackers is about people, starting at MIT in the 1960s, who played around with computers and whose enthusiasm gave birth to the personal computer revolution. Today's high-tech criminals and identity thieves are a completely different subject. A quick look at the book's Amazon page could have kept Whitaker from insulting Levy and revealing his own ignorance of technological history.

UPDATE: Steven Levy emails:

Mark's point in his letter's editor (which I saw before publication and was OK with) was simply to say that I had reporting background in the kinds of people with the wizardry to potentially frustrate security. The exact language he used was accurate: that "Hackers" was about the people who CAN break into computers, not that I was writing about crooks. As you eloquently acknowledge, the book's focus is on quite a different kind of hacker (although there are few people I wrote about, like John Draper, who pioneered techniques that would later be abused by the dark side.) But for the point that he was making, citing Hackers and Crypto with those very brief descriptions was sufficient. Thanks for the defense, Virginia, though none was needed here.

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