Hackers & Painters: - Critical summary review - Paul Graham

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Hackers & Painters: - critical summary review

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Technology & Innovation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1449389554

Publisher: O`Reilly Media

Critical summary review

First published in 2003, “Hackers & Painters” is a collection of essays by hacker philosopher Paul Graham, an English essayist and author, entrepreneur and venture capitalist, computer scientist and visionary. Graham describes this book as “an attempt to explain to the world at large what goes on in the world of computers,” but it is so much more, as it discusses everything from the nature and future of hacking, through wealth and inequality to different programming languages, most notably Lisp.

So, get ready to learn what Graham thinks on several interesting topics and find out why the future of the world might depend on you not giving up on your most radical ideas!

Why nerds are unpopular

Officially, the purpose of schools is to prepare children for what lies ahead of them, to teach them important lessons that will benefit them in the future. Unofficially, however, schools are prisons: places where grown-ups keep their children locked up for a big chunk of the day so they can get the important things done. This is not necessarily a problem in itself. The problem is: kids are not told about it, and, more importantly, prisons are run mostly by inmates.

Nerds know this fact better than others: the more popular kids in their school bullied the majority of them during their childhoods. One can even argue that this is an essential part of the mechanism of popularity – even more, than it is about individual attractiveness, popularity is about alliances. In other words, to become more popular, you need to be constantly doing things that bring you closer to popular people. And, of course, nothing brings people closer than a common enemy. 

In reality, nerds should be nobody’s enemy: more often than not, they are just harmless, smart kids who care about finding the right answers more than anything else. Also, there aren’t too many of them. But this is what makes them the perfect target: they can’t defend themselves even if they ally. There are far more kids who want to pick on nerds than there are nerds in any school. And these kids are not the most popular students: nerds are mostly persecuted from the nervous middle classes, the not-so-popular kids who want to reach the top of the popularity scale. 

This all may sound a bit pessimistic, but Graham insists that it is not. There is an optimistic message behind all of this. And that is that smart people’s lives are worst between the ages of eleven and seventeen – but usually much better than those of their bullies afterward. “It’s important for nerds to realize,” writes Graham, “that school is not life. School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral. It’s all-encompassing, like life, but it isn’t the real thing. It’s only temporary, and if you look, you can see beyond it even while you’re still in it.”

Hackers and painters

After finishing grad school in computer science, Graham went to art school to study painting. A lot of people were surprised: how can anyone interested in computers be interested in painting as well? At least, at first sight, these two seem situated at the opposite sides of the knowledge spectrum: programming is cold, precise, and methodical, and painting is intuitive, imaginative, even inventive. The former is all about rules and systems; the latter, about freedom and originality. “Both of these images are wrong,” writes Graham. “Hacking and painting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I’ve known, hackers and painters are among the most alike.” 

The most important thing that hackers and painters have in common – and the thing that separates them from theoretical physicists and other types of scientists – is that they are both makers. In other words, instead of doing research, they are doing things. And that is precisely how they learn: the more they create things (whether programs or paintings), the more they know how to make them better and the better they understand their craft. 

Scientists, on the other hand, don’t learn science by doing it. Contrary to hackers and painters, they start out doing work that’s perfect. Meaning that, at the beginning of their careers, scientists merely reproduce work someone else has already done for them. If they are good enough, somewhere late in their lives, they might get to the point where they will be able to do some original work. However, there are very few scientists of this sort. On the contrary, almost all hackers and painters – from the very start – are doing original work; it is irrelevant that it is usually bad. What is relevant is that hackers start original and get good, while scientists start good and get original.

Because of this, the right place for hackers to look for metaphors for their craft is not in the sciences, but in the arts. And if they look hard enough, they will realize that they should master their craft the same way painters have theirs for centuries. Paintings are created by gradual refinement: artists begin with a sketch and, during the process of “filling in the details,” they adjust and modify it – sometimes very obviously against the expectations of the original plan. 

According to Graham, hacking should work this way too: instead of unrealistically expecting perfect specifications for a program from the outset, hackers should just start writing programs in a way that will allow specifications to change on the fly. 

Finally, they should also learn from past examples: for hundreds of years, part of the traditional education of painters was to copy the works of the great masters, because “copying forces you to look closely at the way a painting is made.” Likewise, by looking closely at the source code of good programs, hackers can learn to program better. The good news is that we’re living in “the glory days of hacking” and there’s a lot of good programs worthy of closer inspection. To use a proper analogy, future generations of hackers will look back at our times the way we look back at the Renaissance.

What you can’t say

In the sixth century before Christ, Greek philosopher Heraclitus realized that the only thing constant throughout life and history is change. Just look at an old photo of yourself: how embarrassingly unhip you look in those dated clothes, with that outmoded haircut and the silly-looking earring hanging under your right ear! And yet, back then, you really tried hard to pull off that look! But that is the nature of fashion, isn’t it? It is temporary, arbitrary, and invisible; most of us just follow it blindly.

What’s scary is that there are such things as “moral fashions” as well: throughout history, people seem to have believed things that were just plain ridiculous and believed them so strongly that many nonconformists winded up in some serious trouble. Why should our time be any different? Chances are we currently believe some things that people in the future will find preposterous. Even today, if you travel across the globe, you’ll see how arbitrary moral is: doing something may be OK in one culture, and shocking in another; it is usually the side that’s shocked that is wrong as well.

Fashion and moral trends are similar in the way they are adopted by followers. The early adopters are the ambitious, “self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd.” However, as fashion becomes established, the second and much larger group joins them; these are the ones that are driven by fear. The first group adopts a trend – whether clothing or moral – because they want to stand out from the crowd; the second – because they are afraid of standing out.

But there is a big difference between trends in fashion and ethics: moral fashions don’t seem to be created by the way ordinary fashions are. While the latter seems to arise by accident, the former seems to be created deliberately. In both cases there are usually powerful, influential people at the top. However, in ordinary fashions, people imitate them by whim and somewhat consciously; in moral fashions, people blindly follow them, and they don’t know they are doing this. In other words, if everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, then there’s a good chance that you are being manipulated.

So, ask yourself: “do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?” If the answer is no, then, almost certainly, there is something wrong with you. If it is yes – then explore them: they are the ideas worth exploring. If you can share these heretical thoughts of yours with some people without getting jumped on – then keep those people as close to you as you can. They are the most interesting to know.

 If you can’t share them with anyone, then keep your unorthodox thoughts to yourself. “The most important thing is to be able to think what you want,” writes Graham, “not to say what you want.” So, pay heed to the advice that Sir Henry Wootton, then-ambassador in Venice, told John Milton when the great poet was going to visit Italy in the 1630s: “i pensieri stretti & il viso sciolto.” Translation: closed thoughts and an open face. Interpretation: smile at everyone, but don’t tell them what you’re thinking – especially if it is radical and revolutionary. Who knows where the Spanish Inquisition might be hiding? After all, nobody usually expects it.

Mind the gap

Leonardo da Vinci was a finer painter than second-rate contemporaries like Borgognone, Raymond Chandler was a more talented novelist than average writers of detective novels, and Magnus Carlsen is, evidently, a much better chess player than you. Few would argue these comparisons, and probably no one will ever complain about them. On the contrary, in fact: we actually admire Da Vinci, Chandler, and Carlsen because they have surpassed all the rest at playing chess, writing novels, or painting portraits. The opposite is true in the case of people who make money: even though these are, yet again, people who are better than the rest in a certain skill, everybody says that it is wrong.

According to Graham, this happens for one of three reasons: “the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated, and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society.” In his opinion, “the first is a mistake, the second outdated, and the third empirically false.” 

Graham calls the misleading model of wealth we learn as children the Daddy Model. In the real world, wealth is created, but for kids, wealth is something distributed by their fathers. Some children never grow up and keep on talking about “unequal distribution of wealth” even when it is obvious that they can create less than some other people. But, then again, it is a fact that “for most of the world’s history the main route to wealth was to steal it.”

Consequently, people tend to be suspicious of rich people. But the prototypical rich man of the modern age (at least in a few Western countries) is not a lord or an aristocrat anymore, but someone who creates value and makes other people’s lives materially richer as well. That’s why it’s not smart to tax the rich people away – it would make society as a whole a lot poorer, both metaphorically and literally. 

“You need rich people in your society not so much because in spending their money they create jobs,” concludes Graham, “but because of what they have to do to get rich. I’m not talking about the trickle-down effect here. I’m not saying that if you let Henry Ford get rich, he’ll hire you as a waiter at his next party. I’m saying that he’ll make you a tractor to replace your horse.” 

Final Notes

A fascinating centaur-like book – half a stimulating analysis of the deficiencies of modern societies, half an overly technical paean to the programming language Lisp – “Hackers and Painters” is one of the very few books of its kind. 

But then again, there aren’t many people with Graham’s background, so not many can compile a collection of essays such as this. Unfortunately, this is the problem with some of them: Graham often forgets that he’s the exception and not the rule, and this results in a few flawed analogies and several forced (or barely nuanced) arguments.

But, even so, it’s always pleasurable and rewarding to read Graham – even when you don’t agree with him. Also, who knows: Graham’s heresies may one day be the moral map of our world!

12min Tip

When you’re in the water, you can’t see the wave. So, always be questioning. That’s your only defense against the powerful groups who want to manufacture consent. If your beliefs make you unpopular – so be it: popularity and intelligence are often inversely related.

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Who wrote the book?

Paul Graham is an English essayist, author, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, computer scientist, and a visionary. He holds degrees in philosophy and computer science and i... (Read more)

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