Tag Archives: Hackers & Painters

Review of Paul Graham's Hackers & Painters

You can also read this review here.

In the “Note to Readers” section at the start of Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age Paul Graham points out that the book’s chapters stand alone and can be read in any order or skipped altogether. While true, it also is misleading. While each chapter may stand on its own the book does possess a single theme. Hackers and Painters is about creativity. It’s about our individual capacity to be creative, a society’s capacity to let us be creative, and the degree to which we allow our tools to limit our creativity. Graham is concerned about these questions in relation to software programmers (whom he believes should think like painters – hence the title) but the ideas are pertinent to any profession that requires creativity.
For those unfamiliar with the author, Paul Graham is the geek’s geek. In 1995 he and Robert Morris developed the first web-based application, ViaWeb, which was acquired by Yahoo in 1998. For those less technically inclined, web-based applications are the programs we use over the internet and that don’t reside on your computer (while common place today this was ground breaking stuff back in 1995…). To put it bluntly Graham understands technology and its implications. Sadly, I suspect few people outside of the technology world will read his book. For Graham, particularly in the first half of this book, can write about technology the way few can: in English. Moreover, he’s enjoyable to read because he’s blunt, funny and, by necessity, contrarian. Why contrarian? Because Graham is all about beating the average. And to avoid being average you have to be creative, and to be creative you’ve got to… break rules.

That’s right, the enemy of creativity are rules. Indeed, Paul defines a hacker as a rule-breaker: “(To hack) can be either a compliment or an insult. It’s called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s also called a hack… Believe it or not the two senses of ‘hack’ are connected. Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break rules. And there is a gradual continuum between rule breaking that’s merely ugly (using duct tape to attach something to your bike) and rule breaking that is brilliantly imaginative (discarding Euclidean geometry).” If this quote gets your juices flowing then this book is for you. I was intuitively comfortable with this idea because I see it in my own world. A good negotiator operates in a similar way. He or she sees the written and unwritten rules behind an impasse and finds a clever ways to ‘hack’ them – to generate a clever solution the parties can agree to.

If Hackers and Painters is about maximizing creativity, and if the enemy of creativity are rules then, as James Burke would say “there is only one place to go.” Get rid of the rules (or at least learn how to ignore them). Consequently, the subtext running through this book is a libertarian plea for individuals to choose how and if they will limit their creativity. But there is a tension in all this. As Paul notes in Chapter 7 (Mind the Gap) a society with too many rules stifles creativity. But a society without rules can extinguish it altogether. So where is the balance? It is an issue I wish Graham would explore further. Also, readers faint of heart should be warned, Graham likes to make bold (and at times unsubstantiated) claims. My favorite is : “… most physicists could, if necessary, make it through a PhD program in French literature, but few professors of French literature could make it through a PhD program in physics.” While I suspect a lot of people might agree with this statement, those that disagree with it would vehemently disagree with it. It certainly is a little outlandish. Finally, the last few chapters dive fairly heavily into discussions regarding programing language… a debate that has broader, interesting implications, but which might cause many readers to stray. But these are small quibbles with what is otherwise an interesting and provoking read.

Because this book is so different then what my friends would normally read, I’ve decided to throw in two fun quotes and passages, in an effort to tempt you into checking it out:

“One often hears a policy criticized on the grounds that it would increase the income gap between rich and poor. As if it were an axiom that this would be bad… I’d like to propose an alternative idea: that in a modern society, increasing variation in income is a sign of health. Technology seems to increase the variation in productivity at faster than linear rates. If we don’t see corresponding variation in income, there are three possible explanations: (a) that technical innovation has stopped, (b) that the people who would create the most wealth aren’t doing it, or (c) they aren’t getting paid for it.”

“The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E. B. White. Every good writer knows this, and it’s true for software too. The most important part of design is redesign. To write good software you must simultaneously keep two opposing ideas in your head. You need the young hacker’s naïve faith in his abilities, and at the same time the veteran’s scepticism. You have to be able to think how hard can it be? With one half of your brain while thinking it will never work with the other. The trick is to realize that there’s no real contradiction here. You want to be optimistic and sceptical about two different things. You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but sceptical about the value of whatever solution you’ve got so far.”

[tags] Paul Graham, Hackers & Painters, book review, creativity[/tags]