Painters are Cooler than Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 4)

Painters are Cooler than Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 4)

2021, Mar 05    

Paul Graham’s Hacker

In these four chapters of Hackers and Painters, Paul Graham outlines his vision of what a modern hacker looks like - a creative innovator who lives by resisting authority and breaking the rules. I find there to be many similarities between Graham’s Hacker and Levy’s (author of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution). A True Hacker according to Levy’s definition is someone who breaks things and takes them apart to learn more about their inner workings, often doing so by breaking some rule or getting into trouble. I find Paul Graham’s descriptions of hackers to be mostly the same, but I feel that he spends more time in his writings fleshing out the details and nuances of the word “hacker”, whereas Levy supports his definition by using stories about contemporary hackers. I think the most compelling part of Graham’s definition of a hacker for me was the title chapter, Hackers and Painters. In this chapter, Graham speaks of his time in art school where he studied painting after finishing his graduate program in computer science. He argues that hacking and painting have much in common. Graham writes, “Hackers need to understand the theory of computation about as much as painters need to understand paint chemistry”. The points he is making in this chapter are that both hacking and painting require a tremendous amount of meticulous attention to detail, attention that in the end will reward the hacker/painter with a successful hack or piece of art. “Relentlessness wins because, in the aggregate, unseen details become visible”. The reason this chapter resonates most with me is that I have always been most interested and curious in topics in software and computer science when there is some creative application available to be used along with the topic. For example, back when I was learning python in the Systems Programming course at Notre Dame, I found a creative outlet for what I was learning through a small script I made for fun. I’ve always considered programming to be as much a creative outlet and field for personal expression as I have considered it “engineering” or “science”. I think that’s the great thing about programming and hacking - the world is your oyster. Once you have the experience (ideally through the hands-on imperative), you can use a computer to make just about anything you want.

Paul Graham’s Hot Takes

Of course, I’m ignoring some of the hot takes Graham makes in his essays, specifically in the chapter titled What You Can’t Say. While I do think Graham’s intentions with this chapter aren’t necessarily controversial, I do think the way he presents his opinions is a bit offputting. I do think it is somewhat healthy to create a space within your own mind to grapple with your opinions. This way, you can reason on your own terms about what you truly think. However, variety of opinions does help shape our own personal worldview even better in my opinion, so I also find Graham’s Conformist Test to be interesting. While I actually don’t think it’s a good idea to voice any extreme opinions with your peers in such a test, I do think it is a good chance to spark discussion about opinions that might not be “safe” or popular. I personally think there is a place in this world to be politically correct. Political correctness to me is synonymous with respecting others. However, I can still understand Graham’s frustrations (and the frustrations of others) when it comes to the pervasiveness of political correctness. Unfortunately, it is in my opinion that the only reason it is so pervasive is that critics of PC culture tend to apply the term as a blanket statement to decisions that go against their own opinions.

Do I Still Want to be a Hacker?

As I stated before with the chapter Hackers and Painters, Graham’s comparison of an artist and a hacker really resonates with me. I think his description of the modern hacker doesn’t change my opinion much on wanting to be a hacker myself - as long as I can use computing as a creative outlet, whether that’s making a simple game or writing a silly script, I will consider hacking desirable.

This post is in response to Reading 4 of the Hackers in the Bazaar course offered at the University of Notre Dame.