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March 20, 2005

Review: Hackers and Painters

I recently finished reading the book "Hackers and Painters" by Paul Graham. Graham is notable for having cashed out of the dot-com era when he sold his company ViaWeb to Yahoo!. ViaWeb built online store software that apparently now runs the nearly ubiquitous Yahoo! Store used by some hundreds of thousands of small businesses. Hackers and Painters is basically a collection of only loosely related essays that Graham has written over the past years, many of which appear in their entirety on his website. An interesting biographical fact about Graham are that he holds graduate degrees in both computer science and fine art. This dual perspective is the basis for the title of his book and for a couple of the essays in which he tries to draw similarities between the skills and dedication required to be a good hacker or a good painter. Ultimately, it's a symmetry that I am still not convinced about, despite lots of nice pictures of Renaissance art.

Generally, I would put Hackers and Painters in a similar category to Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point", or his more recent book "Blink" (which I am refusing to read on account of it's premise being complete bullshit). Basically, these books are written so as to paint an overly simplistic view of the way complex systems in the world work. Graham is not at his best when he's spouting capitalist propaganda about how to get rich but rather when he writes from his own formative experiences, such as his explanation of why nerds are unpopular, or how ViaWeb became more nimble than its competition. Just like Gladwell, Graham's writing style is seductively reductionistic, and brims with short, apparently explanatory anecdotes combined with shallow and conventional-wisdom-style broad generalizations, but actually conceal a host of unspoken assumptions about both the world and the reader. For that, I disliked Graham's conclusions quite a bit, although there are times when he does make interesting and potentially profound observations, such as about the importance of being aware of how language itself can subtly guide cultural evolution.

Here's a short list of silly generalizations one can glean from the text. There are many more reasonable and probably accurate generalizations, along with a wealth of information about how Graham built ViaWeb into a strong business. I omit those nuggets of wisdom because this is a bad review (if you're curious, peruse Graham's list of online essays).

- People who are not rich are that way because they have chosen not to work as hard as those who are.

- Economic inequality is a sign that some people are working a lot harder than everyone else (which is a good thing).

- Being successful in the software business has everything to do with choosing a superior programming language (e.g., LISP).

- Hackers should be allowed to run the world, because they're smarter, work harder and have great ideas.

- Academics should not design programming languages. Unless, that is, they design good ones (e.g., LISP).

- What makes a language popular is its power. except, of course, when it comes to LISP, which is not popular because of politics and pointy-haired middle managers.

- Java is a bad language, and is only popular because of politics and pointy-haired middle manages.

Generally, I wasn't impressed by the book, although there were some very enjoyable sections of it. Had it been published 4-5 years earlier, when the dot-com culture was still freshly interesting, it would be been more interesting since many of his essays focus around the lessons he learned from running a successful start-up company. However, when I finished the book, I was still left wondering about the subtitle - what exactly where the Big Ideas from the Computer Age? Perhaps something about the value of smart, independent people working hard in small groups, and the romantic notion that these groups of people can and will change the world. In this case, he's concerned about these group of people changing the world with computers, but honestly, hasn't it always been those groups of people who change the world, regardless of what tools they use?

"Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age", by Paul Graham.

ISBN: 0596006624, $15.61 at Amazon.com

Hardcover: 271 pages (hardcover), published by O'Reilly (May, 2004)

posted March 20, 2005 05:07 PM in Reviews | permalink