Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham


On Wednesday night, I spent some time at the O’Reilly reception. In the SWAG bags that they gave us was a copy of the book, Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham.


The O’Reilly website has this to say about the book:


“Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, by Paul Graham, explains this world and the motivations of the people who occupy it. In clear, thoughtful prose that draws on illuminating historical examples, Graham takes readers on an unflinching exploration into what he calls “an intellectual Wild West.”

The ideas discussed in this book will have a powerful and lasting impact on how we think, how we work, how we develop technology, and how we live. Topics include the importance of beauty in software design, how to make wealth, heresy and free speech, the programming language renaissance, the open-source movement, digital design, Internet startups, and more. “


I wanted to like this book, but after reading about half of it, I have mixed feelings. I think some of Graham’s observations are interesting, though some aren’t new (the fact that some programmers are wildly more productive than others will not surprise many developers). But in others I think he makes assertions that aren’t well supported.


In one of the early chapters (I think it’s chapter 1, but I don’t have the book here right now because it’s in my luggage at the hotel), he makes the assertion (and I’m simplifying a ton here) that since children in medieval times started apprenticeships when they were in their early teens and we don’t have record of them having the same sort of problems today’s teenagers have (which I’ll label as “teenage angst”, though that’s not exactly what he’s talking about), then the behavior we see today must be societal and environmental in nature.


The problem with this argument is that there is some very good research that says that the brains of teenagers are not fully developed until around the age of 20 (see this from NIH, or Bradley and Geidd’s excellent book “Yes, your teen is crazy!”), which means that the assertion that there’s some biological basis for teenage behavior has some good support.


Given that this book is a collection of essays, I don’t expect the same level of research I would in a full book devoted to the topic, but it’s unfortunate to have this sort of oversight.


Another example is in one of the chapters on wealth, which I think are pretty good overall. Graham’s assertion here is that before the industrial revolution, there has been wealth transference, but not a lot of wealth creation, and that wealth has been accumulated through theft (either directly or via taxation). I think this is basically true. His second assertion is that this changes with the application of technology. I agree that technology has brought new wealth (if you measure wealth by standard of living).


He then uses this as a basis that inequities between rich and poor are not a bad thing, because the creation of wealth is a good thing. But I think he ignores the fact that the old methods of wealth accumulation are still alive and well – the rich are (not surprisingly) interested in staying rich, and are willing to use their influence to make this happen. Given that, I don’t think one can make the “Greed Is Good” argument without at least some qualification.


 


 

Comments (17)

  1. paul says:

    I have yet to figure out the motivations for golf. Golfers spend more time talking about their game then actually playing, they have a language and a hierarchy that is a complete mystery to anyone outside their pastime. Golfers like hackers can sit and stare into a lit screen for days and not appear to do anything. They can travel all over the world and meet in groups and compete or just watch others compete, yet there friends and families don’t understand them at all.

  2. Kevin Daly says:

    Regarding the creation of wealth in pre-industrial times, I think that thesis is a bit naive as well. There were *many* industrial revolutions before the one we write with capital letters, and they tended to lead to the creation of new wealth. As did other significant developments such as the boom in exploration (and all that followed) that began (roughly) in the Renaissance.

    We like to divide the stream of history up into neat, tidy little periods (just as we do on the micro scale with our fixation "decades"), but it is a mistake to think that this is a reflection of reality rather than our own psychology. History is human beings doing stuff…and they do the same stuff, for the same reasons, over and over again.

  3. [I haven’t read the book but I have read <a href="http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html">"Why Nerds are Unpopular"</a> online.]

    Why do children need fully developed brains for early apprenticeships? The flow of Paul Graham’s argument is as follows: Today’s schools are like prisons because we put children in an artificial environment where their actions have no real consequences. If we put them in a more realistic environment this barbarism may be avoided.

    To Paul’s argument I have the following to add: if you put them in a real-world environment they will make more mistakes earlier on. That hopefully means there will be fewer mistakes remaining to be made in adulthood.

  4. [I haven’t read the book but I have read http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html ("Why Nerds are Unpopular") online.]

    Why do children need fully developed brains for early apprenticeships? The flow of Paul Graham’s argument is as follows: Today’s schools are like prisons because we put children in an artificial environment where their actions have no real consequences. If we put them in a more realistic environment this

    barbarism may be avoided.

    To Paul’s argument I have the following to add: if you put them in a real-world environment they will make more mistakes earlier on. That

    hopefully means there will be fewer mistakes remaining to be made in adulthood.

  5. John says:

    I have mates who make many millions of dollars profit per year by *taking* money out of the stock market. They say they provide a service because they provide liquidity, but the truth is that every day these remarkably intelligent blokes are just taking wealth out of an imperfect system which they have a good understanding of. They don’t actually ‘produce’ anything. From a social perspective it’s a waste of ‘human capital’ (they could be curing cancer, etc.)

    I’m a programmer, I produce lot’s of code. Most of my code is for business. All I really do is hardcode the rules that help the rich get richer and more effectively control and monitor those under them. I’m not sure that I’m actually producing anything of value myself. From one perspective I’m probably freeing up people to do something else with their lives (when they lose their clerical job to my program), but I can’t help wondering if the people who are collecting the money I save by removing human inefficiencies are actually going to let if fall back through to the people who used to do what my program now does..

    Money is just a symbol for power that you can trade. Wealth is really only the result of human effort. One would hope that human effort would be spent on making things better for humans, but I’m not sure that it really is.

    As for teen-angst I’m surprised it’s not blantently obvious. It was pretty damn obvious to me when I was a teen. I wanted to have sex, and I wasn’t allowed to. The human body is physically ready to reproduce at about 14 (YMMV), all the chemicals in your body are telling you to do that, but there is social pressure not to. It really is as simple as that. People aren’t so uptight when they’re getting laid, and teens are people too. Also, successive generations are getting more intelligent (this is true, your kids are smarter than you) and it is likely that they are also frustrated by social systems and attitudes that are idiotic.

    I know about teen-angst. I’m 23 and I’ve still got it!

    John.

  6. 仪表 says:

    What’s connection between hacker & Painter??

    It’s art

  7. Joku says:

    Kartik Agaram: Thanks for the link, I found that article have some very interesting points, some of which I can relate to thinking some of my first school years.

    Some of the points seem a bit ‘what planet this guy lives in’ at first, but thinking further they do make sense atleast to certain degree.

  8. Joku says:

    > there’s some biological basis for teenage behavior has some good support.

    I think both arguments do make sense. My personal experience suggests that surrounding media, technology and people have had certainly the most influence on myself. For example I can track back my current musical taste very well to what I heard or found exciting at the age where one is usually most receptive for surrounding influences.

    There’s also been some degree of study into how children who’ve had home education have progressed compared to those in schools. I do not have anything to quote, but from a british documentary I saw on the subject, the general implication was that if kids who have already attained particular interests and can pursue those interest can progress quickly on them – even so to comapare a 6-8 yo’s understanding of the subject to some of a 15-20 yo’s. Certainly not a bad thing, if the home education just isn’t too narrow/specialized – as maths, languages and physical development (no exercise/sports at all – not good I’ve noticed) are still important. But a lot of time in normal school that’s not being used well could be used better if kids who already have interests could pursue those.

  9. MBA says:

    Helpful For MBA Fans.