Hackers and Painters

It’s not often that I stop reading a book after a couple of chapters. Hackers and Painters has the dubious distinction of being in the categories of books that I couldn’t finish.

Put mildly, it’s tripe. The book has a basic premise that there is some more worthy class of computer programmers called hackers who are “makers”, typified as painters, rather than having much to do with scientists, mathematicians or engineers. The role of critical and analytical thinking seems to have scant place in the requirements to be a hacker, from what I read.

The latter occupations are denigrated as trivial and boring, with astonishing assertions like the one that scientists start off as white-coated lab assistants repeating other peoples’ experiments, while “hacking” starts off as people experimenting by “doing” – writing new code to do something useful, to scratch an itch.

From what I recall, my interest in science started off from running around the paddock, collecting bugs to put in a specimen container; looking at the night sky and deciding that I wanted a telescope to see more of what was up there. While I’m not a scientist, I’m sure that every one would tell some story like my recollections; and it would be only afterwards that they would formalise their knowledge in laboratory settings.

My experience in computer science and technology was similar. Working as a Windows computer user, I had a need to improve the way the computer did things so I wrote batch files. A steady progression of interest lead to me using more capable operating systems and fully-fledged programming languages, and then into formalising my knowledge by starting a university degree.

No computer programmer worth a damn will not have studied certain formalisms – time and space constraints on CPU processing power and memory usage, how to write efficient data structures that suit certain data. While it’s a trite statement to make – that creation of software is a creative process that can’t be wholly formalised – to put forward a thesis that creativity is preeminent over technical considerations of the medium in which you are creating is plain silly. Someone with a vision and an inflated sense of their creative abilities, who can’t effectively use the tools, is a tool (in the crude sense).

The book also contains such gems as, that for master painters “the paintings have to be better than they have to be”, and that painting before Leonardo Da Vinci’s time was “less cool” than it was afterwards. Also such syllogisms as that short programs are better therefore abstract languages are better. The book is so full of muddied thinking that it’s a pain to read. I think that was the point where I gave up seriously reading the book, and shortly thereafter that I put it down for good.


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2 Responses

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  1. markp
    markp at |

    Very nice review, a great antidote to Paul Graham’s superiority complex.

  2. Danya
    Danya at |

    sounds like a bold case of dunning-krugerism, to me.

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