Maciej Cegłowski writes:
About two years ago, the Lisp programmer and dot-com millionaire Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled Hackers and Painters, in which he argues that his approach to computer programming is better described by analogies to the visual arts than by the phrase “computer science”.
When this essay came out, I was working as a computer programmer, and since I had also spent a few years as a full-time oil painter, everybody who read the article and knew me sent along the hyperlink. I didn’t particularly enjoy the essay . . . but it didn’t seem like anything worth getting worked up about. Just another programmer writing about what made him tick. . . .
But the emailed links continued, and over the next two years Paul Graham steadily ramped up his output while moving definitively away from subjects he had expertise in (like Lisp) to topics like education, essay writing, history, and of course painting. Sometime last year I noticed he had started making bank from an actual print book of collected essays, titled (of course) “Hackers and Painters”. I felt it was time for me to step up.
So let me say it simply – hackers are nothing like painters.
It’s surprisingly hard to pin Paul Graham down on the nature of the special bond he thinks hobbyist programmers and painters share . . . The closest he comes to a clear thesis statement is at the beginning “Hackers and Painters”:
[O]f all the different types of people I’ve known, hackers and painters are among the most alike. What hackers and painters have in common is that they’re both makers.
To which I’d add, what hackers and painters don’t have in common is everything else.
Ouch. Cegłowski continues:
The fatuousness of the parallel becomes obvious if you think for five seconds about what computer programmers and painters actually do.
– Computer programmers cause a machine to perform a sequence of transformations on electronically stored data.
– Painters apply colored goo to cloth using animal hairs tied to a stick.
It is true that both painters and programmers make things, just like a pastry chef makes a wedding cake, or a chicken makes an egg. But nothing about what they make, the purposes it serves, or how they go about doing it is in any way similar.
Start with purpose. With the exception of art software projects (which I don’t believe Graham has in mind here) all computer programs are designed to accomplish some kind of task. Even the most elegant of computer programs, in order to be considered a program, has to compile and run . . .
The only objective constraint a painter has is making sure the paint physically stays on the canvas . . .
Why does Graham bring up painting at all in his essay? Most obviously, because Graham likes to paint, and it’s natural for us to find connections between different things we like to do. But there’s more to it: also, as Cegłowski discusses, painting has a certain street-cred (he talks about it in terms of what can “get you laid,” but I think it’s more general than that). So if someone says that what he does is kinda like painting, I do think that part of this is an attempt to share in the social status that art has.
Cegłowski’s post is from 2005, and it’s “early blogging” in so many ways, from the length and tone, to the references to old-school internet gurus such as Paul Graham and Eric Raymond, to the occasional lapses in judgment. (In this particular example, I get off Cegłowski’s train when he goes on about Godel, Escher, Bach, a book that I positively hate, not so much for itself as for how overrated it was.)
Old-school blogging. Good stuff.
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