Hackers and Painters

software design, open sources, and eCommerce

Paul Graham co-wrote the software for Viaweb, which was bought out by Yahoo for their successful build-it-yourself online stores kit. Hackers and Painters is his reflections on software design, eBusiness, open software, and capitalism today. You might be surprised by the resulting mix. It’s written in an engaging, grab-you-by-the-lapels style, and because he’s studied it, a lot of the argument is conducted via the metaphor of painting. Overall this works, because he is putting the case for craftsmanship, discipline, and originality. He makes an interesting defence of a hacker’s right to disregard copyright – on the grounds that we need to keep their anti-authoritarian attitudes alive to preserve civil liberties, defending a free, strong society.

His next subject is Web-based software. This is where you don’t buy and install software on your own computer. Instead, it sits on a central server, and you interact with it via a web browser – which might be a mobile phone, a PDA, or a telephone. If necessary of course, you could also use a computer. The central item in what’s billed as ‘Big ideas from the computer age’ is upbeat and inspiring advice for would-be start-ups:

There are only two things you need to know about business: build something users love, and make more than you spend. If you get these two right, you’ll be ahead of most startups. You can figure out the rest as you go.

It’s a combination of technological theory, eBusiness strategy, and tips for would-be software developers. But because he’s anti-authoritarian, a supporter of open source software, and all in favour of free enterprise, don’t imagine he’s a traditional radical. One of his essays is an argument in favour not only of individual wealth, but encouraging differences in wealth.

There are two interesting essays on the evolution of programming languages. Non-technical readers don’t need to worry, because they are written in a lively, jargon-free style that’s easy to understand.

Despite my reservations on his economic policies, he shot up in my estimation when he put his cards on the table regarding the academic world:

In any academic field, there are topics that are ok to work on and others that aren’t. Unfortunately the distinction between acceptable and forbidden topics is usually based on how intellectual the work sounds when described in research papers, rather than how important it is for getting good results. The extreme case is probably literature; people studying literature rarely say anything that would be of the slightest use to those producing it.

There is a whole policy review, a major reinvestigation of ‘lit crit’, and a great deal of intellectual soul-searching to be done on the strength of that one observation alone.

At the heart of the book, there’s also an argument in favour of the Lisp programming language. It’s what he used to write his successful venture at Viaweb.

This is a lively and thought-provoking collection of studies which comes from somebody who has both done the programming first hand, and thought a lot about the social consequences of it.

© Roy Johnson 2010

Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, Sebastopol (CA): O’Reilly, 2010, pp.272, ISBN: 1449389554

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