Painters and Hackers

Ten years ago, Paul Graham published his essay “Hackers and Painters“, in which he observed that of all the different types of people he had known, hackers and painters were “the most alike”. (“Hackers” meaning the kind of creative programmer types celebrated in the Jargon File, not the kind who maliciously break into computer systems). The reason he gave was that both are makers, which is interesting in part because the observation predates (I think) that point in time where ‘maker’ gained a capital ‘M’ and became a movement.

Of course, the observation that hackers and painters are both makers does not exactly rate up there with the Pythagorean theorem as an intellectual discovery. An awful lot of people make stuff, and Graham even mentions a few others: composers, writers and architects. So what, if anything, makes him want to compare hackers and painters, as opposed to, say, hackers and chefs?

In large part, I think, it’s because Graham studied painting after he got his computer science degree, so he’s basing the comparison on his personal experience. And the essay isn’t really about comparing hackers to painters, that’s just a hook he hangs his real argument on, which is that hackers fit uncomfortably into university computer science departments, because universities tend to value research more than they value making beautiful things.

However, the observation resonated with me because I had corroborating experience. Sometime after I completed my MFA I changed course into a career that led, among other things, to me learning to program in a couple of different languages. Not that I would ever class myself among the hacker elite, or (let’s face it) even among the hacker also-rans, but I gained enough familiarity with the experience of writing code to be able to compare it to my experience of making paintings. And at the experiential level, I find there is much in common with writing code and painting paintings.

Both involve keeping an awful lot of stuff in your head, constantly tracking the changing interrelationships of many different components. At every stage in the making process, there are multiple decisions to make, and the cumulative result of those decisions determine the quality of the result. As you become immersed in the process, you lose the sense of time passing, and may forget to take breaks, rest or even eat. The thing you are making becomes your world. It’s enjoyable, in a mildly addictive way: after you’ve experienced it a few times, you tend to want to seek it out again and again. Which is I suspect one of the main reasons why so many painters (and hackers) are willing to work for free.

A while after I made this connection, I found out that psychologists have a word for this experience. It’s called flow, and according to Wikipedia it is known to apply to both hacking and painting, as well as a wide range of other human endeavours including music, sports and religion. A Hungarian psychology professor named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi originated the concept back in the 70s, and wrote a number of books about it that I haven’t read.

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