O’Reilly news

"Hackers & Painters": Big Ideas from the Computer Age

May 11, 2004

Sebastopol, CA--Picasso said, "Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires." Art exemplifies creative thinking at its very highest level: it gives form and expression not just to our terrors and desires but also to the forces that shape our society, our aspirations, and the nitty-gritty of our daily lives. In a world where many people consider art an impractical but somehow necessary indulgence and computer programming an incomprehensible but nonetheless crucial skill, it's not always easy to see the similarities between the two. What, then, do hackers and painters have in common? Is code the canvas that reflects our modern world?

In Hackers & Painters, (O'Reilly, US $22.95) author Paul Graham examines this question and many others through a collection of entertaining and thought-provoking essays on subjects of interest to programmers, IT professionals, and geeks at large. From the importance of beauty in software design to the necessity of thinking forbidden thoughts, Graham presents ideas that explore and challenge the social and aesthetic notions we hold about the world of technology and ourselves.

The term "hackers," Graham explains, does not refer to the people who break into computers but, within the computing world, is the name that expert programmers use to refer to themselves. According to Graham, his book is an attempt to explain to the world at large what goes on in the world of computers.

"Everything around us is turning into computers," notes Graham. "Your typewriter is gone, replaced by a computer. Your phone has turned into one. So has your camera. Soon your TV will. Your car has more processing power in it than a room-sized mainframe had in 1970. Letters, encyclopedias, newspapers, and even your local store are being replaced by the Internet. So if you want to understand where we are, and where we're going, it will help if you understand what's going on inside the heads of hackers."

Written in a clear, narrative style, Hackers & Painters examines issues such as the rightness of web-based applications, the programming language renaissance, spam filtering, the open source movement, Internet startups, and more. In each essay, Graham moves beyond widely held beliefs about the way programmers work as he tells important stories about the kinds of people behind tech innovations, revealing distinctions about their characters and their craft. No hackers reading this book will fail to recognize themselves within these pages. No programmer will put it down without new thoughts actively percolating.

Some of the essays in Hackers & Painters include:

  • The Other Road Ahead: Will a new wave of web-based software make desktop software obsolete?
  • The Hundred-Year Language: What programming language will people use in 2100? How will they program in 2100?
  • Revenge of the Nerds: In technology, "industry best practice" is a recipe for failure.
  • A Plan for Spam: Most experts thought spam filters didn't work. This essay changed their minds.
  • Why Nerds are Unpopular: In a typical American secondary school, being smart will make your life difficult. Whose fault is it?
  • Design and Research: Good design begins by asking, "Who is this for and what do they need from it?"
  • What You Can't Say: How to think forbidden thoughts and what to do about them.
  • A hacker and painter himself, Paul Graham, designer of the new Arc language, was creator of Yahoo Store, the first web-based application. In addition to his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Harvard, Graham also studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence.

    Advance praise for Hackers & Painters:

    "Society has yet to understand the beauty and brilliance that wraps the coder. Graham's clear and engaging book does, and will teach anyone willing to listen. And if we're not to lose something important soon, we as a society should listen."
    --Larry Lessig, Stanford Law School, author of "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace"

    "Paul Graham takes on big ideas, writing with a grace, clarity and humor rare not only among his sister and brother geeks, but among the best writers anywhere. It'd be enough if Paul Graham thought through big ideas with such clarity and honesty. That he writes with grace and humor makes his ideas not only thought provoking, but a delight to read. Paul has been building a cult-like status on the Internet for several years because of the honesty, grace and wit of his essays. Seeing his essays collected seals the deal: Paul Graham is a first-rate writer whose provocative take on big ideas can bump your opinions right out of their rut."
    --David Weinberger, co-author of "The Cluetrain Manifesto"

    "Paul Graham writes about the human side of the often enigmatic world of computer programming. This book will help you remember the enjoyment you got from science class when science was a romp through the mud and woods, a class like art where making a mess is accepted as part of the process. Paul is a true hacker with a broad business experience, deep technical understanding, an uncontrollably inquisitive mind, and a wonderful writing style. His no-nonsense evaluation of the software industry may irritate some pundits and therefore is well worth reading."
    --Mike Smith, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, Harvard University

    Further comments about the book

    Additional Resources:

    Hackers & Painters
    Paul Graham
    ISBN 0-596-00662-4, 272 pages, $22.95 US, $33.95 CA, hardcover
    1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

    About O’Reilly

    O’Reilly Media spreads the knowledge of innovators through its books, online services, magazines, and conferences. Since 1978, O’Reilly Media has been a chronicler and catalyst of cutting-edge development, homing in on the technology trends that really matter and spurring their adoption by amplifying “faint signals” from the alpha geeks who are creating the future. An active participant in the technology community, the company has a long history of advocacy, meme-making, and evangelism.

    Email a link to this press release