Hackers and painters

Hackers and painters

Paul Graham. Photo: Twitter

If there be one way to live, adopt the hacker ethic to find the optimal amounts of truth, purpose, beauty, goodness and meaning

Charles Assisi
I snitched this headline from the name a book. If you haven’t read it yet, may I urge you to? Hackers and Painters is authored by the legendary Paul Graham, computer scientist, venture capitalist and writer. And if you aren’t inclined towards reading a tome on the theme, the author captured the sum and substance of it all in an essay back in 2003.
Some lovely learnings emerge out of it on what comprises the hacker ethic, in which he underlines the significance of relentless practice, devotion to beauty, why a premium ought to be placed on disciplines we are unfamiliar with, the humility to try and imbibe from others what we don’t know of, and above all else, inculcating a habit that allows us to share and collaborate so that we become lifelong learners.
Philosophically, it influenced many in computer science deeply. Because that is where he was best known and enthusiasts—or hackers, as they were called then, when the word wasn’t as bastardized—were enthused by his ideas. They could see the value in what he proposed. When I came of age, I could see merit in his ideas and was among those who embraced them.
But personal philosophies are malleable and susceptible to influences. That is why, at some point, I started to question the premise. I argued against the most beautiful of his ideas—collaboration.
“Maybe, I’m not a nice guy. I don’t care,” I wrote once. Friends who knew me as a technology enthusiast and someone who had benefited from it were appalled at what they thought was a complete misunderstanding of a powerful idea. In a scathing indictment, I was told, “the most unfortunate thing is that we have journalists like you...”
In hindsight, I suspect I may have felt insecure with the idea of sharing. Because at the end of the day, my livelihood, I thought, is a function of the ideas and the words that came out of what I think up and my networks. How can I possibly give it away for free?
That is why, I argued, “by thinking something up and offering it to the collective to improve upon, I stand to lose my livelihood... it leaves me with no incentive to write”. Therefore, I ought to do all I can to protect what I come up with.
But much experimentation, conversations and learnings later, I now concede I was wrong. I stand corrected and an apology is in order. I admit the world we live in now wouldn’t have gotten to where it is without collaboration.
So much so that even Microsoft, the bastion of all things proprietary, after having fought to keep the world out of its doors, is now seeking to collaborate. Otherwise, it knows, it will perish.
So, who are hackers and how did hacks get into the lexicon? Everybody, it seems, is into hacking. Computer hacks, study hacks, sleep hacks, food hacks and, to top it all off, life hacks.
To put that into perspective, let us first understand what a hacker is not:
• Geniuses who write books on “ethical hacking” and sell courses on “ethical hacking” are, well, geniuses. Because it needs a genius to find a market full of idiots willing to pay money to become a “certified hacker”. None of what Graham articulated needs to be certified. It is a world view.
• Then there are management gurus who take terms like jugaad—a word most north Indians are familiar with. Loosely translated, a quick fix or, well, a “hack” as it is now understood. Packaged for the West and management schools, it is rephrased and given a lovely twist—frugal innovation.
By way of example, think of a contraption like the jugaad which plies on north Indian roads. The handle of an old scooter, tyres and engine of a motorcycle, the frame of a bicycle, the body of a bullock cart and a diesel engine to are retro-fitted to create a dangerous contraption.
This is then deployed on the roads for pretty much everything from ferrying people to livestock and goods. It does not fall under the ambit of the Motor Vehicles Act. It is jugaad, and fits the framework of “frugal innovation”.
But two problems exist here. The first, that it cannot be scaled. The second, it violates the law because it is a safety hazard. So much of a hazard that the Supreme Court had to intervene and has asked all states where such vehicles ply to provide the court with details of what authorities are doing to take these contraptions off the road.
My limited submission here is that the Hacker Ethic in its purest sense is not about finding shortcuts like these.
Instead, it focuses on finding truth, purpose, beauty, meaning and goodness in an optimum manner. And like I said earlier, this ethic insists we place a premium on optimizing ourselves and our work, so that we can devote as much of our time as we can to learn.
How? Allow me to provide a few instances:
• The other day, I stumbled across an interview of Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire co-founder of Facebook. The 25-minute interview in which he articulated all of his ideas revealed clarity in thought. But what struck me was something else altogether. While in college, he studied both psychology and computer science.
In India, this is an alien idea to us. The way things are, computer science is kosher because it can potentially make an engineer out of you. Psychology is not because it falls in the domain of liberal arts.
To cite but one instance, while talking with a doctor the other day, I asked him what his son was up to. He told me the original plan was to get the young man to pursue a career in medicine. But if he doesn’t get through the exams, “let him do arts or some shit”. The tone was not condescending, but one that smacked of downright derision.
Hackers sneer at people who speak this language. That is why Zuckerberg studied psychology. All thanks to it, he could ask, “What is it that people want the most?”
His understanding of the domain taught him that humans seek other people out the most. What he learnt at his computer science class helped him create a software platform that could take his understanding of the human mind into a place he would otherwise not have been able to if he were wedded to either one of the disciplines. In his head, the disciplines collaborated.
Having done that, he sought out people who understood the other arts, like design, and domains like business to build what is now one of the most formidable entities in the world. He optimized himself by collaborating between disciplines and others.
• Then there is this nonsense I come across every other day about how large organizations are trying to “replicate the start-up culture”. And to do that, they have begun by “breaking down silos”. This includes doing ridiculous things like spending obscene amounts on creating “open offices”.
Apparently, “open offices” facilitate conversations and an “open culture”. Who is to tell them the Hacker Ethic includes an idea called Deep Work? And that there is evidence that conclusively demonstrates open offices are actually an insanely stupid idea because they kill productivity?
This is because, to get meaningful work done, the human mind needs to find the optimal state to be in—the Flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Most people call it as “being in the zone”. To get here, they need their space.
But organizations, in attempts to ape Facebook or Google without understanding the ethic that drives them, compel people to operate under suboptimal conditions. Zuckerberg didn’t start out trying to build a company. Neither did the founders of Google. They started out by trying to solve problems that real people face.
To do that, they worked with the resources they had on hand. Which is essentially what a start-up is. That profitable entities came out of it is another story altogether.
But in trying to replicate start-up cultures, you cannot force-fit the Hacker Ethic into it. The most charitable thing that can be said of such attempts is that it is a horribly atrociously version of jugaad. It is destined to fail.
• And why will they fail? Because hackers share. They work with the collective. By way of example, take the Human Genome Project (HGP). It is the world’s largest collaborative biological project, conducted across 20 universities and research centres and funded by the governments of the US, UK, Japan, France, Germany, Canada and China.
The database is there for anybody to access on the Internet. When looked at in isolation, the database can be gibberish because the quantum of information in it is so huge, it is impossible for any single entity to make any meaning out of it. Unless individuals and organizations collaborate to make meaning out of it for the greater common good.
Are there profits to be made out of it? Most certainly. Businesses have come to build around the ecosystem that is the HGP and provide highly personalized services to individuals across the world. The system is still evolving and who knows what may come out of it?
Am I a hacker? Can you be a hacker? Let’s put it this way. If you think of the Hacker Ethic as a way of life, then yes. It isn’t always about coding and computers alone, but about looking at the wisdom they have gained and trying to emulate it.
They don’t seek shortcuts. They seek elegant solutions to complex problems. When wrong, they have the humility to admit that they were in the wrong, move on and find the next optimum. They seek, they search, they look for the best ideas and they share as openly as they gain. This ethic is a life of learning, adapting and not scrimping.
I’m not entirely sure I have mentioned this earlier. But on edX.org, a massively open online course provider, a friend pointed me to what sounded like a very compelling proposition. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created a unique proposition called the u.Lab, for which I have enrolled.
The eight-week course has begun and I am bunched together in Mumbai with a set of people who come from backgrounds that are different from mine. All of us are intended to come together at set intervals and collaborate online as well to find a problem, apply the tools this model offers, find solutions and share it with tens of thousands of other people who have enrolled from other parts of the world.
I do not know what will emerge out of it. For that matter, I do not know what problem it is that we have set out to solve. It is for us to find out. It is for us to solve. It is for us to present. It is for us to learn.
All I know is a blank canvas exists on which the all of us can begin to paint much like it would in front of a painter; and a set of tools like it does with a good hacker.
Will something tangible emerge out of it that I can monetize? I don’t know.
But this I do know. I will be richer in an intangible sense. And I will have added in my own way to the world’s repository of knowledge, free for all to access, use and deploy in whatever way they think best.
Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing .
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
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