Paul Graham – From social shyness to patronizing

I’ve been quite upset lately by a few essays from every blogger’s darling : Paul Graham. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem with Paul Graham writings about start-up (there or there or there) or Lisp : his background speaks for itself, and one will hardly find any blogger offering more insight regarding these topics.

How art can be good (ouch !)

The problem appears when he leaves his area of expertise. At that point his peremptory voice, fed by his success in IT business, starts to sound a bit annoying. I already have been quite surprised when I read the one about art. As I already said in a previous post (in french) our relationship to art in all its forms has been one of the main subjects of my thoughts for the last 20 years. This gentleman came along and said, “listen boys and girls, I’ve studied art in Florence and I found out, so I’m gonna tell you How Art Can Be Good and when it just cant“. I really felt uncomfortable about it : the essay was rather childish and narrow-minded at time to some embarassing extent. Same with philosophy : just by reading the title you dont feel like reading any further.

I was just as uncomfortable reading lies and kids : it reads as if he doesn’t have any, or they just are abstract incarnations of the child concept. Then there is this essay on school and teenage popularity concerns, where basically junior high school is presented as the worst place on earth, and it is compared to prison and, worse, Manhattan society wives .

Paul just jumped the shark with the last one on Cities.

As of this writing, Cambridge seems to be the intellectual capital of the world. I realize that seems a preposterous claim. What makes it true is that it’s more preposterous to claim about anywhere else

Thinking about a intellectual capital of the world is useless. Especially if the conclusion is the place where the author lives. The bits on London or Paris are terribly naïve and missing the point. Whoever is using the word hip for London or art for Paris can only have a vague understanding of what he is talking about. In addition, big blocks of human culture are completely overlooked here : how about Tokyo ? Shanghaï ?

Hackers are not Painters (thanks God!)

So far I didn’t really feel like blogging anything about that since Paul still is referenced on a regular basis on some of my favorite blogs. But the above is just preposterous indeed.

So I have been looking around and via Coding Horror I found this brilliant and hilarious post on Idle Words about the famous Hackers and Painters essay. Best parts :

To which I’d add, what hackers and painters don’t have in common is everything else. 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.

The reason Graham’s essay isn’t entitled “Hackers and Pastry Chefs” is not because there is something that unites painters and programmers into a secret brotherhood, but because Paul Graham likes to cultivate the arty aura that comes from working in the visual arts

Also remark that in painting, many of the women whose pants you are trying to get into aren’t even wearing pants to begin with. Your job as a painter consists of staring at naked women, for as long as you wish, and this day in and day out through the course of a many-decades-long career. Not even rock musicians have been as successful in reducing the process to its fundamental, exhilirating essence.

But after a while, you begin to notice that all the essays are an elaborate set of mirrors set up to reflect different facets of the author, in a big distributed act of participatory narcissism.

Looking into Paul’s ferocious defiance towards school and corporate culture, it is easy to imagine Paul being a rather shy person, who would rather jump in the ocean than being part of anything looking like a team. I believe that his study of Art and Philosophy probably have been for him an attempt to gain back some of the popularity he has not been enjoying as a nerd in junior high school. Whatever the reason behind these choice, it still proves an amazing strive to learn such strict disciplines.

Great mind drowning

The main issue he is facing is that these disciplines are not to be addressed the same way as computer programming is where it all goes down to manage 0’s and 1’s to build something useful. Reason is surely not the main engine behind artistic creation, who, besides, has no functional purpose whatsoever. There is no way you can cover in a comprehensive manner a Philosophy topic, like you would a programming language or an operating system. The thinking paradigm is different, fluctuating. This is quite embarassing to see Paul’s great mind whenever it comes to produce valuable sense and unwavering reasoning in IT business, drowning like it does in other areas .

Hackers definitely are neither artist nor philosopher. And reading these essays on the topic, I have the feeling this is not such bad news.


  1. Salut Cecil,

    I love Paul Graham, well actually — as you said — when he is in his comfort zone.

    I don’t really know why he started talking about these topics and tried to find relationship between everything and the tech world.

    To be honest, there are some truth in all these articles. The thing is, he use bad methaphors too often for illustrating his ideas — he should write more in more simple words that would not confuse the user — or himself.

    In his latest article — Cities & Ambition — if you read between the lines, you can see what he means but you’re right, some example are really bad.

  2. Paul has been extremely successful in what he has been embarked upon in the tech world. This success is due to nothing but his hard work and his ability to be an IT visionnaire, thanks to his in-depth knowledge of the industry.

    The drawback of this success being that his voice may give the image of someone with many certitudes, with a rather patronizing tone.

    Besides, Computer science is a rather young discipline and as such, a discipline you can embrace within a lifetime. Which is not the case of art and philosophy.

    I believe this is why his pattern of thoughts fall flat when he tries to tackle these disciplines. His propensity to patronizing is then becoming really annoying.

    Writing a blog post ranting about something is one thing. Writing essays and coming up with theories engraved in marble is another one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s