Hackers and translators

I read this essay by Paul Graham, and suddenly it occurred to me that most of what he says about hackers is applicable to translators as well. What we do is hack words, or with words, to achieve meaning.

Because hackers are makers rather than scientists, the right place to look for metaphors is not in the sciences, but among other kinds of makers. What else can painting teach us about hacking?

One thing we can learn, or at least confirm, from the example of painting is how to learn to hack. You learn to paint mostly by doing it. Ditto for hacking. Most hackers don’t learn to hack by taking college courses in programming. They learn to hack by writing programs of their own at age thirteen. Even in college classes, you learn to hack mostly by hacking.

Because painters leave a trail of work behind them, you can watch them learn by doing. If you look at the work of a painter in chronological order, you’ll find that each painting builds on things that have been learned in previous ones. When there’s something in a painting that works very well, you can usually find version 1 of it in a smaller form in some earlier painting.

I think most makers work this way. Writers and architects seem to as well. Maybe it would be good for hackers to act more like painters, and regularly start over from scratch, instead of continuing to work for years on one project, and trying to incorporate all their later ideas as revisions.

The fact that hackers learn to hack by doing it is another sign of how different hacking is from the sciences. Scientists don’t learn science by doing it, but by doing labs and problem sets. Scientists start out doing work that’s perfect, in the sense that they’re just trying to reproduce work someone else has already done for them. Eventually, they get to the point where they can do original work. Whereas hackers, from the start, are doing original work; it’s just very bad. So hackers start original, and get good, and scientists start good, and get original.

The other way makers learn is from examples. For a painter, a museum is a reference library of techniques. For hundreds of years it has been part of the traditional education of painters to copy the works of the great masters, because copying forces you to look closely at the way a painting is made.

Writers do this too. Benjamin Franklin learned to write by summarizing the points in the essays of Addison and Steele and then trying to reproduce them. Raymond Chandler did the same thing with detective stories.

Hackers, likewise, can learn to program by looking at good programs– not just at what they do, but the source code too.

The complete text of Paul Graham’s essay is here.

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