Artists not Hackers

A couple of weeks ago I gave a short presentation mockingly titled “John Tesh does Client Side Javascript”. The real thesis of the talk has nothing to do with John Tesh, in fact it has little to do with client side JavaScript. The thesis I’m trying to present is that artists, not hackers, are where we should put our ambitions. Unfortunately, the irony was lost on a bunch of people and regardless I think its an apt subject for a good old fashioned blog post.

Art is passion

Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered pot holder.
Raymond Chandler

Programming and web development is often a cold silent world. We sit in front of ever larger screens, growing ever more quiet as we move all our conversations, all our lives even, on to a souless ‘cloud’ of information. It can be pretty bleak. The push towards this empty void is accelerated by some constant code mantras. Often progress means faster; it means raw numbers and a race towards small benchmarkable improvements. Its a society of technique, of sharpening blades and micro-optimizations. For me, at least, theres something missing. It’s what Raymond Chandler points to above. Passion here is the difference between Technique and Craft, between Hacking and Art.

Hacking is so 1998

I want to retire the word hacking.

I’m sick of it. It implies the completely wrong metality that I would aspire to. hacking conveys butchery, it suggests unproffesionalism. Most of all it suggests a ‘git it done’ attitude that is pretty opposite the idea of making art. Is code art? I’m not going to go in to the ‘what is art?’ circle – its a trap. The art is almost irrelevant, it is the act thats import. The act of creating.

I don’t want to be hacking – I want to be creating.

Art is balance

The more I think about it, life itself is really about balance – or at least the pursuit there of. Not to get all Geoge Lucas – but there are a lot of forces at work and in ourselves that drive what our lives – our art, our work – are about. Here, I believe that the artist, above all, is able to stradle the line between these powers and emotions.

As a programmer here are some of the tightropes you’ll have to walk:

  • Pride vs Humility: Taking pride in your craft while being humble about its origins. We’re all just re-formulating old ideas.
  • Winning vs Respect: The drive to win and be the best is productive until it means sacrificing knowledge you can gain from your competitora
  • Shipping vs Perfection: This is also similar to Quality vs Speed. The need to get something out often is more important then the need to atain perfection in your work. Artists face this every day and the knowledge of self in this respect is often what create uniquness. Jackson Pollock once famously said, when asked about when he knew one of his iconic paintings was ‘finished’ – “how do you know when you’re finished making love?”. Artists rely on thier insticts, not their critics for “shipping”.

Striving

To be an artist is to make art. Where hacking is an act, art is a lifelong goal.

I’m not an artist, but I’d like to think I’m trying.

2 Responses to “Artists not Hackers”

Joel Hockey Says: #

I don’t disagree with what you are saying about programming as art, but I’m not so against the word hacker. I know that in many contexts (like say DIY home improvements), it does carry the negative connotations that you mention. In computer programming, ‘hack’ and ‘hacker’ are a bit overloaded, but in its positive sense, it represent all the positive aspects that you mention, and I really like the connection that the word has with the earliest days of programming. Steven Levy wrote a great book ‘Hackers’ http://www.amazon.com/Hackers-Heroes-Computer-Revolution-Anniversary/dp/1449388396.

I concur with Joe’s take on Hacking. There is art in design, application flow, framework crafting and in optimization. But Hacking to me is when you ignore the minutiae of propriety and just make something work because you need to. Hacking is a style of artistic coding. Well polished libraries are a more careful and considerately crafted style of development. Each to me is a form of self expression.

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