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Hackers and Painters

Big Ideas from the Computer Age

By Paul Graham
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham

In Hackers and Painters, author Paul Graham examines the creative nature of computer programming and the programming languages that facilitate it, as well as how programmers can use their skills to potentially make a fortune.

Key idea 1 of 10

Morals are as fleeting as fashion; and nerds are unpopular because they’re unaware of both.

What do you think fashion and morals have in common? At first glance, not much. But actually both phenomena are limited to a certain time and place.

Obviously, fashion sense is tied to a specific time: take a look at photos from the 1990s and you’ll see how far tastes have come since then. And if you look at images from foreign places like Japan, for example, even today you may be astonished at what is currently in fashion there, too.

It may be a surprise then to realize that morals are just as temporary and location-dependent. These moral fashions affect a whole spectrum of moral issues, including how you should treat other people and what values you cherish the most.

An extreme example: the moral compass of many Germans during World War II was very different than from the values of citizens in modern Germany today.

So, both clothing fashions and moral fashions are constantly changing. Can you think of any subgroup in society that is oblivious to these changes?

Of course: nerds, or smart people who are not socially adept and so don’t try to fit in with their peers. Nerds use their time and energy to become smarter without bothering to adhere to fashionable conventions, because being fashionable isn’t a goal. This may be most apparent if someone you know wears a neon denim jacket every day for five years, but it also applies to moral fashions.

The result is that nerds are not very likely to be popular among their peers, especially in high school. To be voted prom king or queen, a student usually has to be in tune with the current moral and clothing fashions.

But thankfully after high school – in the real world – where being fashionable doesn’t matter much anymore, nerds seem to do just fine.

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