Paul Graham tries his hand at cultural stereotypes

Friday, 22 Oct 2004

I just found myself in violent disagreement with something Paul Graham wrote for the first time:

Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of American-ness. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan. In those countries, people color inside the lines.

Sorry, but that is belligerent arrogance. I am offended by the blithe naïveté of this statement. Here is a list of exhibits for your perusal.

  1. This is not the best example, but as Mr. Graham talks a lot about disobedience, I will start with something that fits the theme. The most spectacular hacks (as in breaking into computers) happened on German soil. The Chaos Computer Club has its residence here, as well.

  2. But there is a deeper reason that hackers are alarmed by measures like copyrights and patents. They see increasingly aggressive measures to protect “intellectual property” as a threat to the intellectual freedom they need to do their job.

    The USA have had the DMCA long before Europe had an equivalent law. It’s a good thing that the SSSCA at least didn’t manage to make it into legislation.

    Europe does not yet have legislation that covers software as patents, and there is active and so far effective resistance against the attempt to pass laws to that end.

  3. Linux happened in Europe. Linux adoption is stronger in Germany than anywhere else in the world. In fact, Open Source adoption is stronger in Germany than anywhere else in the world. LiMux, the Linux migration project of the city hall of Munich, has made international headlines. Suse was a German Linux distributor and has been referred to as a “German powerhouse” by American media after they were bought out by Novell. StarOffice, which came to be OpenOffice, originates from Germany. StarDivision, its creators, were bought by Sun Microsystems.

    What happened in America? Microsoft.

  4. I hate to bring this into play, but I feel I need to mention the broad sweeping generalizations made about America since Mr. Graham elected to make his own about Europe.

    The image foreigners get of the American media is anything but flattering. The quality of news reporting in particular appears to be the worst among the Western world countries. Yet Americans purportedly spend what Europeans will consider a staggering average amount of time in front of the television. The image of the average American is not much better in many other aspects.

    None of this sounds much like a description of an unruly, disobedient people.

    And while I know that America is more than the sum of the clichés about it and that no individual American can be judged on stereotypes of his origin, I am forced to say that if George W. Bush is reelected, my strenuous attempts to see past such generalizations about the country and its people as those Mr. Graham makes about Europe will receive a major blow.

Among stereotypes, the most compelling explanation for why Silicon Valley happened in the USA rather than elsewhere seems to be the more prevalent competitive, commercial mindset which is part of that culture. After all, the area is defined by commercial success at least as much, if not much more so, as by hacker culture, which is arguably most concentrated in the Universities.