The Turpentine Effect

Picasso once noted that “when art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.” When you practice a craft you become skilled and knowledgeable in two areas: the stuff the craft produces, and the processes used to create it. And the second kind of expertise accumulates much faster. I call this the turpentine effect. Under normal circumstances, the turpentine effect only has minor consequences. At best, you become a more thoughtful practitioner of your craft, and at worst, you procrastinate a little, shopping for turpentine rather than painting. But there are trades where tool-making and tool-use involve exactly the same skills, which has interesting consequences. Programming, teaching, writing and mechanical engineering are all such trades.


Any sufficiently abstract craft seems to cause some convergence of tool-making and tool-use. Painters aren’t normally also chemists, so that’s actually not a great example. But I don’t doubt that some of Picasso’s forgotten technician contemporaries, who had more ability to say things with art than things to say, set up shop as turpentine sellers, paint-makers or art teachers. But in most fields the turpentine effect is self-limiting. As customers, pilots can only offer so many user insights to airplane designers. To actually become airplane designers, they’d have to learn aerospace engineering. But in domains where tool-making involves few or no new skills, you can get runaway turpentine effects.

As Paul Graham famously noted, hackers and painters are very similar creatures. But unlike painting or aircraft, programming is a domain where tool-use skills can easily be turned into tool-making skills. So it is no surprise that programmers are particularly susceptible to the runaway turpentine effect.

-- Venkatesh Rao

from "The Turpentine Effect"

Quoted on Sat Aug 17th, 2013