Why Hackers Are So Much Funnier Than You Are

‘Hacking is a rearrangement of form — and that’s what humor is. Hackers don’t accept a given. They try to turn things on their head or repurpose it or use it in a way it wasn’t supposed to be used for. There is a formal similarity with humor.’
— Gabriella Coleman
Bob Nystrom is the author of the first programming language that automatically deletes your code if it doesn’t behave the way it’s supposed to. He calls his creation Vigil because it exhibits “supreme moral vigilance.”

“When a Vigil program is executed, Vigil itself will monitor all oaths,” Nystrom writes in his description of the new language. “If an oath is broken, the offending function…will be duly punished. How? Simple: it will be deleted from your source code.”

Many computer programming languages strive for safety, barring programmers from introducing common coding errors, bugs, and security holes. But Vigil takes this notion to a whole new level — setting itself apart from “weaker languages that lack the courage of their convictions” — and it has already struck a chord with the world’s top coders. Last Thursday, at Hacker News, the preeminent online hangout for Silicon Valley software developers, Vigil was the topic du jour, sparking a discussion of epic internet proportions.

One coder thought Nystrom should take the idea even further. “I’d really like to see my entire program get deleted at compile-time rather than having to run it a bunch of times to delete all the faulty nested function calls.” Another hoped Nystrom would go even further than that. “If Vigil fails to punish a function, does it delete itself? Or is it a Hobbesian sovereign?”

Vigil is nothing less than a work of programming genius. Our only complaint is that when we phoned Nystrom to discuss the language, he admitted it was a joke. But until then, he played it so well. The best jokes are those that might very well be serious — those that speak the truth.

“Isn’t a language that deletes code crazy?” reads the Vigil FAQ. “No, wanting to keep code that demonstrably has bugs according to its own specifications is crazy. What good could it possibly serve? It is corrupted and must be cleansed from your codebase.” Code safety is a vitally important part of the programming world, and Nystrom is simply taking things to the logical extreme.

The popular stereotype is that hardcore techies are, well, humor-challenged. But software hackers are another matter. Despite his inability to keep a straight face when a reporter calls asking about supreme moral vigilance in the programming world, Bob Nystrom is living proof that hackers thrive on humor in ways other techies rarely do. Nystrom has long made his living as a programmer and he spends his spare time building new programming languages, including legitimate languages like Magpie. But he’s also prone to “joke hacks” like Vigil — and he realizes that Magpie’s legitimacy is a matter of opinion.

“Yes, you could say I’m a programming language designer, but that may depend on how you define your terminology,” he says. “If you require a programming language to actually have users, then I’m probably not.”
Nystrom’s brand of hacker humor is by no means unique — as you can see from that lengthy Vigil discussion on Hacker News. To be sure, some coders didn’t get the joke — or didn’t get it right away. But many more did — and the whole point of the joke was to walk that line between truth and fiction. Nystrom actually built Vigil and posted it on GitHub, the online service where so many coders and businesses build and host software projects using the Git version control tool.
Programming is a creative endeavor — in the extreme — and creative minds so often have a knack for humor. “The engineer mentality, the tinker mentality, the mental mode where you are presented with something and you always say: ‘Well, what are the corner cases? How can I take it apart? What does the other side of that look like?’ — a lot of the same mindset is needed for humor,” Nystrom says. “You’re presented with something that appears to be one thing on the surface and then you pick it apart and see what’s strange about it.”
You’ll hear much the same thing from Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who spent three years living with hardcore software hackers and recently documented the experience in a book called Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. “Hacking is a rearrangement of form — and that’s what humor is,” she says. “Hackers don’t accept a given. They try to turn things on their head or repurpose it or use it in a way it wasn’t supposed to be used for. There is a formal similarity with humor.”
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