Paul Graham and the Manic Pixie Dream Hacker

A Silicon Valley Fairy Tale

Does the Hoodie Fit?

In Paul Graham’s comments over the years (and in their influence on Silicon Valley) we see the outlines emerge of something we might call a Manic Pixie Dream Hacker, who embodies the contemporary entrepreneurial fantasies of Silicon Valley’s investors. The Manic Pixie Dream Hacker, like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stock character in movies, is always young— the younger the better, since youth is imagined as the place from which hacking abilities spring— but, unlike her, always male. “I could be fooled by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham famously said about searching for entrepreneurs to fund. The fantasy entrepreneur is a perennially teenage bundle of pure hacking energy, undistracted by anything but hardware, startups, and code, and he is desired by VCs and CEOs in a way that goes beyond coding and into the realm of an investor fetish.

That is: if what Paul Graham and his VC ilk want is coders, entrepreneurs, and founders, they could find them across a wide range of age and gender demographics. But, as Graham’s youth- and masculine-focused comments reveal (e.g. regarding the superiority of “hardcore hackers” who start coding at 13, along with a phantasmatic belief that girls don’t have native interest in computers), that’s not what they are looking for. What they want amounts to a fantasy figure, a person who embodies their idea of what a founder is.

The founder in Graham’s mind “looks like Mark Zuckerberg”, a statement which unpacked means: boyish, hoodied, white, hyper-focused on his startup, eschewing other interests and distractions. But even in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Graham’s fantasy is phantasmatic: as a matter of fact Mark did not learn to code by himself at age 10, but rather was taught by a tutor in high school — a no-no in Graham’s fantasy of what a hacker rightly is, where being taught by someone else is suspect and each year of one’s childhood that goes by without learning to code is a costly entrepreneurial error.

But no matter: under Graham’s influence, Mark, like many in Silicon Valley, subscribes to the Manic Pixie Dream Hacker ideal, making self-started teenage hackers Facebook’s most desired recruiting targets, not even so much for their coding ability as their ability to serve as the faces of hacking culture. “Culture fit”, in this sense, is one’s ability to conform to the Valley’s boyish hacker fantasy, which is easier, obviously, the closer you are to a teenage boy.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Hackerest of All

Why hacker > degreed programmer [from The Boy Kings, my book on this topic]

Like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s role of existing to serve the male film protagonist’s personal growth, the Manic Pixie Dream Hacker’s job is to embody the dream hacker role while growing the VC’s portfolio. This is why the dream hacker never ages, never visibly develops interests beyond hardware and code, and doesn’t question why nearly all the other people receiving funding look like him. Like the actress playing the pixie dream girl, the pixie dream boy isn’t being paid to question the role for which he has been cast.

In this way, for all his supposed “disruptiveness”, the hacker pixie actually does exactly what he is told: to embody, while he can, the ideal hacker, until he is no longer young, mono-focused, and boyish-seeming enough to qualify for the role (at that point, vested equity may allow him to retire). And like in Hollywood, VCs will have already recruited newer, younger ones to play him.

Why does the myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Hacker matter?

It matters because there is money attached to this fantasy of technical boyhood— hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, equity, and VC funding earmarked for and only for people who briefly embody in age, race, and attitude the boyish dreams of Silicon Valley. And those who don’t, because they are too old (“after 32, investors start to be skeptical,” Graham notes, though one has the feeling that anyone over 23 would be a disappointment ;-) ), too female, too nonwhite, too interested in a variety of non-technical things — are being continually marginalized and alienated culturally and economically in the Valley and in tech.

And this is why the fantasy of the Manic Pixie Dream Hacker isn’t harmless: for every year that it reigns and goes unanalyzed, classes of potential founders, programmers, and employees are overlooked because, to VCs working from this unquestioned fantasy of what a hacker looks like, they simply look wrong.