Software is not epic

“The whole world is pretending the breakthrough is in technology. The bottleneck is really in art.”
- Penn Jillette

I love making tools for people. And software is one kind of tool in the universe.

But I don’t think software, or any tool, is an epic creation. A tool is something you make so someone else can make something.  We know Martin Scorsese’s name, but not the names of the people who made the tools he used. Why? Movies are epic. They are a first order creation, the end product of a creative mind. Software, except perhaps for games, are a second order creation: they are used by other people to make first order creations. Making great software demands creativity and hard work, but its purpose is to allow others to do work, not to be appreciated as a thing on its own.

Tools are certainly noble. To build guitars and cameras and a thousand other things artists need to do their work is important. And while there is artistry in some of those tools, they’re not art. They’re used by artists to make art. I work[ed] on WordPress.com, but I know it’s a tool for writers and makers. As good as I think WordPress.com is, they do the heavy lifting: they rightfully put their names on their posts, not mine.

When I meet people who are passionate about technology, software or entrepreneurship, I realize how different I am in some ways. They are passionate about making tools and I share that passion. But above all I want to make first order, epic, amazing things. Novels, movies, stories, paintings, anything and everything. Things that deliver an experience, rather that the empty promises of salvation through productivity, the singular and empty promise driving most of the tools we make.

Your favorite books, movies, art, and music move you in ways that have nothing to do with productivity. On your deathbed your best memories will be playing with your kids and loving your family, entirely ‘unproductive’ acts. What are the real things in the world? The things that matter most? They are things no tool can give you – they are available to you all the time if you choose them and no tool can choose the important choices for you.

The questions I ask are: what can I make that reveals the world? Or the world as it should be? What do I know or can share from deep inside, through a craft, to be meaningful to others? The only answers to these questions are through art, or art like projects.  They demand more of myself than I could possibly contribute to a software project or a startup company. To do truly epic things requires a different medium.

The term sui generis means work of its own kind. I take the term to mean work that is personal and demanding, that requires you to reveal things you are afraid to reveal. How you feel about the world, or yourself, or a thousand interesting things we rarely express. Writing down your deepest fears, secret regrets, or deepest desires, might not garner much interest from the world, but it will be more epic for you than dozens of the million download product launches you fantasize about. It will certainly be epic for you and a close friend (or perhaps a room full of strangers?)  you share those thoughts with. Epic work comes from making a deeper connection to who we are, and finding a medium to express it well to others. A tool can never be that medium. Therefore software is not epic.

——————————–

Thanks to @msamye who when I mentioned the idea for this essay, said she’d like to read it.

35 Responses to “Software is not epic”

  1. Andrew

    I disagree on the point that our tools are not epic. Using tools is part of what makes us human and many people used to closely associate their identity with their tools of the trade or profession. As cliche as it may sound, the world can be revealed through day to day tools, including software. It’s just that most toolmakers do not see that as a goal.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Let me guess: you make tools? :)

      Here’s an additional conjecture – I’m not sure I agree with it, but here it is:

      On the day before the laser printer was invented, I’d agree, the tool is epic. After it exists in the world, improving the laser printer, not so epic. The epicness moves from the tool to the use of the tool once the tool is established in the world.

      A tool is morally ambiguous – all tools can be used for good and bad. The tool doesn’t care. Can something that can be used for evil ever be epic, in the same way The Sistine Chapel or The GodFather is epic?

      Reply
      • Andrew

        Good guess ;)

        On the contrary, art can be and often is used for morally ambiguous ends. Think negative and inaccurate campaign advertising, or books that try to distort reality for ideological ends. Historically too, art has been used as propaganda and as a method to marginalize various groups.

        That’s not to say that art is all art is bad, or good. Same thing with tools. Tools can be used to accomplish wonderful things, or they can be used for very destructive purposes. That lies with the wielder of the tool and their intentions.

        And as for the laser printer example, what was used to invent a laser printer? Probably regular printers, as well as ink and paper, drafting tools, and maybe a soldering iron for the electrical connections. And how were those tools invented? With other tools. The point is that tools can beget tools that ultimately extend and improve human ability. I view art as the same way, just with a less direct process.

        Reply
        • Scott Berkun

          I would not call an advertisement for anything art. An ad can be amazingly creative, like a movie, but it is made to serve something else. Its the difference between a jingle and a song.

          Reply
      • Leszek Cyfer

        Let me guess: you make art? :)

        Your argument (before/after) makes a change in a person a measurement of “epicness”. And this is where you fail to notice that “A customer is born every minute”. A new human beings come into the world, and when they discover the tools that are art, their life changes. It’s that simple.

        Sistine Chapel didn’t change my life. So for me it is not epic. Period. Discovering the ability to influence a form of things that surround me using a hammer was a lifechanger for me – in my life a hammer was epic, then it made way for another tool, and another – all of which have changed the way I perceive the world.

        It was said that all people have their sets of tools and perceive the world around them through the perspective of those tools – “for a hammer everything looks like a nail”. When you incorporate a new tool into your set of tools they change your filter through which you perceive the world. Some of them do it in a minimal way. Some are game-changers – they _are_ epic because the change they bring to your life is epic.

        This way some art is not epic while some tools are – it is all in the eye of the beholder.

        Reply
      • Dominic Amann

        So then tools can be epic. As I would have said. C was epic. The discovery of fire was epic. The discovery of the wheel was epic. The first steam engine was epic.

        Likewise in art – the transition to 3d (from egyptian style 2d) was epic, pointilism was epic. Succesive exponents of the style – less so.

        So all one can really say is that some time after an invention or discovery, after the dust has settled, one can begin to categorize things into epic and not so much.

        So we aren’t really saying much at all here.

        As far as art being used for evil – where does propoganda fit? How about Reinstafl’s “Triumph of the Will”?

        The thesis sounds much too pompous and self serving to carry the ring of truth.

        Reply
  2. Dan

    “Movies are epic” – actually the vast majority are not epic. Most are merely entertainment and therefore are best ignored. TCP/IP is epic (for some definitions of epic) but only some of the stuff in the packets is epic (for any definition of epic).

    I don’t like epic as a metric. Which would you rather disappear tomorrow, movies or software?

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      The premise I offered is software can’t be epic. Yes, most movies aren’t, but some are.

      Epic is a weird word and I didn’t bother to define it. I’m sure commenters will refute the other points for this transgression, but I couldn’t find a stronger word.

      > Which would you rather disappear tomorrow, movies or software?

      I’m dubious that forcing choices between X and Y proves much, but I admit it’s fun.

      I think I could live a very happy and fulfilling life without any new software or technology of any kind. If I could only have new art, or new technology, I’d pick new art.

      Reply
      • Dan

        I agree about forcing choices. It was intended as a conversation starter, not a black/white conclusion generator.

        When I started writing code for a living, I stopped composing music. It fulfills part of that need. But I’ve yet to hear anyone humming my data object module. Working on swapping back.

        Reply
  3. Jason

    I would agree that most tools are not epic, but it does happen, rarely. None of the ones I’ve written have been epic, but I have tasted briefly of that fruit; we arguably would not be having this conversation without the efforts of NCSA oh so many years ago.

    Epic art is vanishingly rare. There are millions who wish they were a Back, or a Renoir, or even a Jillette. Many try, almost everybody fails. Of course there’s a lot more art out there than tools, so while it may seem like there aren’t many epic tools, maybe the proportion holds and it’s just a matter of scale: one in a million tools is epic, but we only have 2 million tools.

    I’m reminded of all of the eulogies for Les Paul that happened when he passed. Musicians, especially rock musicians, do seem to believe that they owe a tremendous debt to this man, and can wax rhapsodic about a certain instrument they had. Is that not epic?

    Reply
  4. Alvin

    This lines up nicely with things we learn about projects, communication, and self improvement. We should start and end with the goal, objective, opportunity/challenge, or desire rather than focusing on the tools or methods to get there (though they help).

    So sure, software may not be epic, but software can definitely be awesome. How about “tools” _in_ art (commercial or otherwise)? Thor’s Hammer, light sabers, the Sword of Omens, or KITT from Knight Rider. Epic? Hmmm?

    Reply
  5. LL

    I think the process of creation is an essential ingredient of greatness for both art and software, besides considering the end result. Many artists have a deep desire to express themselves, and as a side-effect in the pursuit of self-expression, they produce an artifact that distills that in pure form to be understood by consumers of this artifact.

    However, in my experience the creative process of software development is at least as intense in being confronted with human failings and limitations (due to absence of physical restrictions) and a desire to understand the world (due to software as a concrete manifestation of abstract thoughts) as any artist is going through, and I would express myself in the same way for any type of software that I build (in the same way as an artist might choose to express the same thing in different media like paint, print or film). And in software, there are many people going through this process together to be part of something greater than themselves, whereas the creation process for classical art forms like paintings is mostly solitary (with movies being a possible exception, I love watching the credits in the end and try to imagine how it was like to make that movie).

    Reply
  6. Dave

    I consider some of my favorite and curiously unknown software to be very epic: Everything search (voidtools.com) [it's quite epic to instantly find files], Renoise, Autohotkey, Processing, maybe even Directory Opus and Xnview. All of these programs seem to do everything right and exist in a transcendent and illuminated state of limitless capability within their scope. But then again, I find continued existence to be pretty epic too, and I also find little things like resizing a window (in windows) with Alt+Space S Down Right and moving the mouse to be epic…

    Reply
  7. calvin

    “Things that deliver an experience, rather that the empty promises of salvation through productivity, the singular and empty promise driving most of the tools we make”
    — This is what i call epic!

    Reply
  8. David Edward Clark

    Hi Scott,

    Thank you for writing this article. It was just what I needed to hear at this point in my life. For the last few years I have struggled over what my purpose in life is. I am a UI designer & front end developer. I have a great appreciation for well designed software tools as well as great industrial design. But my dilemma has always been that I have felt there is a divide between these tools and the stories we tell (movies, comics, music…). I have subtly felt that there would be something missing in my life if I simply aimed to master creating really good tools. Your article solidified in my mind something that has been hazy: I now know that it is vital to the fullfilment of myself as a creative individuals to create art in some sort of medium. And it must be something that involves story telling.

    It’s interesting that by comparing tool building (second order creation) to art making (first order creation) you put tool building in the correct light. But it also raises a further question about what things are ends in themselves and what things are means to an end. For instance some would say that food is an end in itself while others would object saying food is simply a means to an end, namely living. Your article has opened up a host of questions for me to ponder.

    Thanks again for writing this.

    Cheers,
    David

    Reply
  9. Amitai Schlair

    I’m a youngish software developer who, finding it not quite fulfilling enough on its own for a lifetime, went back to college to learn to compose music. You’re writing on subjects about which I have very strong feelings. So maybe I’m being emotional and unreasonable when I hold this post, offered in good faith, on a blog, accountable to my personal standards of truth. Rest assured I’m being emotional and unreasonable in good faith.

    I’m not bothered by what exactly you mean by “epic”: it’s about ambition and scale and that’s clear enough. What makes something a “tool”? That its maker had a purpose in mind? What if someone uses it for another purpose? What if it wasn’t made with a purpose in mind? What if it wasn’t even made by a person? Found objects are tools in the right hands. And what’s “art”? I don’t even want to pursue this line of questioning. We’ll never settle it here, our minds’ll go numb first! But even if we take the extreme view that art is pure expression devoid of practical intent, it’s self-evidently false. Making the art did something for the artist. Consuming the art may even do something for the consumer. Whatever art is, it’s also a tool. Whatever tools are, they’re also art. At least I approach writing software that way, and I bet you do too.

    Your post is heartfelt writing that succeeds as a statement about your values and as a conversation-starter. Your own post is therefore both art and tool, thus falsifying itself. And it was fun to read and reply to.

    Reply
    • Nathan Arthur

      I agree with you, Amitai, in principle. But I don’t think it matters; Scott’s post is still correct.

      First, let’s postulate that there is some software that is art in itself. (The ‘demoscene’ seems like a great example.) Then let’s exclude that software from the discussion; it’s not what the original post is about.

      Then let’s postulate that most software (by volume) is “tools” and that there is such a thing as “art” and that the two aren’t exactly the same thing – thus we have two different words to describe them.

      So then let’s imagine that there’s a little spectrum with “software tools” on the left and “art created with software tools” on the right. Then let’s assume that neither end is totally pure – all tools are somewhat art, and all software art is somewhat a tool.

      Great, now you we have a little picture that describes what you were saying, right? (Remember that “software-based art” is excluded from this spectrum.)

      But that picture also validates what Scott was saying – that truly epic things come mostly from the right side of that spectrum. I think he’s right about that, and more importantly, his post really vividly reminded me (a person who does most of his creation on the left side of the spectrum) that if I want to be doing really epic things, I’m probably not going to be doing them in my day job.

      After some (valuable!) rumination on that reminder, I realized I’m OK with it – my most recent “epic thing” was born a few months ago, and he quite thoroughly satisfies my need to create epic things :) (For now!)

      Reply
      • Amitai Schlair

        I’m still unwilling to purchase this fine dichotomy, because I think it’s false, and I think it’s false because it’s rationalistic _instead_ of realistic. (Hey, that’s a dichotomy! But I think it’s true here.) We’re debating what counts as “epic” on the basis of some arbitrary categories we made up. (Hey, “epic” is an arbitrary category too!) Which is fine and fun — humans like to categorize and we should indulge ourselves sometimes — but let’s not get confused and think our map is the territory.

        We want to maximize our chances of accomplishing epic things. No argument there. My complaint is formal: Dear Sir, I don’t believe deductive reasoning is a route to identifying what’s epic. Scott writes “Your favorite books, movies, art, and music move you in ways that have nothing to do with productivity.” Maybe for some? My favorite book is _about_ productivity, and my favorite music, as a side effect, makes me want to get busy composing. And what of the proposed rules for getting to epic? Maybe my view is constrained by my age and experience, but going back to college was epic for me: as sustained effort, as productivity, as a way of proving myself to myself, and as a way of strengthening connections with others. It couldn’t have been one of those things without also being all the others. I don’t think this is unusual.

        Scott writes “Epic work comes from making a deeper connection to who we are, and finding a medium to express it well to others.” No argument there. My decision to become a composer wasn’t made in those terms, but they ring true. But I didn’t change course because software wasn’t epic, I changed course because composing is in some ways more epic. In other ways, software wins for me. That project we did together last year, for instance, meets Scott’s criteria (and also mine).

        I’m being testy about Scott’s claim because my personal experience says it’s not one or the other. There’s a continuum all right, but it’s not about tools and art, it’s about epic and lazy, or maybe epic and indifferent. Crappy software written tastelessly is on the left, great software written with love is on the right. Crappy art made solipsistically is on the left, great art made with love is on the right. And I’m being testy about your claim because you stopped having to contend with this problem as soon as you started building humans. :-p

        Reply
  10. Manoj

    Amazing article.One of the best I ever read.It has opened my eyes.Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Dominic Amann

    Good software is more than mere function. Good software contains, and sometimes is, art. A great computer game is software, but it is also art, and can certainly be Epic.

    The art may be graphics, sound, but the best have these and more – a connectedness and gameplay that takes the user in and immerses them – an interface that just works without effort.

    Good software should be art.

    Reply
  12. Harley Pebley

    Calling tools and art two different things is a false dichotomy. They’re much more alike than different. They can both be used for good or evil. They both express our culture. They both have examples of beauty as well as ugliness. They both have examples of combined utility and elegance. For both, the measurement of their function vs artistry is subjective.

    As for known names, that’s simply where you focus your attention. Beyond knowing he’s involved in movies, I can’t tell you what Scorsese does. (Or did? Is he alive?) On the other hand I’m familiar with the work of Knuth, Wirth, Hejlsberg and Torvalds, to name a few.

    Reply
  13. Denis

    Scott,

    I disagree. The printing press, a tool, was an epic wave-shifting instrument and likewise, nearly the entire internet is fundamentally built on some sort of software. It is epic because of the opportunity that it provides ergo I say the lens by which you write is askew.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      The printing press was not a wave shifting tool in China where it was first invented. Guttenberg himself, as best we can tell, had no philosophical ambitions for his work other than than to make a profit. He likely had no sense of freedom of information or changing Europe in the way the press did.

      Of course an invention can be epic in ways its inventor did not intend.

      But to your point: you are saying second order creations (tools) are important. I agree. But its the first order creations (books, novels, movies, paintings, etc.) made with those tools that gives the tools meaning.

      The printing press has no meaning without the books to print.

      Reply
  14. The Hook

    I applaud your willingness to open your heart, Scott!
    Your blog is actually ABOUT SOMETHING and that is a rare and wonderful achievement these days!

    Reply
  15. Sean Crawford

    It is tempting to say that art, or “epic,” is something I like– but that is wrong.

    I learned this lesson in the 1980′s when I liked music videos as much as today’s kids like game videos. Three of us were sitting together, one of us was an art major, and she said videos were not art. “Oh, no!” we non-artists responded, looking at each other. “That can’t be right.” And then we each though of the same video. “Count on Me” by Aha. Significantly, we could not name a second video…

    Since then I’ve come to believe that art is a product of “a unified consciousness” which may explain why there are no classic videos. In fact, I saw a remake of a year’s award winning number one hit– and no one noticed. Plainly, the old winner was not a classic.

    As I see it, neither a classic chair nor classic software can be made by a committee. I may like the software, but it’s not art.

    Reply
  16. DI

    Software can be art. It’s not that all softwares are written equally. Some of them just complete the work they are supposed to, but some of them are fun to work with. There is a difference between a software developer who just follows instructions and the one who thinks beyond the standard instruction set. It is the second category who think how to make the user more productive, how to make them happy, how to give them a pleasing interface, etc. What is this but not art?

    Reply
  17. Joseph

    In most cases an epic becomes a tool in another’s hand – a book, as you say, is an epic. Take an example of a book like ’7 habits’. It becomes a tool for many to change their lives. That is the way progress is.

    Reply
  18. Recision

    When I read the title I was imagining a rather different article.
    Software is not Epic.
    No I would agree with that, it is not.
    But my mind went in the direction of – it is pretty dire generally.

    Whatever the merits of programmers and software writers, communicating with humans isn’t one of their strengths.
    In so many different ways software is anti-intuitive and poorly structured.
    Even the icons of ease-of-use, seldom are.
    Next to nothing is explained, or laid out in a processional way.
    You need to guess, extrapolate from previous experience(if you have it), or just click on every link/button in the hope that something will work the way you want/expect/hope.

    That’s fine for the young, they are empty vessels waiting to be filled.
    They want to click every button and link, search and explore.
    They have no basis for judging, so everything new is – new.
    It ‘is what it is’ and they accept that, learn it as it is, and think that’s normal.
    However abysmally designed it may be, it will be accepted.
    I suspect the truth is that most software writers are very young too.
    They haven’t had time to develop critical faculties.

    The bottleneck really is in Art.
    Being the ability to communicate a concept with ease and flair and brilliance.
    Software has a long way to go before it approaches ART.

    …albeit, that’s a rather different topic than the one you were writing about.

    ~R

    Reply
  19. Yakov "Jacob" Vizel "Wiesel"

    I see this writing as a variant of typical expression of the modern American people mentality that is by my opinion rather tragic. It seems that people are not even motivated by compensation, but just (at many cases fictional) opportunity control others, fame, etc. I can just wonder how people agree to work just for titles like VP of when getting less compensation than the next consultant they supervise. Or how it is easy to force the lazy employee trying to spend time for “design” just saying that it is just trivia to do. In one case the person worked without a break and overtime even when his position was absolutely secure. It looks like the people at middle management and less level suffering from a mental disorder of under achievers. I can provide numerous examples of.
    Please be sure that it is just friendly truth. I am the naturalized citizen of the USA, but know this country from bottom to top might be even better then the former USSR
    and trust me I could be expert on the former USSR life.

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. [...] Scott Berkun shared a most interesting quote from magician Penn Jillette, from the Penn & Teller duo: The whole world is pretending the breakthrough is in technology. The bottleneck is really in art. An entire post could be written on this topic, perhaps an entire study. I’ve spoken many times that the first great social media expert in our time was Benjamin Franklin (and he did it without the internet). He mastered the art of writing using a quill pen and by voracious reading. He often wrote in pseudo names such as Silence Dogood, Alice Addertoungue, Richard Saunders, and many others. He also knew the art of printing from working as a laborer in his brother’s print shop. He didn’t decide to just write one day. He worked at it, practiced it and today his writings endure as a centerpiece in the body of American Literature. Scott’s point was that technology has changed writing and anyone can now write and share their creations; however, the actual art of writing is the bottleneck. We have forgotten the true art of writing well and authoring content worth reading. Read more on this topic at Scott’s blog. [...]

Leave a Reply

* Required