[Updated August 6th, 2019]
“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 or Toni Morrison’s names, but not the names of the people who made the tools the used. Why? Movies and novels 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.