DeconstructSeattle, WA - Thu & Fri, Apr 23-24 2020

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(Editor's note: transcripts don't do talks justice. This transcript is useful for searching and reference, but we recommend watching the video rather than reading the transcript alone! For a reader of typical speed, reading this will take 15% less time than watching the video, but you'll miss out on body language and the speaker's slides!)

[APPLAUSE] All right. Can you hear me? Does this sound good? This is my beard check. And it's not making the annoying rustling sound? We're good? All right, cool.

Thanks for coming. Thanks to Gary and his crew for having me. Thanks to all of you for being here, and the other speakers. Really kind of an amazing conference for a number of reasons. Gary called it DeconstructConf. I think a better name for it is DoAGoodTalkConf because basically we got invited to speak, and the instructions were, do a good talk.

So I'm going to try to do a good talk to the best of my abilities, somewhat diminished, but you know, just enough probably. A couple of things that I'd like you to know about me. I recently started a company called Reify, We're a sales and marketing consultancy for B2B software companies. My partner Brian Doll is here with me this weekend, and if you like to talk about that kind of stuff, come chat with us.

I also wrote a book about making pizza at home. It's called The Pizza Book. You should buy it. The URL that you can visit to buy it is So you get a lot of joy just out of visiting the URL. So even if you don't like pizza or whatever, then check it out.

So yeah, OK. So let's get started. That looks pretty good. How many people know who this person is? One, two. OK. His name is John Berger. He's an art critic. He's also a novelist, a poet, a painter, an outspoken political activist. And his hand gesticulation game is like completely out of control. Off the charts levels of amazing hand gestures. I can only hope to achieve that level.

I mean, just look at that. Just let that sink in for a second. I was going to put in, like, seven shots of the hand gestures, but I decided not to because I'm kind of lazy.

So in 1972 John Berger made a BBC television program called Ways of Seeing. And in the four 30-minute episodes, Berger, who was a public intellectual at the time-- which is kind of funny, but that was a thing. Seems kind of foreign to us, I think, in 2017 America. But back then, people had ideas, and you know, it was kind of a cool thing to talk about them in public, whatever. I don't know.

So he put together this program ostensibly to discuss art. And I'm going to introduce it to you right now. It started out this way. This is the quote that he says, one of the first things that he says in the first episode.

He says, "This is the first of four programs in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting, that tradition which was born around 1400 and died around 1900. Tonight"-- he's introducing the first episode--"tonight it isn't so much the paintings themselves that I want to consider as the way we now see them, now, in the second half of the 20th century, because we see these paintings as nobody saw them before. If we discover why this is so, we shall also discover something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living."

And so he talks about this. Kind of heavy over the course of four episodes. I'm just going to briefly introduce you to each of the four episodes and describe this specific assumption that he's challenging about the tradition of European oil painting in each of these four episodes.

And so the four episodes were ostensibly-- they weren't titled. This is the way that I'm kind of describing them. They're commonly thought of to be about these things.

First one is about mechanical reproduction. The second was about the tradition of the female nude in European oil painting. The third episode is sort of about oil paint itself. And the last episode is about publicity and advertising.

So episode one starts out with this shot of Berger in a museum. Forgive the-- I think it's kind of like charmingly shitty video quality here. This is from an analog video and, you know, YouTube. It's cool. You guys should check out YouTube.

And so it starts out with this shot, and it's framed up to look like you're in the National Gallery in England. And he walks up to this painting with a razor blade and he cuts the face out of the painting. And then it zooms out a little bit, and you see it's actually a television set. He's not actually cutting the face out of a painting in the museum. And you see this-- he frames the lights and such in there so to make a point. There's not a lot of subtle points in this TV shows. More whatever the opposite of subtle is.

So what you see is this painting is fake. It's a reproduction. It's not a museum. It's the real painting. And then it zooms out again. And you see this-- you can't really see it too well in this charmingly shitty screen shot, but you see the face that he cut out. It's on this sheet. And thousands of these sheets are being reproduced.

And the other thing is that in this episode, you're introduced to all the visual tropes that are used throughout these four episodes. There's a lot of juxtaposed images, repetitive filming of mechanical things happening in factories, voiceover narrative with this very nice-sounding British accent, and then a lot of these things with a lot of that.

And so the assumption that he's challenging in this episode is that art is precious, art is this holy, precious thing. And the reality that he asserts is instead, we have made art secular and demystified it through reproduction. So this might sound familiar to people that have read Walter Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He uses some of these ideas, makes the TV show version of it, basically, which is pretty useful.

And the way we see change is because of photography and technology, is what he's asserting, the fact that you don't have to go to the museum anymore to see the oil painting. You can bring the oil painting to you. And this is in 1972, ostensibly pre-YouTube. I'm not sure. But you could see pictures of things in books. And the way that you look at a painting that's reproduced in a book is really different than the way that you see it when you go to a museum to see it.

So he's not making, really, a point about art as much as he's making a point about seeing. Like he would do this kind of thing. So that's episode one. Art is precious. And he says not really. You can see it wherever you want. It's not holy. Children know what all these paintings look like before they're five years old. Before that it was a description.

So episode two begins with a scene, this scene, of some models in a park kind of preparing for a photo shoot. And he introduces the theme for this episode, which is society's perception of women. And he starts out with this kind of poetic quote. "Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."

And what Berger introduces in this episode is really the idea of the male gaze. He didn't invent that idea. But this TV show helped popularize that. And actually, the four-part TV show ended up getting turned into a book, which a lot of stoned freshmen sociology students ended up reading, which is good. There's nothing wrong with that.

But through that this idea became very popular, that people are impacted by society's perceptions of them. I'm really proud of myself because when I was practicing this, I kept saying male glaze instead of male gaze. So if I say it later, just forgive me. I mean gaze.

So we're shown various nudes throughout the ages, throughout this period that he discusses. And questions are asked about, are these actual women? Who are these Women what is this painting of? And Berger shows you all these things. And then he does this ultra cool post-modern 1972 thing where he actually, in the middle of the episode, he's like, this episode is garbage because it's just been me and a bunch of silent, naked pictures of women trying to tell you about-- it's wrong, right?

So what he did was he took up until that part of the show-- well, that's what he says. I don't know if he actually did that, but he showed this panel of actual living, breathing women the first part of the show. And he asked them, what do you think about-- how does this impact you? He's not showing them the show, like, you know, tell me how good that shit is.

He's like, what do you think about this? This wasn't normal. In 1972 it wasn't a common thing for this kind of group of people to be able to have a public stage to be able to discuss this kind of thing. It's really cool.

And this group of women, different ages, different backgrounds, they discuss, it's really weird to see these paintings. It does make you feel really strange. I don't identify with them because they were made 400 years ago, but still, I kind of see something familiar there because it's real. And they speak to the impact that the pressure of idealized beauty in society has on their lives, which is big.

And so the assumption here he's challenging is that nude oil paintings depicted women as they looked. The reality is that nude oil paintings depict women as they were seen, as men desired them to be seen, as an amalgam of this body part, this character trait. Let's make this painting. It's fake. It's not real.

And so he concludes with the assertion in this episode that these ideals are just these ideals, and they're really damaging. They're ultimately harmful. And nudes in European oil painting represented just this male gaze, the desires of the people that painted them. And he talks about there were very few painters that actually cared about producing a thing that looked like the person that they were painting. That just wasn't a popular thing. So by looking at how women were portrayed in the nudes of the period, we see how they're perceived.

Episode three starts out stating that-- this is kind of hard to see, but it's a painting of a bunch of rich guys in a room with a bunch of paintings. And as a 21st century person, when you look at this, you're like, that's crazy. That wasn't real. Why would you ever have N paintings hanging on your wall like that? it's ridiculous.

But this is how it was. These are the kinds of people for whom these paintings were painted. They liked having a lot of them. That was a thing. So this painting, which Berger says, this depicts the kind of people for whom the paintings were produced and the ways in which they were hung. They actually hung them like this. There's piles of them. There's a dog there just chilling next to this oil painting.

And this is what it was like in that time. So here's a good example. Oil paintings became a way for wealthy individuals to index their belongings. Here's a painting of a ugly house. There's nothing architecturally interesting about this house. It's a pile of bricks, or whatever, I don't even know. But it's a pile of something, probably. And it's just this ugly house. And the only reason that it was painted was so that the person who owned the house could have a painting depicting the house that they owned. And that's where European oil painting came from.

And here's another example. This is a picture of food. It's a painting of food. And when you grow up and you see this, you're like, yeah, I get it, whatever. Maybe it's hard to paint food. It's like, chill. I'm going to go paint a lobster or whatever.

In reality, this was like how they Instagram posted back in the day. And it's a really expensive Instagram post that involved marginally more human exploitation than a modern Instagram post does.

So the cool thing, though-- so I like what Berger says about this. He's like, this is a painting depicting things that are nourishing. But this painting can't nourish you. It's not food. It's just a picture of some food. And so what he says is that oil paint itself was kind of like a key to allowing this to happen because oil paint allowed painters to produce these ultra photorealistic-- I think they just called them realistic back then-- paintings that allowed them to show, this is my stuff in really stark detail, this is my stuff. Everything in this painting is about stuff. Nice lights, crystal, aforementioned lobster.

And what happened was, because you had these wealthy people who demanded that these painters painted with this new technology, all of these paintings got produced. They're really good. People got really good at them. And then fast forward to several hundred years later, a couple of hundred years later, the most expensive thing that you can buy ever is an oil painting. There's nothing more expensive than oil paintings. There are oil paintings that are-- does anyone knows the record? It's like hundreds of millions of dollars, right? And that's a very interesting thing how that happened.

And because this was 1972 in the BBC, that's the only point he really needed to make. So the assumption was that oil paintings were expressions of beauty and skill. And the reality is that they were expressions of power and wealth. And the most that any of these paintings-- Berger's so rough on these people. It's really great. He shows these portraits, and he's like, the most that anyone can claim that this portrait expresses is, I once existed and I looked like this. And that's the point of the painting.

So what happened was the scientific attitude of the time, people liked material things, coupled with the realistic capabilities of oil paint, created paintings which emphasized the tangibility of the wealth of the time. And fast forward to now. We completely misunderstand the paintings of this period. We think that there was like 10 people who made oil paintings. And there are only a few of them, and they're all in museums.

No. Most of them were garbage painted by garbage people for other garbage people. That's pretty much it. So they were just social currency, really nice to look at, but that's all they were.

Episode four deals with publicity. And it's 1972 and Berger is already very keyed in on this immersive advertising thing. It's kind of a poetic, artsy show. So it's got all these images of people walking down the street, and there's advertisements everywhere. And we're pretty-- 45 years later, we're very keyed into these feelings. But back then it was kind of a new thing that he was pushing people to consider.

So he's decrying the saturation of commercial imagery in our everyday lives. And there's these long poetic shots of it. Interestingly, the last episode is kind of like a meta episode. He pulls in a lot of the themes from the other episodes when he's talking about publicity and the impact that publicity has on our brains.

So we've got the beauty and despair involved in mechanical reproduction. This is a shot of-- it's like, whatever, $100 bottles of perfume. And it's just these long shots of people in a factory filling these bottles of perfume. So we have to manufacture things now and pretend that they're special.

And we have idealized beauty and the male gaze in this episode two, because a lot of advertising leans on these tropes. And we have the idea-- this is an interesting idea-- that what happened is in the 20th, 21st century, color photography is the new oil paint. So we don't need oil painting anymore, but we use color photography to depict-- it's this ultra realistic medium that we now use to depict all of the things that we want.

And Berger has got this line where he was like, yeah, you look at an advertisement, and it's promising to make you richer by making you poorer. Give me some money and I'll make you rich. So the state of being envied is what constitutes glamour, Berger says. And publicity is a process of manufacturing glamour.

So episode four, the assumption is, oil paintings and publicity, advertising photos, those are very different things from each other, is the assumption. And the reality that he asserts is they actually serve really similar purposes to each other.

So those are the four episodes. In Ways of Seeing Berger investigates a specific period in art through seeing and how it is seen. And this uses a technique to challenge four assumptions about European oil painting, this 400-year period where people made a lot of really crap paintings. And investigating how we see art helps us understand art and ourselves. That's the idea.

So I have done a little bit of a sort of similar investigation. We're transitioning from talking about Berger to talking about my ideas in reflection of him. And I spent some time thinking about software through how we sell it and how it's sold.

And I'm going to use this as a technique to challenge four assumptions about modern software development, the last 40 years or so. And my hope is that investigating how we sell software will help us understand software and ourselves, similarly to what Berger was trying to get us to understand about art through seeing.

And it's my contention that selling, or commercialism, has had the same kind of meteoric impact on software that seeing or technology has had on art. It's an important part of why we're all here. And by understanding this, we can hopefully overturn some of our long-held assumptions about how software development actually works.

So if I had my four episodes, and access to considerably more authoritative narrator than myself, with a much better command of gesticulations, I might theme them this way. And I've chosen some images from Ways of Seeing to go along with each of these episodes more or less at random just so you have something to look at.

So the four episodes are-- I would have a episode themed about programmers, about open source, about politics, and about pessimism.

So episode one, about programmers, the way that I think about it, for me, since I started out in this industry as a programmer, and now I spend my time working with programmers teaching them how to market and sell software. I couldn't help but start with us, the people that make this stuff.

And I started to think about my own assumptions about programmers, things that I've seen in my time in the industry. And the work that I've done in the last six months or so really drove home this one thing, which is that in terms of the business side of the business, so to speak, marketing and selling software, programmers, for the most part, seem to be completely uninvolved and uninterested.

And I think the reason why that is is because there is this assumption that we can't do it, that the reason why programmers don't market or sell is because they can't. They're good at talking to machines, but they're not good at selling things. Like people have credit cards, Computers don't yet.

And the thing is that I can tell you from personal experience this isn't true. I've actually sold some of the people in this audience software before that I wrote. So I know what that's like. In some organizations, this silencing is by design because commodifying programmer skill and smiling is just easier and cheaper. But it's not better for us. I mean, it's better for someone. It's always better for someone, like David said. There's always a hidden something somewhere.

But we as technologists have to be able to apply our creative problem-solving skills to these types of problems if we want to be around in another 20 or 30 years doing the thing that we like doing. The more we isolate ourselves from this business side of the business, the more difficult it will be for us to make our mark and see our upside that we deserve as the people that do a lot of the work to make it possible.

Additionally, we have an enormous amount of privilege being programmers. So if we stay siloed and don't move, we're a block for everyone else who doesn't want to stay siloed and wants to move. The more programmers that say hey, let me learn about that, let me help you with that, let me help you solve that problem, then it becomes a thing in an organization where people, as humans, can be used for the skills that they have, not the skill that they're perceived to have.

And the thing about it is that the problems aren't that different. They are solved using similar tools. They're solved in similar ways. And we can be very, very good at doing this. We can be good sellers. We can be good storytellers. And we should do that.

Episode two would focus on open source. And open source software runs vast amounts of the infrastructure that powers, whatever, trillions of dollars of commerce I tried to Google how much is there in money? And it didn't come up. Trillion sounds good.

So nothing would work without it. Just let's be real. It would be a nightmare. And so the assumption that I'm challenging here is that open source software is free. And the reality that I'm asserting is that without proper commercial support, our infrastructure will crumble. And we rely on free software without accounting for or paying for the labor that's necessary to maintain it.

This just doesn't work. It's unsustainable. So there are creative ways to handle this. And I think that there are some people out there that are doing it well. But we need to get serious about this issue now.

Episode three would discuss politics. This is a touchy subject. So I've given you some flowers and champagne to look at. Just look at that for a second. This is like MRB Friday Night. Katie liked that one.

So the assumption here that I'm challenging is that software can be apolitical. And the reality that I'm asserting is that it can't, and that software is people. This is, to me, the most important point that I want to make in this talk. And I'm not going to use this as a platform to make a specific political argument at all. That's not what I'm doing. All I'm saying-- because I have a lot of political points that I want to make, trust me. I think some of you might know that.

My point is simply this. The communities that we build as software developers mirror the communities that we build as humans. It's our right and responsibility to make sure that the people who need protection are protected. The idea that we can simply be isolated practitioners is just another flavor of the first assumption that I wanted to challenge, which is that we can just show up and write code and that's it. I don't need to be bothered with this or that or the other thing. I just want to-- jack me in and do this thing. I noticed some of you actually write code or whatever.

So it's our right and responsibility to remember that software is people, and we need to act with this in mind always, not sometimes, not when it's convenient. We are the stewards of and creators of our own community. It's up to us. There's no rules. I don't have to participate if I don't feel comfortable participating. You're not invited to my party if you don't want to follow the rules.

And that's how we need to remember there is no objectivity here. We're humans, actual people. We are full of contradictions and that's OK. But this is don't let anyone ever push you into a corner where you're acting against this reality. It's not to your own benefit.

So finally, episode four. I'm going to end it on a positive note about pessimism. And Nolan set me up with bummer of the century talk, so trying to keep it light.

So pessimism is this pervasive attitude regarding the state of computing, and I just want to talk about it for a minute. So here's a painting of a sunset. So I get it. It's easy to look at this sunset and think everything is doomed. This is the last sunset I'll ever see. I get it. You're like, you see this amazing thing that you can explain. It's the most gorgeous, beautiful thing, and you're like, goddamn it. What if this doesn't happen tomorrow? That's a real thing.

And that's how some people see technology right now. And I understand that because we're all really close to it, and that's how it feels. Lack of quality, all of these ridiculous constraints, money. Has it doomed us to live in misery forever? I don't think so.

So the assumption is everything is broken and we're doomed. But-- thank you-- everything is broken and will be fine. It's really easy to get caught up in this, but I think it's important to remember our history. Like Berger, take a step back, consider how far we've come. And I am an optimist. I believe in the power of invention to break us out of the struggle that we're in, to overcome this undeniable millstone of complexity that we've wrought upon ourselves.

But it's not forever. It might not happen while we're all still practitioners. But I think that it's up to us to help quicken this. There's a nobility to it. We are pioneers. I actually do think that. There is an undeniably nascent quality to the tools that we're working with. And I just have to be optimistic about our ability to fight our way out of this. Just looking at the people in this room alone, and what all of you would be capable of and are capable of if this is what we spent more time focusing on, which isn't easy. I get it.

So in Ways of Seeing, Berger used seeing as a device to explore the ways that art and identity, people and product interact with each other. He offered four assumptions about how we understand European oil painting and offered provocative rebuttals to those assumptions.

This talk was intended to provoke you into considering software in a similar light, where selling is the device or the lens through which we looked. We challenged the assumption that programmers can't sell. We challenged the assumption that open source is free and not sold. We challenged the assumption that what we sell can be separate from who sells it. Sorry. Doesn't work that way. And we challenged the assumption that selling has ruined everything forever. It just ruined everything for a little while. Continues to ruin things.

Reminds me, there's a DJ Shadow song from the 1996 album that he did, his first album. And it's called-- does everyone know this song? It's called Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96. Raise your hand if you know that song. So it's like this nice break beat, and then it goes duh duh duh duh. And what does he say? It's the money.

So we're kind of in that situation right now. And hey, Kendrick's album is really good.

So some takeaways. Programmers, break out of your silos. Embrace the business side of the business. Ask questions. Just do it. You don't know what will happen. You'll probably see people coming to you and asking you questions about your domain the more you do that.

Open source software isn't free. Acknowledge that, and compensate people's emotional labor, their technical labor, or whatever. Make sure you're nice. Thank people. Send them money. Money's good. For real. You can buy wine with it.

And politically speaking, protect your communities by protecting their most marginalized members. Make sure to acknowledge the positive aspects of what we've built with computers, because after all, they're actually pretty cool.

This talk is dedicated to John Berger himself, who died earlier this year. I hope this talk did his work some justice. Please go watch his show. You can see it on YouTube. It also is a book. You can read his book. He's also a fabulous novelist and wrote and spoke about a wide variety of topics, which I highly recommend that you check out. Thank you very much.