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On Paying Attention

PyCon US 2024 has been and gone. It was mostly lovely, and huge thanks to the team of volunteers who made it happen.

I was privileged to help plan the web assembly summit with my buddies Brett and Fabio. We paid close attention to cultivating a space where folks could meet, learn and build the connections needed to grow our nascent WASM community. I enjoyed paying attention to the three excellent talks about PyScript given by my friends, Jeff Glass, Valerio Maggio and Łukasz Langa. Their conference contributions (and many ad hoc conversations in the corridor) proved PyScript retains its buzz in the community. It was wonderful to pay close attention to the many dear friends I only ever see at PyCon US... a diverse circle of coders, kindred spirits and collaborators from all over the world.

Clearly, paying attention was my primary pastime at PyCon.

To what we pay attention is important. How we pay attention is equally consequential but often unconscious. Considering why we pay attention is perhaps most significant ~ an engaging, poignant and sadly neglected opportunity for self-examination.

Paying attention to paying attention is worthy of paying attention.

PyCon US 2024 banner.
Pay attention! What does the conference brand design express about PyCon?

I must admit to mixed feelings when I consider the way some of my programming peers pay attention to the world. Put another way, there have always been aspects of the Python community that I have found deeply uncomfortable. Without wishing to tarnish the good stuff at PyCon, here's what makes me pause for thought...

Despite welcome community representation, the exhibitor's hall at PyCon is mostly full of companies vying for attention with banal booths hosting transactional "brand engagement" via bland talking points. Tired marketing slogans bore attendees with infantile newspeak ordering us to "grow", "unleash" or "innovate" with over-inflated (yet soon forgotten) products. The exhibitors' scanning of conference badges is a QR-based game of cat and mouse. The prize? Yet more email spam. Unsurprisingly, attendees have to be lured into this space with the promise of lunch.

Happily, most conversations at PyCon are friendly and nourishing, but some turn into a sort of performative alpha-geek / silverback coding-gorilla display of programming buzzword bingo for the tech bro / brogrammer crowd. A less performative but equally problematic sort of conversation involves a trite and blinkered obsession with quantitative measurement of often-suspect or dull metrics to prove a qualitative point (and thus attention is misdirected).

Alas, the predominant mythology at PyCon US is (unsurprisingly) US centric and dominated by Silicon Valley, Big Tech and Hacker News startup culture with a surveillance capitalist bent. In this cuture euphemisms and doublespeak, such as "get to know your users" or "deliver value faster", misdirect attention from often sinister and manipulative uses of technology: the intention behind the examples I've just given being a more efficient pollution of our world with insidious adverts. (Remember folks, always use an ad blocker with your browser).

My discomfort comes from the unquestioning and uncritical attention towards, and tacit normalisation of such exploitative and banal aspects of coding culture. The emperor has no clothes: this is not "progress" and "growth" into a "brave new world", but a one dimensional, thoughtlessly performative and (small C) conservative and conformist outlook that places technology over humanity for the dumb sake of profit. The vapid products this cultural cesspit spews into the world suck all the creativity, depth and joy from life.

Woe betide criticism of such a culture, or you'll be labelled a neo-Luddite.

To be clear, I'm not against technology (no shit Sherlock, it's actually fucking useful!). Rather, I'm against shallow, stupid and stunted ways of paying attention to tech and coding. I believe we can (and must!) do better than this sorry state of affairs. As programmers we can shine a light on such things in the hope we explore and encourage alternative ways to pay attention, express ourselves, empower folks and carefully enlarge the world through creative, evocative and joyful technology.

All this probably explains why, for me, the most interesting and stimulating aspects of PyCon were the opportunities to be away from PyCon. They jarringly contrasted with the conference in the way they emphasised how to pay attention to the world.

The first of such contrasts was a trip to the Andy Warhol museum with my friend Naomi.

Silver Clouds.
Silver Clouds, by Andy Warhol. Source © Rachel Cobcroft. Some rights reserved: Creative Commons by-nc-sa.

Prior to my visit, I had only limited encounters with the work of Warhol: the "15 minutes of fame" quote, garish quartets of Marilyn Monroe prints, Campbell's soup cans, and photos of a vacant looking eccentric with blonde hair and glasses from my '80s childhood. The Warhol museum certainly captured and stimulated my attention. I especially enjoyed sharing this time with Naomi, who is always such a playful presence with a large dollop of thoughtfulness thrown in for good measure (more on this soon).

My impression of Warhol is of a man who found himself in an adverse world, then dared to make a space for himself by subverting the familiar. His subversions are funny, ironic, goading, engaging and assertive in a way that also feels (to me) disconnected and slightly bored with our manufactured world. Thus, he directs our freshly subverted attention to the familiar and we experience a dislocated "huh?!" moment of reflection or revelation.

For instance, he called his studio The Factory - presumably because it was an assembly line for his art as well as a conveyor belt of visiting celebrities. He published a book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and back again), ghostwritten by someone else using recordings of Warhol as source material. Explicit homoerotic portraits drawn with a black ballpoint pen announce his overt homosexuality... drawn at a time of discrimination and prejudice against the LGBT+ community. The film Taylor Mead's Ass is a glorious 76 minutes of actor Taylor Mead's naked backside capriciously capering around as a celluloid riposte to a film critic who complained he was bored of films containing Mead's ass (it's a silent film, and I wondered out loud to Naomi about the possibility of adding comedy sound effects). The playfully manufactured and entirely unnatural Silver Clouds (shown above) are plastic silver "pillows" filled with a careful mix of helium and air - just like kids' party balloons. Naomi and I spent an entertaining time bopping and booping them about the room and I, as a tuba player, couldn't resist vigorously blowing underneath one of the pillows in a respiratory busting and ultimately futile game of keepie-uppie. We were told by one of the staff that the pillows regularly escape, especially in the presence of children (young or old). Of course, the museum also contained versions of the iconic Warhol pieces, yet did so with sympathy to the unfolding story as one explored the space. There was no "oh look, gotta catch a photo of the Mona Lisa" or "lemme take a selfie with these Van Gough Sunflowers" moment during our tour... although I suspect Warhol would have sabotaged such contemporary theatrics, given half a chance.

Naomi and I discussed how we couldn't really imagine such provocative playfulness at PyCon, nor any pointed subversions during the conference talks. I was left in a thoughtful (i.e. grumpy) mood about our contemporary culture contaminated by social media. Thanks to such exploitative technology, folks don't have 15 minutes of fame, but an eternity of prompted performative obscurity. If everyone is doing "famous", then nobody is famous and we're all just sacrificing ourselves to assessment by algorithms.

Of course, Warhol has an angle on this.

One of the floors of the museum contains installations playing some of the many screen tests he shot in the mid-60's. I found myself asking "who's looking at who?" and then I wondered about how individuals choose (or perhaps have no choice over) how to present themselves. The personal branding, self obsessed "influencers", and manipulative gaze of social media in contemporary culture came to mind. Are you famous if you're on film or filmed if you're already famous? Warhol was playing with the notion of "famous" long before coders thoughtlessly brought YouTube, Twitter and Facebook into the world as an exercise in exploiting our collective narcissism for the sake of shareholder value.

And then we saw it: a create your own screen test room just off the main gallery space.

"I will if you will", I said to Naomi. She gamely took a seat and kicked off the immortalization of four minutes of awkward "so now what do I do?" exasperated looks into a fake film camera making faux whirring noises. As I sat during my session, I counted in my head, listened to Colonel Bogey with my inner ear, and tried very hard to ignore the various passers-by (to varying degrees of success). Ultimately, for four minutes I'd become another exhibit... a delightful subversion of what it is to visit a museum. Bravo to the curators for such an ironic trick. At the end, you're emailed a link to your screen test... and I've embedded mine below. I bagsy this as a four minute quota from my promised fifteen minutes of fame. I hope to make better use of my remaining eleven minutes.

Here's the thing, I appear to be paying attention to you, as you pay attention to me, but I'm not actually there! Perhaps Warhol would have appreciated adding such a non-attentive video to an article about attention.

Another joyful contrast to PyCon was dinner with my buddy Andrew Smith and his partner Jan, along with Naomi, Guido and Eric... all of whom (like me) encountered Andrew as he was writing his latest book, The Devil in the Stack. The distinct lack of technical conversation was a breath of fresh air, and Andrew and Jan were energetic and entertaining hosts.

In the week before PyCon and during PyCon itself I found myself reacting to the conference with poetry (or, more accurately, doggerel). Feeling motivated by the playfulness of the Warhol museum visit, and because an opportunity arose during the meal, I was able to share some of these verses of varying quality with such literary friends(!). I'm re-sharing them here so I can feel they've somehow "escaped" into the world, and can take on a life of their own... or simply pass into bewildered obscurity.

The first is a limerick about Guido. I've changed it from the version I read out at the meal, since he explained that some Dutch I'd originally included didn't quite make sense in the way I had hoped.

I was prompted by chatting with Guido at 2023's PyCon. I noticed he had covered his name on his conference badge with a post-it note saying, "no selfies". Guido is, of course, the inventor of Python.

No Selfies

Said Guido, a programmer Dutch,
“I really hate selfies. As such:
  I might be your hero,
  But to me it means zero.
Please leave me in peace, thanks so much”.

“But Guido you're really a saint,
When meeting you I feel quite faint.
  I want to shake hands,
  Rise above all the fans,
Be your best buddy without restraint”.

“Oh God! Please just make it stop!
These programmers really must drop,
  The deluge of thanks,
  Autographs and cranks,
'Else PyCon, for me, is a flop”.

I'm proud to say, everyone at dinner was politely bemused!

I didn't share this next poem at the dinner because it was still relatively incomplete at the time.

Ode to a Data Scientist

This has 97 words, 12 lines and 3 verses,
Rhymes A-A-B-B in a scheme that traverses,
Through four lines per stanza, in compound time,
A measurable quantity expressed as a rhyme.

No doubt such patterns and figures reveal,
Aspects of things that stats un-conceal.
Yet these numeric collisions of aggregate stuff,
Are a diminished perspective that is not enough.

The observable facts such as these do not show,
Or reveal the subjective world that we know.
For beyond such detachment and detail we wend,
Through a universe to live in, embrace and transcend.

This is my plea for a more nuanced, expressive and felt view of the world.

Truth be told, I don't see myself as a programmer. In my mind's eye I'm a musician who just happens to use code as their medium (reflect on Charles Ives's famous question, "my god, what has sound got to do with music?"). If you were to cut me open, only my little toe would contain code, my uncoordinated left foot would perhaps encompass my interest in philosophy, and my sprained ankle would be my educational efforts. The rest would just be music.

I was in a puckish and annoyed mood when I wrote this final poem. I simply wanted to poke fun at the barren world view of the tech bros.

The Plural Noun for Tech Bros

A herd of tech bros circle together,
  bleating about the Pythonic weather.

Don't be the sheep cut off from the mass,
  unable to pass,
  as someone,
  with something,
  interesting
  to
  say...

Their mental masturbation ejaculates
  ever-fruitless discourse:

Repackaged reportage from Hacker News,
  Performative patronising technical reviews,
Name dropping semi-famous nerds,
  An infinite garbage of computer-y words.
Detached and empty with no spark of life.
  The real world ignored, to cut off its strife.
So clever they lack the intelligence to know,
  We are vital and luminous souls who grow
Through connections and feelings and deep self revealings,
  But their work fills the world with VC funded dealings.
Squeezing huge profits through inhumane code,
  We're exploitable data points, with privacy to erode.

What do we call such a desperate crew?
A wank of tech bros, that'll do.

It felt good... nope... it felt great to read out such silliness to friends ~ paying attention to coding culture with my creative, playful and expressive side while gleefully ignoring the performative moralising and tone policing that often goes on in the (Victorian) Python community. We desperately need writers, poets, artists, dancers, sculptors, actors, architects, comedians and musicians in the world of coding, if only to save us from the currently brain dead coding culture. Programming is an art, so please come join in... we're not all thoughtlessly tone deaf like Elon, charismatically challenged like Zuck or so easily forgettable like those dudes, whose names escape me, that run Google.

The final contrast with PyCon was a trip out of town with my friends Dave, Katrina, Martin and Josh. We went to see Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece, Falling Water.

The photographs I took while on the excellent guided tour should, I hope, speak for themselves. Take your time browsing through them.

Best of Falling Water

Thanks to the visit I'm reading a recent biography of Frank Lloyd Wright called Plagued by Fire by Paul Hendrickson. It's a quirky book about a deeply complicated man.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a surly, manipulative narcissist and his life was full of dramatic twists and turns. He founded an influential studio and school for architects, was a major figure in the Prairie School of architectural design, and (perhaps thanks to the way Falling Water captured the public's imagination) had more than 400 commissions in the final three decades of his life (he passed away at the age of 91).

Most paradoxically, given his arrogant, self-mythologising and dissonant nature, he promoted an architectural philosophy called organic architecture that aimed to bring about harmony between human habitation and the natural world. In his view, buildings should be at home in nature and grow "out of the ground and into the light". Not only did organic architecture work with the natural conditions of a site, but the process of design, construction, living and maintaining was integral to the outlook, like stages in the life of a living organism. Because of this dynamic outlook, Lloyd Wright believed that "no organic building can ever be 'finished'" since it should respond to its changing environment and needs of its occupants. He also emphasised the importance of integrity - that a building should be "integral to site, integral to environment and integral to the life of the inhabitants". Falling Water is often cited as a classic example of this philosophy, articulated in his book The Natural House.

My response to Falling Water was reflective: attentively being in the place to assimilate and appreciate its presence, along with my own presence within it. In the same way a live performance of music may create a time and place for encountering certain feelings or attitudes, so this building had a psychological impact on those who explored its rooms, transitions and placement within nature.

As Joe, our mature yet sprightly guide, showed us around the property he brought our attention to hidden details while telling the story of the life of the house. He skilfully illustrated aspects of Lloyd Wright's philosophy. For example, the notion of "destruction of the box" was mentioned several times: the rooms were varying in shape, often open and flowed into each other. Joe brought our attention to details relating to the fixtures, furniture, windows, bathrooms, materials, lighting, the aural experience of the waterfall and accessibility to the stream, sun and trees in the surrounding area. Everything about this building was done consciously, with care and through a process of attending to the way the parts "organically" cohered and emerged into a whole.

While chatting with the ever-thoughtful Martin, we both commented on how this attitude to building structures was very different to the usual way we build software. We agreed (to paraphrase our conversation) that coders, "thoughtlessly bung features together and then A/B test the hell out of it". To me this attitude feels closer to Le Corbusier's famous claim that, "a house is a machine for living in". It's a contrasting outlook to Frank Lloyd Wright, and pays attention to design for functionality, optimization and efficiency. But I want to ask: who decides function, what needs optimising and how optimisation takes place? I suspect most would point to the god-like architect. Sadly, like the disempowerment of using products created in the current coding culture, folks who inhabit such buildings don't get much of a say, nor are they encouraged to change such "efficient" buildings to their actual needs.

I quite like the sound of "organic software", although I'm unsure what it might be. Right now it's a rough sketch in my head of an attitude or way of paying attention to the creative act of writing code. Perhaps that's the nub of it: organic software empowers folks to pay attention, change and control the code in their digital life so it reflects their unique and precious presence in the world.

I can't help but wonder that a whole is never the same as the sum of its parts, be that a building, a piece of music or even software. Rather, there are simply different ways to pay attention to the world, and by focusing on the whole or parts thereof, each illuminates the other depending on the sort of attention we pay to it. The world is independent of us, yet how we pay attention to the world reveals the world to us in a certain sort of way. Such creative attention, as I have mentioned before, is a potent and fluid process of encountering, understanding and expressing. We discern the universe and also change the universe through our discerning and reacting. How we choose to pay attention (for it is certainly a choice), is a significant creative and moral act: it both makes and enlarges the world.

An inevitable musical metaphor illustrates what I mean. As a performer I could just play in a mechanical-yet-very-accurate manner, only paying attention to the formal and technical aspects of a piece. Yet this is clearly a diminished performance because of the absence of attention to expression, feeling or "ensemble" (the connection with other performers and the audience), those aspects of performance that fall under the realm of musicianship. The former attention to musical technique is only worthwhile if the latter attention to musicianship is present. To be a good musician you need to bring to bear many different ways of paying attention, each of which contributes to a new unique entity containing and combining all these integrated aspects.

We pay attention in this creative manner because it gives us an enlarged, affirmative and stimulating way to participate in and transform the universe. Put bluntly, it brings meaning to life.

As I said at the beginning...

To what we pay attention is important. How we pay attention is equally consequential but often unconscious. Considering why we pay attention is perhaps most significant ~ an engaging, poignant and sadly neglected opportunity for self-examination.

I sincerely hope we all find a way to pay attention in a more compassionate, creative and magnified manner.

Especially if you're a programmer. ;-)