16 November 2010

"Sexy" software

It has always rubbed me the wrong way when software is described as "sexy." There is something about the context that just seems off. Well, I just got around to reading a book I've been intending to read since 2006, "Female Chauvinist Pigs" by Ariel Levy. It's about how pop-culture & the media have managed to convince much of society that it is "empowering" for a woman to um…objectify herself quickly, before a man does (you can probably guess by my phrasing that I do not agree with the women who buy into this, and neither does the author). Anyway, there's a paragraph in there that sums up nicely my discomfort with the use of the word "sexy" to describe, well, things that have nothing to do with, you know, sex:

Sex appeal has become a synecdoche for all appeal: People refer to a new restaurant or job as “sexy” when they mean hip or powerful. A U.S. Army general was quoted in The New Yorker regarding an air raid on the Taliban as saying “it was sexy stuff,” for instance; the New York Times ran a piece on the energy industry subheadlined “After Enron, Deregulation Is Looking Less Sexy.” For something to be noteworthy it must be “sexy.” Sexiness is no longer just about being arousing or alluring, it’s about being worthwhile.

OK, so your software is "worthwhile" then. Got it. Congratulations, I guess? But…why??? Is it faster than the alternative? Does it have a more intuitive UI? Does it colour-coordinate better than the garish purple, green, and red interface full of <blink> tags of the alternative? Does it take what is normally a complicated 15-step manual process and distill it into a simple 3-step process wherein the computer intuits many of the steps itself? If so, say that! That'd be an actual useful description!

Feminist aside: the flipside of this is the implication that if a thing or person isn't "sexy," it's worthless.


Anonymous said...

I remember when Ubuntu used to ship sexy-python as part of the default install. That was a fun thing to see flash by on update manager.

Anonymous said...

Not being sexy is definitely really sexy.

Sup said...

I am all pro-feminism (really) but I do not think "sexy" has that much to do with it - I am male and sometimes use that word to describe myself (in a semi-ironic way sometimes, but not always - i.e. I may have said something like "I look way more sexy with this new haircut"). I understand this is not your general point, but then again to my understanding "sexy" just means attractive. Of course, it has to do with the fact that sex has become profane in our culture, but that to me does not necessarily mean a bad thing. And it does not have to be the woman who is objectified (even though mostly it is the woman, which _is_ bad if it is only her).

Anonymous said...

It's simple, really: a "sexy" person is is trying to specifically provoke sexual arousal in other people, and I have yet to see a computer program capable of that. It's more than a bit silly.

Or it could be more complex. Maybe I'm anthropomorpising things too much, but, ahem...

Software is an form of art that exists for its utilitarian qualities: we need effort to use software, we expect greater results in return. If one could form a relationship with art, it'd be easy to form a "casual friendship" with other forms of art that just exist to bring joy to everyone without any strings attached. But you're using software, you're it's boss; with power comes responsibility. It's only natural to start thinking that other qualities that actually get the job done far, far, far outweigh "sexiness".

Software can be elegantly constructed, software can be beautiful in appearance, software can be easy to work with, software can be powerful. But software exists to serve, and things that serve us deserve respect.

Hope this doesn't sound too weird. =)

mojomother22 said...

It's just language in the end, and personally, I've never found language to be really worth investigating since the sensibilities surrounding language are "evolving" (i.e. randomly fluctuating) even more quickly than those of morals, religion and other zeitgeist-driven "pillars of society".

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gropecunt_Lane for a good example. What's unacceptable today was commonplace yesterday; what's annoying today (like using the word "sexy" when it doesn't really apply according to its original meaning) won't be worth mentioning tomorrow. If in doubt, look up the etymologies of the following terms: "To brag", "To flaunt", "Cool" etc., not to mention "File", "Folder", "Desktop" and "Bug" which also had vastly different meanings than they do today without anyone caring.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't sexy just mean "appealing", as the article you mention says it ?
So a statement as "software should be sexy" really means it should be appealing to new users, that is simple, useful, good looking.
That does not mean that a complex tool with arid UI is worthless, it means it will attract less users. FOSS has proven it's ability to create powerful but not so sexy stuff (say emacs or vi), but to attract more users, it needs some sexy^Wattractive tools.

Anonymous said...

I used to live in Iran and python-sexy updates were blocked. One more reason to avoid naming your software sexy.

Anonymous said...

From a decidedly anti-feminist perspective (mine) I'm with Mackenzie on this one. Why not just describe your software with less ambiguous terms. What's "sexy" to you might not be sexy to me.

Some suggest it means attractive. Well it *can* mean just attractive and there are degrees of it. But as someone with an incredibly low sexual drive, I can tell you that every time one of my lovers tells me I am "sexy" I know that they are wanting something I quite probably do no want at that moment myself. So sexy becomes not a compliment but often a source of angst.

"I used to live in Iran and python-sexy updates were blocked. One more reason to avoid naming your software sexy."

Or it is a reason to continue to name your software as you choose. What happens when Iranian leaders discover that quite a few of us Cobol programmers worship the Lords of Kobol. Zeus, Apollo, Athena and others are among my gods and goddesses. Should I rename my tools then as well?

Anonymous said...

I agree, I don't like how everything of value is considered through it's sexual nature first.

Even stupid things as innocuous as hugging is now "too sexual" for too many people. It's like they have their head confused with their reproductive organs.

Jessica said...

I've called code "sexy" because it was beautiful, hip, cool, awesome, rad, off the chain, fierce, and other cliches. Like others, I can have almost a whole conversation with just the word "dude." I didn't think of "sexy" as anything other than a word like "dude" or "cool." Now I am.

Anonymous said...

Hey you got me curious:

$ apt-cache search sexy
libsexy-dev - collection of additional GTK+ widgets - header files
libsexy-doc - Collection of additional GTK+ widgets - documentation files
libsexy2 - collection of additional GTK+ widgets - library
libgooglecharts-ruby - Ruby library to create sexy charts using the Google API (dummy package)
libgooglecharts-ruby1.8 - Ruby library to create sexy charts using the Google API

MagicFab said...

That went out a bit too fast... how can we suggest new descriptions that can be useful ?

I understand what you say - but approaching someone with the "this is not sex" argument may not make a point.

However, approaching a dev with "I can't figure out what your software does" may be more effective and ultimately have the same result.

Rolandixor said...

I totally agree with this post! Software isn't sexy! Heck! It's code! ELECTRONS! D:

Good one :)

Rolandixor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dustin Kirkland said...

If I refer to software (or any non-human subject) as 'sexy', I'm using the term purely as a figure of speech, to note that the target is attractive in an intangible manner, appealing to senses more than logic.

I see nothing wrong with this use of the term 'sexy'. Sorry to disagree, Maco ;-)


Nosh said...

Worth causes sexiness, sexiness does not cause worth.

Cause and effect are not interchangeable.

What you've suggested is akin to saying falling causes gravity.

Briten said...

After reading this post I agree with Maco. Especially since Software is basically a piece of writing. It can be good, but sexy is probably not the most useful adjective.

Kevin Cole said...

So instead we should say "That code is F'ing awesome!" No, wait... Isn't F'ing a sex act? What about "Hot?" If you say "That dude is hot," do I take it to mean you believe he is uncomfortable and should do something to lower his body temperature? Or are you implying something else? Of course, removing his shirt might accomplish both. ;-)

Language is rather pliant (especially in my hands, heh). "Geeks" have taken ownership of a word that once had a much more negative connotation. So, the morphing of the meaning of "sexy" away from "I would like to get in bed with," to something a bit more abstract is just the nature of things.

My Java professor wants to do away with "bug" and substitute "error" as she does not feel that the ASL sign "bug" conveys the right meaning. Well, it doesn't... without the history, but neither does the English word. Meanwhile my life-partner said "Keep bug," but then wanted to throw out the sign for "boot" and use "start" instead.

While I don't deny some of the issues that exist, I think there are considerably bigger fish to fry than eliminating "sexy" which I have taken to mean (currently) "aesthetically pleasing to the point of excitement" be it a person, car or bit of code.