Future of Coding

Dynamicland Zine Notes


Notes from 1st reading

Douglas Engelbart

real objects, physical space, collaborative

“People sthand inside their dynamic model, exploring and understanding with their hands, their eyes, their physical bodies.” –> At TCS, I have to tell kids to stand up and act out the turtle. In Dynamicland, you’re already standing, acting out the turtle by default.

A physical arranagement of blocks seems so much more fun and naturally explorable than Scratch’s menu that overwhelms. At the same time, Lego pieces on the floor can be overwhelming. Fun design problem!

What about people who want to work from home? What about people who live far away? Virtual space has benefits. This makes me wonder if virtual reality is the right medium for this type of space. Downsides include: lack of touch (both people and physical objects), smell, and potentially movement. However, this makes me think of Ready Player One. How far away are we from being able to simulate touch, movement, or smell? (This reminds me of Irvin’s work, as well as Rumpus.land, which is showcased in the Zine as well.)

Wow! As they say, “play is the work of the child.” Make believe is fun, but think about how much more fun it would be if you could really live in the world you’re imagining. And from the “medium is the message” perspective, this really gives kids the message that what they imagine can be made real, tangible. Reality is flexible.

Lol! “Etoys. The Worthiest successor to Logo, and key influence on MIT’s Scratch.” Take that Scratch!

Holy shit. I’m so fucking sold on this vision.

Next steps:

Reflections from 1st reading

My head is literally spinning. How do I spend time here? Would it make sense to work there?

I just looked its location up on Google Maps. It’s in a cool part of Oakland, right off the 12th st BART stop. I love that area. I could live in Berkeley or Oakland no problem. Lake Meritt area was a dream. And I’ve also said that Berkeley is my favorite place in the world. I wonder what my partner would say about all this. I wonder if she’d be up to live there for a few months to year…

Second reading

Front page

1) It’s very abstract. It’s hard to understand. 2) It doesn’t draw me in. I had this sitting on my desk for weeks, and a virtual copy for even longer, and never flipped it open. I had to set aside time on my calendar to actually open it up and engage with it. Potentially they need to start with the problem or question as opposed to describing the solution.

Second Page: Tools to Think New Thoughts

The scientific revolution wouldn’t have been possible without the printing press. Wow. I don’t know if that connect really ever sunk in before. Journals, citations, criticism.

Doug Englebart - augment human intellect Seymout Papert - generator of microworlds Alan Kay - having a hard time figuring out his key insight, which is suprising given that I spent two weeks on him. I’m not exactly sure what his crusaide is in the Inventing on Principle sense. It feels very similar to Seymour Papert’s crusiade, but maybe combined with a media-studies sense. (Just spent 15 minutes reading Alan Kay quotes and am still at a loss.)

Third Page: Together, Not In Isolation

It’s occuring to me here that they start with 1) the front page with the high level picutre. 2) The second and third pages labeled “First, some context.” That’s a lot to slog through until we arrive at a problem at the bottom of the third page – personal computing is isolating – and we don’t even address one of the main problems – that personal computing is inhumane for the physical human body.

Phsyical spaces are powerful. While definitely true, the scientific revolution wouldn’t have happened without the printing press. Why is that? Physical spaces have been around for millenia but boom the printing press shows up and people can read and criticize each other from large distances and major advances in all fields emerge. (Now I’m wondering if the printing press could be responsible for artistic innovations in this time period. For example, were there pictures of Michaelangelo’s work? This might disrupt my theory…)

One feasible explaination is that the printing press allowed the masses to learn complex things, of which some self-selected few would congretate in physical spaces to produce some of the major innovations. That is, the printing press served not only as a disseminator of knowledge but an attractor of people to knowledgeable places.

This addresses one of the main paradoxes of self-directed education in the modern world: 1) knowledge is freely available and accessible to everyone all the time, 2) people want to develop various skills, 3) and yet very few actually do. We normally put the blame on 1) the person’s character or intelligence or 2) the difficulty of the subject matter, but what if what’s missing is the set of largely overlooked interactions that physical spaces facilitate?

For example, The Coding Spaces teaches phsyical classes. We can see with our eyes when a student is fustrated, distracted, tired, or bugging another student. When helping them through a problem, we can validate them emotionally with our eyes, hands, faces, our entire bodies, and then work with them towards understanding, again with our entire bodies and their entire body. Sometimes we stand up and go for a walk to take a break or get water. Other times we facilitate acting out the code with our bodies or just writing it out on the whiteboard.

For another example, I will never forget the scene of my brother and cousins playing minecraft together. They sat the three of them in a row, playing on the same server, on three different computers. They were constantly chatting the entire time, putting to bed the common refrain that video games are isolating. If you watch my brother at the dinner table vs playing video games, you’d say that the dinner table is isolating. Video games are the single most social context in my brothers life! How do adults get this so backwards? (Earlier this year, I was trying to convince my dad that neurological research shows that video games may be better for you than television, despite that we think of an adult who watches 15 hours of TV a week as a normal adult, but an adult who plays 15 hours of video games a week as a child. “No!” he shouted. Video games are the worst, he said. They rot your brain. The perfect irony here is that at the literal moment he was saying those words, he was also playing Words with Friends with his mom.) Even more impressive than the socializing I was watching during their minecraft play was their learning. Given that they were narrating what they were doing as they played together in the same space, they were each constantly bombarded with new techniques that they didn’t know. All they had to do was say, “Cool! How’d you do that?” and the knowledge one would jump out of his seat and run over to put his hands on the others’ keyboard and show them how. It was one of the best displays of just-in-time learning I have ever seen. And you can contrast this to the isolated experience I had where I tried to figure out minecraft on my own. It was the worst and I quit immediately.

But what about travel?

I get it. Physical space is the zenith for collaboration. But what about travel? We are all spread out in phsyical space. Traveling is not free. One of the biggest things that the personal computer unlocked is freedom from location. The digital nomad lifestyle. The working-from-home lifestyle, which I’m doing right now and LOVE LOVE LOVE. An employer would have to pay me so much more money to come into an office given that this option is available to me at other companies.

Think about people who can’t travel to be with you physically because of finances, visa issues, family issues, etc. For example, I grew up in an urban sprawl. That means that all of my friends were a minimum of a 10 minute drive from where I lived. Until you were sixteen and your parents bought you a car (if that was financially an option for you), you were locked into your house and school. Anywhere else you wanted to go, you needed someone to take you, either a parent or public transportation. (Yes, Uber has revolutionized this for many young people in urban sprawls but mostly only for young people with wealthy parents in urban sprawls.) (For me, Amazon was a game-changer. I could order toothpaste or other knicknacks without having to nag my mom for them.) My parents didn’t allow video games growing up, but I had many frinds that loved playing games together. They would put on their headsets and have a few hours of fun. If those same two people wanted to meet up in person, they’d have to convince one of their parents to drive them an hour one way. Drive back for an hour. And then a few hours later, drive an hour there and back again. 4 hours of driving for my kid to play with another kid after school? No way. But 2 hours of social video game time after school? Sure, why not.

Even closer to home: I desperately want to visit Dynamicland. Yet it’s across the country from me. That means a $500 plane ticket, let alone a place to stay. My body has trouble sitting for a 6 hour plane ride. In the past, the journey would have likely caused my back to spasm and be thrown out. (Luckily I am getting this under control now with the Alexander Technqiue.) And what if I wanted to work at Dynamicland? I love my life in NYC. I have friends, my girlfriend, a place to live, proximity to family. I could see myself living in Oakland, working for Dynamicland for a few months or a year or two, tops. On the other hand, if Dynamicland was in NYC, or even better if I could work for a research group like Dynamicland from home, I could see myself doing that indefinitely. For decades. My entire career possibly.

People often wonder what life will be like when humans are part-machine. They can stop wondering we already are part machine: that’s what makes us human. The subsuming of tools into ourselves which make us into something better than ourself without the tool. The tools of language, writing, mathmatical notation, books, computers, the internet, the web, wikipedia, email, the smartphone. These tools have changed what it means to be human. If you cut of both my arms, I would be less than I am now. I would literally be able to do less things, like open doors, feed myself, or get dressed. In the same way, if you took away my phone, I would be less. I would be able to do less things, like navigate to an unfamiliar location, get in touch with any of my friends, look up any fact I am curious about, or listen to any book.

Douglas Engelbart’s vision has been partly realized in giving me tools to augment my intellect. When I’m at my workstation with my proper ergonomic keyboard, mouse, standing desk, computer, and wifi, I am drastically augmented. I have mental superpowers.

For me, the first tragedy is that my brain doesn’t stop when I’m not at my workstation. Yet my work, which is thinking, has to stop. My computer is augmenting my thinking to such a degree that without it, I no longer feel like I am thinking. In the movie Limitless, Bradley Cooper’s character takes a pill that makes him a genius. When he runs out of the pill, living inside a normal person’s brain is unbearable. That’s an approximation of what it feels like to me with and without my augmentation.

I’ll be walking around, in the subway, at a coffeeshop, anywhere in the world, and a thought pops into my brain. I want to immediately write it down so that 1) I can make it tangible so as to better examine it, and 2) so that I can recall it later, and 3) so I can share it with others. This means I have to pull my phone out of my pocket, naviate to the appropriate note-taking app, and type it out. There are a few problems with this: 1) if I am traveling, this is unsafe and awkward, 2) if I am with people, this is rude and awkward, 3) if I do this too much my hands hurt from reptitive stress.

And that’s just the first step of having a good idea. What if I want to have multiple sources on the screen at the same time. No room for that in a phone. Sure, you could carry an iPad around but 1) that means you now need to buy another device, 2) carry it with you in a bag, and 3) that’s still not big enough some of the time (although it’s pretty great with the new multi-apps on the same screen).

The second tragedy, which they do articulate well in this zine is, that my augmentation is dimished, not augmented, with collaboration. We are all augmented with our phones and comptuers, but we need to leave those behind to enter a conversation over coffee or a group dinner. If someone has a question that needs to be looked up or a picutre they want to show the group, they have to in effect leave the conversation to go into “phone world”, spend minutes awkwardly rushing to pull up the relevant material, and then pass around the phone to people one by one.

I would bet this is one of the main reasons that I prefer working alone. I have the most power when alone. Other people just slow me down. But what if the tools we had were such that they were augmented via collaboration? Git and github are a great example of this. Ditto for Google Docs. We can do so much better. Imagine a board meeting that takes place in a virtualized room. Imagine a Ted Talk that’s less like powerpoint and more like a museam exhibit or even like a playground.

We all have seen the trope of a family of four, two parents, two kids, each on their own device while eating. Yes, it’s a tragedy. But it’s an understandable tragedy. People want to be themselves, and themselves exist with their techology. They are insperable. The borders between me and my phone are the same as the borders between me and my arms. I was once told at an Indian resturant (or maybe it was an Etheopian resturant), that it was polite to eat with only one hand. The other hand should remain on ones lap. I tried it for a few mintues and then gave up, resuming eating with both hands because I have two arms and I am my two arms. Telling people to put their phones away for dinner is like telling them to not use their left arm for dinner. We can do it, but we’re brining a diminished version of ourself.

What if we could bring our full selves, with our technology, to our conversations? What if our technology enhanced our meals rather than detracted from them? What would this even look like?

An obvious one is that our converstaions could become more factual without sending someone off to do the digging. Sifting for the fact could be communal. Someone could start the query, others could click on a few links, and when then relevant information is found, it could be instantly shared with everyone at the same time.

How could we address the problem mentioned above, where my youngest brother feels disengaged at dinner table conversations? As a person on the autism spectrum, he has trouble relating to others. To help him relate to us, for example, an augmented dinner table would be able to read the emotions on the faces of others at the dinner table and overlay the emotions we’re expressing in written words for him to read. That simple addition would go a long way.

We also have trouble relating to him. For example, he’s into fantasy novels and video games. Yet when he tries to explain these things to us and why a perticular scene was funny or interesting, it often falls flat with the rest of the family. How could an augmented dinner table help us relate to him? Whatif he could seamlessly pull up a recording of a particular scene in a video game to show us? What if as he’s telling us about a particular book, a program that’s listening in the background recognizes its content and pulls up pieces of relevant fan art of the exact scene for the rest of the family to visualize?

Or we could all use various reminders throughout the meal to keep us in check. For example, if someone is speaking too much or someone else isn’t speaking enough, we could get a reminder to let others speak. Or it could simply be a passive bar chart displayed off to the side: relative time each of us has spoken. Or: my parents are often reminding Will to sit up straight or eat his veggies. That’s annoying for everyone at the table. What if the computer could handle those reminders for Will and not bother the rest of us? Similarly, I’ve been trying to cut certain words out of my vocabulary in accordance with Non-violent communication, such as “but” or “should”. Wouldn’t it be great if this system could help me through that, potentially even gamifying it?

The thing is: I don’t want to have dynamic spaces. I want to be a dynamic person. I don’t want Wifi. I want 4G LTE. Wherever I go and whatever context I’m in, I’m my whole self, including my technology. That’s why, more than ever before, I feel like the future is augmented reality and virtual reality (in the Ready Player One sense, not what we currently call virutal reality such as the Occulus), because Dynamicland has convinced me that 1) computing needs to be humane, but – and here’s where I differ from Dyamicland – 2) I want to bring my whole augmented self to my entire life, not just particular spaces.

This brings up the classic brain in a vat. If possible and pixel perfect, clearly that’s the future. This phsyical reality isn’t any more real than a pixel perfect virtual phsyical reality. Because the Matrix. This world could be a simulation. Thus another level of simulation is just more of the same. I guess this future is the one we want as long as its humane in the sense that our physical bodies are cared for to the appropriate degree.

What if we could could upload fully to cloud? This brings up the classic teleportation problem: do you kill the original after you reinstantiate the clone elsewhere? Clearly the answer is yes you do kill the clone but holy shit I’m not sure I would be able to press that button myself.

Fourth Page: Toolkits, Not Apps

Here we are contrasting two metaphors: tools (wrench, screwdriver) to kitchen appliances (nesspresso, vitamix). Or the abacus vs the calculator.

The themes are recombination and improvisation. Remixing. Where the name for Scratch came from. Also the name of my friend Dan Gettleman’s company.

Ari Weinstein’s company Workflow was trying to add recombination and improvisation into the app architecture. Ditto for Zapier and IFFT. But as Bret would say, the underlying architecture should natively support recombination and improvisation. It shouldn’t be a seperate product grafted on.