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For years, I saw the consumerization1 of computers as a decision passed down from corporations.

Computers in 1980s and 2010s

And it made sense. The optimal user in the eyes of industry is a user of major social networks, a buyer of apps: a person for whom expectations of technology have drifted from power to simplicity.

But the third or fourth time watching The Future of Programming, after the preceding series by Bret Victor, I saw more.

The task of changing the way people think about computing is in the hands of people like you and me - there’s no establishment preventing progress besides the enforcement of norms by a community.

We are in a stage of stunted development - using computers creatively is still unnecessarily hard, unjustly handicapping people with great ideas but neither time nor the ‘symbol manipulation’ skills currently required to ‘become programmers.’

Creativity

Technology is naturally an instrument of efficiency: rarely is there more than a second between a person’s request for some total, average, or search, and a computer’s production of a result.

In this way, efficiency is simple: one person defines one operation and refines it to perfection.

Creativity requires something more. Not just polishing a single path, but determining the minimal universal set of building blocks. Building creative tools is deciding the dimension of a Lego.

Typing Everything

Like the AI winter, the idea of computers being user-friendly in ways beyond being ‘simple’ is a fascination that comes and goes and is currently gone.

Right now I’m trying this in vim, a twenty-one year old text editor with notoriously difficult user-experience choices: to quit, a user must type :wq. To delete this paragraph, I type <escape>vjjd. It makes sense after a while, or so they say. When I’m done, it’s commited with git, a CLI-centric tool for managing source code, and pushed to GitHub, where it’s compiled with Jekyll and the text-based Markdown content is processed into HTML with templates.

Five years ago, I would go to WordPress and press ‘Save’.

To generate a visualization, I usually break out d3js, a low-level Javascript library that expects at a minimum knowledge of SVG, data joining, HTML, and CSS. Either that, or I’ll use node-canvas, which requires node.js proficiency and a solid dose of trigonometry in order to do anything interesting.

Ten years ago, I would open Excel, make a chart, and press ‘Save’.

Precision and Control

Espresso Machine

There’s a beauty to removing abstraction, to low-maintenance fixies and the resurgence of the straight razor.

But is it useful to remove abstraction when it exposes a much larger surface of unrelated complexity? If an artist has an idea of a beautiful visualization, should they spend a year learning JavaScript? And is that startup cost reasonable, like the time invested in learning the way paint mixes?

ART && CODE Symposium: Hackety Hack, why the lucky stiff from STUDIO for Creative Inquiry on Vimeo.

_why, his presentation at art && code, referred to the ‘learn web programming’ argument as unreasonable - for people just starting to understand programming, why learn three inter-connected languages at once?

Is it even reasonable or useful to recommend people learn a computer language to complete basic tasks like drawing a picture or running a calculation? While we have better resources than ever before to learn programming, programming hasn’t changed in years, and the basic assumption of those writing languages, libraries and more is that they write tools for people who know programming already.

Only a few examples, like Mary Rose Cooke’s Isla and Alan Kay’s Squeak languages are written for anyone other than an adult with lots of time on their hands.

The Unhappy Simplicity of Choices

And so the positive argument is to make things visible, to reconsider and eliminate historical complexity. In other words, to fight for simple and easy.

There are different kinds of easy.

There’s the easy of choosing the right thing: this is the land of presets, of ‘builders’ that are just glorified wizard patterns, with the same baked in assumption: ‘a single goal’. This is what you can see in tools like Highcharts, that attempt to build ‘all possible variations’ and invite you to choose one.

Anyone can guess the ending - opinionated software is only cool if you have cool opinions, and even then presets will never capture creativity.

Charts

d3 takes a different approach. It’s a visualization library that grapples with the fact that visualizations have very little in common with each other: the ‘atoms’ of d3, the lowest-level ‘things’ you can do, are very low-level. At the most basic level, you’re drawing lines, polygons, text, and primitives. Abstractions above these things, like axes and charts, can be broken down, decomposed as necessary.

This makes d3 hard, and makes some things ‘more complicated’ in comparison to libraries that correctly guess what you want and ‘have it already’. But instead of fighting assumptions and instead of hiding complexity in them, d3 successfully tackles nearly the entire ‘visualization space’ and, after the initial brain-crunch, is actually simpler to understand deeply.

Interface Atoms

Drawing Dynamic Visualizations from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

The demo in this video is interesting because it’s so fundamental.

A simpler, easier thing to implement would have a person dragging data onscreen, the software automatically chooses 20 chart types that seem right, and then present a limited set of options. Not only would this be much easier to do, but it would result in fewer clicks, a shorter learning curve, and an easier thing to sell.

But that would be doing it wrong - that would result in the same contained, handicapped experimentation as we’ve had in years of bad wizard user interfaces. Instead, the basic units of this demo are on the level of d3 - unopinioned visual elements that can be composed into a much larger and more diverse set of outcomes.

Next

I’ve started on minor work that pushes in this direction - that tries to make ‘user interface’ elements behave like code and to enable ‘users’ to think more like coders, the way they already think when writing Excel macros or meal recipes.

And it’s hard. Libraries like jQuery UI have faded in importance and attention and in their place we have tools like Bootstrap that embrace ‘content as king’ and punt on user interaction beyond clicking buttons.

This isn’t an immediate need for me, nor is it a simple thing that can be packaged up into a trendy JavaScript library. In between thinking these thoughts and having something usable, it’s a lot of building difficult things from scratch with little to show for it. And there are numerous distractions and skeletons of previous efforts along the path - after all, visual programming is a 1960s idea that hasn’t stuck yet.

But I can’t picture anything more interesting to work on at this point. It has been stunning to see people exploit what little means of expression are exposed on the web, despite the efforts of industry and programmers to restrict us to 140 chars and sanitized ASCII text.

Or that it seems unimaginative to constrain creativity to inputs and outputs designed by others and assume that the true power of computers - programmability - is something to be exploited by the select few.

Posted Sep 05, 2013 Tweet / Follow me on Twitter

Tom MacWright

I'm . I work on tools for creativity at Mapbox. This is where I write about technology and everything else.