October 2, 2018


The “Next Big Thing” is a Room

Steve Krouse (@stevekrouse) is a programming language researcher. You can follow his work and podcast at futureofcoding.org and join the Slack community at futureofcoding.org/slack.

If you don’t look up, Dynamicland seems like a normal room on the second floor of an ordinary building in downtown Oakland. There are tables and chairs, couches and carpets, scattered office supplies, and pictures taped up on the walls. It’s a homey space that feels more like a lower school classroom than a coworking environment. But Dynamicland is not a normal room. Dynamicland was designed to be anything but normal.

Led by the famous interface designer Bret Victor, Dynamicland is the offshoot of HARC (Human Advancement Research Community), most recently part of YCombinator Research. Dynamicland seems like the unlikeliest vision for the future of computers anyone could have expected.

Let’s take a look. Grab one of the scattered pieces of paper in the space. Any will do as long as it has those big colorful dots in the corners. Don’t pay too much attention to those dots. You may recognize the writing on the paper as computer code. It’s a strange juxtaposition: virtual computer code on physical paper. But there it is, in your hands. Go ahead and put the paper down on one of the tables. Any surface will do.

Photo by by Alex Handy

Now you see this is not a normal room at all. Suddenly there’s something else on the table. Something dynamic and visual. It may even be making a sound. Grab some more of those pieces of paper. Slap them down on the table as well. Shapes, characters, and noises are now inhabiting this room alongside you. They grow, move, and distort along the table, interacting with each other, and possibly with physical objects on the table, like popsicle sticks, colored cubes, and small robots on wheels.

Yet it’s still just a room. Not virtual reality. Not augmented reality. Certainly not blockchain-reality. It’s a mostly normal room. That is until you get it started. Or look up.

Now you look up. The ceiling is quite full. There suspended are dozens of high-powered projectors, cameras, and speakers, all pointed down at the room, waiting for your code to make them come alive.

Dynamicland is a new kind of computer. It’s not a gadget that you keep in your pocket, nor one you can slip into your bag. The whole darn room is the computer.

Illustration by Dynamicland

A computer the size of a room? No screens? What antiquated notions! This vision looks very different than the virtual reality we’re eagerly anticipating.

Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One. Credit to: Warner Bros.

The better our computers and smartphones get, the further we get from physical reality, and the more we want to leave it behind entirely. We are tired of our limiting bodies holding us back with their aching backs, bleary eyes, and strained finger joints. As Victor says:

We’ve almost given up on the body already. We sit at a desk while working, and sit on a couch while playing, and even sit while transporting ourselves between the two. We’ve had to invent this peculiar concept of artificial “exercise” to keep our bodies from atrophying altogether.

It won’t be long before almost every one of our daily activities is mediated by a “computer” of some sort. If these computers are not part of the physical environment, if they bypass the body, then we’ve just created a future where people can and will spend their lives completely immobile.

Why do you want this future? Why would this be a good thing?

In The Human Representation of Thought, Bret Victor pointed to this picture of the ascent and descent of man, “This is what it means to do knowledge work nowadays. This is what it means to be a thinker. It means sitting and working with symbols on a tiny rectangle… This style of knowledge work, this lifestyle is inhumane.”

Our computers have lured us into a cage of our own making. We’ve reduced ourselves to disembodied minds, strained eyes, and twitching, clicking, typing fingertips. Gone are our arms and legs, back, torsos, feet, toes, noses, mouths, palms, and ears. When we are doing our jobs, our vaunted knowledge work, we are a sliver of ourselves. The rest of us hangs on uselessly until we leave the office and go home.

Worse than pulling us away from our bodies, our devices have ripped us from each other. Where are our eyes when we speak with our friends, walk down the street, lay in bed, drive our cars? We know where they should be, and yet we also know where they end up much of the time. The tiny rectangles in our pockets have grabbed our attention almost completely.

And worst of all, we’ve lost sight of the most salient part about computers: their malleability. We’ve acquiesced the creation of our virtual worlds, where we now spend most of our time, to the select few who can spend the millions to hire enough software engineers. So many of the photons that hit our eyes come from purely fungible pixels, yet for most of us, these pixels are all but carved in stone. Smartphone apps, like the kitchen appliances before them, are polished, single-purposes tools with only the meanest amount of customizability and interoperability. They are monstrosities of code, millions of lines, that only an army of programers could hope to tame. As soon as they can swipe, our children are given magical rectangles that for all their lives will be as inscrutable as if they were truly magic.

And yet it all seems inevitable. That’s why Dynamicland is so unexpected and refreshing. Bret Victor works in a very different spirit than the Silicon Valley’s “disruptive” technologists. Victor is the latest of a rich intellectual lineage working to “augment human intelligence” and “ensure human wisdom exceeds human power”, such as Vannevar Bush (Memex), J. C. R. Licklider (ARPANET), Ivan Sutherland (graphical user interface), Douglas Engelbart (computer mouse, HCI, “the mother of all demos”), Seymour Papert (LOGO), Alan Kay (object-oriented programming, graphical computer windows, desktop metaphor), Ted Nelson (hypertext, hypermedia), and Mitch Resnick (Scratch).

In many respects, Alan Kay, co-founder of Dynamicland and “intellectual parent” to Bret, is largely responsible how our computers look and work today. Infamously in 1979, Steve Job visited Xerox PARC and later used many of Kay’s ideas in the Apple Macintosh (which in turn were used in the Windows operating system). Less well known is that in 1975 Kay proposed a computational tablet, the “Dynabook”, that bears much resemblance to the modern iPad!

One way to understand Dynamicland is as a reaction to the wild success of, and the subsequent regrets about, Xerox PARC. The original inventors of computers didn’t mean to be taken so literally. This was just one possible vision for computing–not the only one and certainly not the best one. Today Bret is showing us a better way forward. A more humane computer. And that computer is not a device. It’s a normal-seeming room.

We shouldn’t be that surprised. Almost every room in every building is also normal-seeming, but quietly powered with technology embedded in the ceiling. Light! It’s so commonplace now that we hardly spare it a thought. Every room comes equipped with one or more buttons in the wall to control these lights. We’ve made on-demand lighting a part of our infrastructure.

Light is not a device we charge up and carry around in our pockets. Imagine how much dimmer that world would be: people carrying flashlights, shooting small cones of light wherever they go. It would be a small, lonely, personal world, a world where we only get to see one thing at a time, a world where one of your hands is always full with an electronic gadget.

That’s what Dynamicland is trying to show us: we do live in that atomized, handheld world. We charge up and carry around our personal computing devices for our eyes only. New technology is eagerly anticipated as something to wait in line at the Apple Store for, to be purchased and coveted, not invested in and shared as a public utility.

When you invest in public utilities, like roads, electricity, light, you get more than you pay for. You get so many things “for free.” This is also the case at Dynamicland. There are many, many things that come “for free” as a function of its design.

For one, you get “multiplayer”, Google-docs-style collaboration for free. At Dynamicland computing is social like cooking is social. It’s also physical like cooking is physical. You’re not seated in front of a single-person screen, but walking around an open space, using a range of tools. It’s incredibly natural to walk up to someone “cooking” up some code, offering to lend a hand, divvying up tasks, and improvising on the fly. You use your hands in all the myriad ways they’re meant to be used:

Photo by Bret Victor

When I visited Dynamicland in January, I was building on a spreadsheet-like program next to my friend Omar who was building a map-based interface. Just by virtue of sitting next to each other, we were able to keep apprised of what the other was up to. At some point Omar needed a way to input a number to control the zoom of his map. My spreadsheet program had plenty of numbers, and ways to manipulate numbers, so we slid over one of my pieces of paper and it immediately worked to zoom into his maps. Omar decided that he’d prefer a slider-based number-input, and after it was built, he slid it over to my side of the table, and we used a multiplication operator I had built to expand the slider’s range. Again, it just worked. At Dynamicland you get composability and interoperability “for free.”

Much of what you get “for free” at Dynamicland comes from the fact that it’s embedded in a very powerful computation engine: reality. The world is naturally built for multiple people. The world also has many contrivances for inputting data: buttons, pages, layouts, and drag-and-drop. At Dynamicland, there’s no need to code any of that. We can outsource that computation to its original source and merely capture it via cameras on the ceiling. The slider Omar built was a pebble on top of a long strip of paper. The numbers I made were square pieces of paper that you could place colored “poker chips” onto, each color chip representing different multiple of ten. Anywhere a number is required, either will do — or any other number representation you dream up and program into the system. Copy-and-paste is literally making a photocopy and literally pasting something with glue or tape where you want it. Drag-and-drop is, well, physically moving objects around. The user interface phrases “direct manipulation” and “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) have quite literal meanings at Dynamicland.

Dynamicland is designed to be understandable, modifiable by all. There’s almost a Jeffersonian spirit of rustic individualism about the space. Code is always shown in plain view, printed right on each page. Moreover, it’s considered “bad style” to write code that fits on more than an 11×17 sized page of printer paper. The whole system, Realtalk OS, runs on mere thousands of lines of code, two whiteboards, back to back. That’s it.

Realtalk OS by Bret Victor

It’s understandability, customizability, and mashup-ability by default — a stark contrast to the slick, polished, and discrete apps on our home screens. Instead of apps, people build “kits”, aggregations of various pages that augment each other. My friend Omar has spent a lot of time putting together Geokit, which allows you to print out maps, move them around, zoom in and out, and layer on demographic data. But it’s just a kit, a few pieces of paper in a box. You can use it in conjunction with other little paper programs you’ve created, other kits, or get your hands dirty by modify its code directly. If the changes you’ve made are good, grab the “Print this page” page and point it at your modified code. The new version is waiting for you at the nearest printer.

Geokit’s parts by Omar Rizwan

This kind of fluid, flexible media could entirely reshape children’s relationship with technology. Instead playing Flappy Bird, Minecraft or Fortnite, imagine kids co-creating a hybrid digital and physical game together. Make-believe meets the digital age.

From the Dynamicland Zine

It’s also not difficult to imagine a future Dyanmicland-inspired living room where a family could invent a new game like Laser Socks in a couple hours and play it that same night!

Laser Socks by Glen Chiaccchieri

The printing press was perhaps the greatest time technology gave us the tools to understand the world around us. The mass-printed word gave us revolution in every corner of humanity: religious with Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses; political with Locke, Paine, and newspapers; scientific with Newton, Galileo, and research journals; and artistic with the birth of the novel. As a society we decided that this new medium deserved to be in the hands of the people, elevating and enlightening us all. It was a requirement of democracy to have a free press and well-read public. That’s why we built our libraries: normal-seeming rooms, open to the public, and packed to the brink with all of the knowledge of humanity’s best thinkers through the ages.

If you walk into a library today, these once proud books mostly sit and collect dust. Occasionally someone will check one out, but physical books no longer have the allure they once had. They can be gotten easier and quicker – albeit still not cheaper – via our digital screens. But libraries still have their uses. If you duck around the stacks of books and head to the back, you’ll see a diverse crowd filling up almost all of the seats. Most of them are on their computers, some are on the computers provided by the library, and a few are reading books. Isn’t it a bit sad that in this beautifully public space, everyone is off in their own world, doing their own thing? There’s no talking. There’s no collaboration.

What if we decided to reimagine our public intellectual spaces to fit the new medium of the day? What if we built our public spaces to be truly public, truly shared, and reverse some of the atomizing influences of the last media revolution?

Libraries didn’t happen by accident. Andrew Carnegie built 2,509 of them with his own money. Dynamicland isn’t cheap, and it too won’t happen by accident. It’s scraping by with just enough funding each day. Will a modern-day Carnegie come to its, and all of our, rescue? Or will we need to take matters into our own hands, making a thousand small little donations on the Dynamicland website? Or could it be possible that the government foots the bill on this one? Or most likely yet, will Dynamicland fade into the background as one more vision of the future that never comes to pass? What future do you wish to inhabit? Think on these questions the next time you walk into a room and flip on the lights.

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