Douglas Rushkoff, in his new book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, talks about the why it’s important for people to understand programming: “Whoever holds the keys to programming ends up building the reality in which the rest of us live.” It’s a far-reaching statement, but one I’ve believed for a long time. Even at a more basic level, understanding programming gives everyone, especially designers, important problem-solving skills, and insights into the mechanics behind the tools they use.
Unfortunately, programming is hard — or, at least, it’s an skill that requires time and effort to master. Which is why the alternatives offered by visual programming are so enticing — you can create a program simply by wiring together some pre-built modules! It’s really not that different from what modern programmers do — working at high levels of abstraction, connecting code libraries.
In reality, though, visual programming isn’t quite that easy. It still requires an understanding of programming principles; you need to learn how to use the visual programming environment; and each environment offers its own unique benefits and drawbacks. Still, it’s cool to see new developments in the field, and to think about how they could be made even easier to use — giving more people the ability to program.
Impure, from Bestiario, is designed to let users process data and create visualizations. The interface looks a bit chaotic, but the ability to see the data at each stage of it being processed is pretty interesting.
Google’s App Inventor for Android offers the possibility of creating apps for your Android phone. And their demo makes it look pretty easy to build a simple app. No doubt creating a full-featured app would require a lot more work, but it’s a step towards a Hypercard for the mobile era.
App Inventor’s visual block programming is based on Scratch, a cool, and increasingly popular, programming language designed to enable kids to create interactive stories, games, and art.
This last example, Reactable, is an iPhone and iPad music app. Reactable lets you create your own music instrument, and play it, too. It’s a very slick-looking interface, but would certainly takes some time to master. For some reason, perhaps because of the music domain, it makes me think of the old-school Max.