Inventing on Principle

I realize that asking you to spend an hour watching a talk by a programmer at an engineering conference sounds like a lot to ask. But this might be a case where it’s worth the effort.

First of all, in this talk by Brett Victor, there are some pretty fantastic interfaces that he’s developed – most of which are a kind of visual programming. They’re rooted in the idea that “so much of art and creation is about discovery, but how can you discover anything if you can’t see what you’re doing?”

Direct manipulation coding

Brett’s coding app gives a great connection between code and the image generated. You can even select items in the image, and find the code that was responsible for generating it. A gameplay development app lets you look at behaviors over time and see how changes to the code change the timeline. And there’s a fantastic timeline animation tool on the iPad where you can sketch with gestures.

What’s key here is that he puts all this work in the context of a personal, and moral, mission. For Brett, much of this is around the idea that “creators need an immediate connection with what they’re creating.” There can’t be a delay, there can’t be anything that’s hidden. And when Brett sees that people can’t express themselves due to bad interfaces… these aren’t simply opportunities to create something new, but instead they’re injustices and moral wrongs.

Brett speaks about how we all, with our particular skills and lenses on the world, have the ability to recognize wrongs in the world. And there we have the option to dedicate oneself to fighting for a principle. The big idea is that social activists don’t have to fight by organizing, but instead by “inviting.”

Direct manipulation of gameplay behaviors

He gives Larry Tessler as a compelling example. A person who, in the 70’s at Xerox PARC, believed that personal computing could change how people thought and lived. Larry fought against the idea of “modes” — something which was common in software at the time (particularly word processors). Larry’s guiding principle was to eliminate modes — going by “Don’t mode me in.” His text editor Gypsy was the first text editor to demonstrate this principle – for which he also invented cut/copy/paste.

Other examples, of technologists on missions, include Douglas Engelbart (allow people to solve urgent problems), Alan Kay (computer literacy is critical), and Richard Stallman (software must be free).

Timeline creation

He sees the “regular” paths people can take as a craftsman or a problem solver (who looks at crafts and sees things that need changing). But argues for a third path, that of a crusader — someone who follows a principle which is grounded by an insight.

A really nice talk about following your vision for what the world should be.