Here at MESH we recently took in an old (well, 2014) talk of Bret Victor, entitled “The Humane Representation of Thought“. Victor’s presentation style is excellent and the whole thing is well worth a watch. I’ll touch on a few points that resonated with us.
The current state of knowledge work.
Victor states that the current prevailing format of knowledge work — sitting at a desk and making small movements with our hands, usually in front of a screen — is an accident of history. He believes this has caused other forms of knowledge making to atrophy, specifically those outside the realm of symbols and language-based representations. In other words, the media we’ve created as a civilization have constrained our intellectual abilities. As just one concrete example, this form of knowledge work creates disembodiment that leads our physical bodies to deteriorate through lack of motion. Victor therefore believes that a humane* and empowering form of knowledge work will be found in the creation of a dynamic medium which draws on all of our varied ways of understanding and making meaning. Such a medium would utilize the enactive (action-based), iconic (image-based) and symbolic (language-based) representations (as in the work of Jerome Bruner).
What is programming?
Victor points out that when we say programming, we really mean two distinct activities: engineering and authoring. Engineering can be viewed as a thing-to-thing activity, usually consisting of writing code to meet a specification document. Authoring on the other hand is a person-to-person activity where the thing that is created is really just an intermediary for the message.
How to create a dynamic authoring tool?
The question these points raise is: how can we create better tools for authoring? Code is often too linear a process for something like design, for example (although designers are increasingly turning to code to push the boundaries of what they are able to create). Victor argues for a form of dynamic authoring that is more sketchy, more improvisational and looks more like free expression than the precise world of code. He notes that dynamic material is a support to our own thought process, and calls for the creation of physical dynamic models. To continue the ascent of human intellectual activity, Victor concludes with a call to action toward “deliberate and conscientious” work to create a truly dynamic medium.
Back at MESH we are working hard to create tools that support creativity in a very broad sense. We can’t claim to have a truly dynamic medium under development, at least not on the scale imagined by Victor. But we can work to create tools which facilitate multiple modes of representation and interaction (through text, visual programming, 3D geometry in technical and rendered forms and a rich array of physical and virtual inputs and outputs) and that support a kind of sketchy and exploratory workflow. We’re looking forward to pushing these ideas forward in continued iterations of development.
*not sure I totally agree with the use of this word but it’s still a good point.