Is There an App for DIY Computing?

Freedom of expression?

Many of the readings for this week struck me as unsettlingly prophetic. (The vintage ones, of course – Bush, Kay, and Engelbart.) Maybe it makes perfect sense that given the state of computing in the ’60s and ’70s, the paths and possibilities would have already been clear to computer literate creative thinkers. Indeed, in the Kay video, he basically implies that some of the earliest design programs, like Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad, were better for intuitive human use than the ones available in the ’80s. So maybe all the pieces were there. Indeed, Manovich goes as far as to say that Sketchpad “already contains most of the genes…of contemporary graphics applications” (p. 93).

Manovich notes that Kay referred to “metasystems that can support many kinds of information structures” as “a first metamedium,” Nelson as hypertext and hypermedia, and Engelbart as “automated external symbol manipulation” and “bootstrapping,” but that “behind the differences in their visions lay the similar understanding of the radically new potential offered by computers for information manipulation” (p. 83). So, have we harnessed that potential?

The answer appears to be yes and no. There’s no doubt that today’s computers are interactive and to some extent can “support the processes of thinking, discovery, decision making, and creative expression” (Manovich p. 83). But are these interactions too mediated? In class we’ve discussed the question of who owns computing technology. Indeed, if we’ve fallen short of the interactive visions of the ’60s and ’70s, the gap can be found in the divide between creators and consumers.

As the saying goes, there’s an app for everything under the sun. Lots of people know how to make apps; but lots don’t. The latter group is fully dependent on the market to provide them with the tools they want to manipulate information. As long as a software is a commodity packaged for consumption rather than a learning tool to which everyone has access, we consumers will be following preordained channels for interacting with technology. Programmers may be able to approximate an experience like Beth and Jimmy’s (with Kay’s DynaBook), but our choices will all have to be anticipated by the creator of that experience.

Kay writes “What then is a personal computer? One would hope that it would be both a medium for containing and expressing arbitrary symbolic notions, and also a collection of useful tools for manipulating these structures, with ways to add new tools to the repertoire.” For most people, the way to add new tools to the repertoire is to download them from the market. (Even free software often survives off ads on the downloads page.) To take it down another level to basic computer literacy, as long as 90% of people don’t know how to use Ctrl/Command+F, they will download a “word search” add-on or program that someone else made. (Full disclosure: I only learned to use Ctrl/Command+F a few years ago. And the word search add-on is conjecture.)

On the other hand, how big a trade-off would we be making to spend the time it takes to learn to code and gain a high level of computer literacy? If like Beth and Jimmy, we all learned from early childhood to manipulate and create software, would it become as natural a skill as writing on paper?

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.