"A totally different approach."

The class was asked to explore "a totally different approach" to their problem space. As it happens, I missed the class. But brewing in my mind during the winter break was a different – but tangentially related – concern, and in the last few days that idea has started to bark for my attention.

The inception of my work was a response to a low level anxiety about the rapid shift to mobile and smart devices. As groundbreaking as many of these devices are, I became worried about their affordances for creativity. I grew up tinkering on a PC, I looked nervously behind the curtain at the system files, I taught myself rudimentary 3D design and animation. If your primary computer is a phone or tablet, how do you do these things?

My fundamental question is this: as the PC industry declines in favor of mobile, what does this mean for creativity? From child's play, via adult creative exploration, to professional production — are we making things that are more or less capable of making things?

This led me down the path of thinking about input devices, as this felt like one of the blocks with creativity on a tablet (namely screen occlusion, lack of delicate control, inability to develop muscle memory behavior). I extended this to concerns with the desktop, and the wider inhumanity of optimizing for our visual sense alone.

But I do think there is a deeper problem.

In this post at the start of the year I drew together some quotes.

  • Licklider wanted "...to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs"

  • Maeda warns that "The true skill of a digital designer is the practiced art of computer programming, or computation."

  • Haverbeke determines "For open-ended interfaces, such as instructing the computer to perform arbitrary tasks, we’ve had more luck with an approach that makes use of our talent for language: teaching the machine a language."

The trend towards slick but obstinately inflexible, user-friendly but simplified, closed or otherwise gated systems and services has helped millions more people become regular computer users. In many ways this was the vision of the PC pioneers. But this trend has abstracted most notions of 'computation' so fundamentally that computers – and particularly the newer classes of mobile or smart device – have truly become 'appliances'.

Consider this illuminating article preceding the iPad's release, which laid out pioneering Macintosh designer Jef Raskin's vision that 'an information appliance would be a computing device with one single purpose—like a toaster makes toast, and a microwave oven heats up food. This gadget would be so easy to use that anyone would be able to grab it, and start playing with it right away, without any training whatsoever. It would have the right number of buttons, in the right position, with the right software.' One single traditional computing device couldn't achieve this simplicity, but if the screen could morph to dynamically display different buttons it could...

600 million iPhones and 300 million iPads later it seems like that idea has legs.

One of the most inspiring books I've read in pursuit of my thesis thus far is Seymour Papert's Mindstorms.

In the book, from 1980, Papert outlines his philosophy of using computation to help children learn, with examples from his research. Instead of poorer young math students being told they were simply wrong, they were to explore math problems through trial and error. This opens up new ways of critical thinking instead of closing them down. Any programmer knows the pain and joy of problem-solving. The traditional view that there is a right and wrong answer in math (in turn ensuring that poor-performing children assume they just don't get it) is painfully narrow-minded – as it would be to say a programmer is poor for not nailing a problem first time.

"The child programs the computer. And in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think. The experience can be heady: Thinking about thinking turns the child into an epistemologist, an experience not even shared by most adults."

It's a wonderful book.

As a new programmer, I wrote last year about the joys of the experience. It was a revelation, that took me 29 years to discover.

At this point I anticipate the following: OK, but kids are being encouraged to learn code today like never before. There are code clubs, apps like Hopscotch and Scratch, online courses. And adults too – it's the new cool thing to learn to code so you can make an app. What's the problem?

It's subtler than this. But perhaps deeper. And it's going to take me a few more posts to explain. I'm trying to bring into focus a vision of procedural literacy and empowerment that makes the technological world more participatory and malleable to the "casual programmer". I came across the latter term in frog design's 2015 Tech Trends: "A shift is underway in software and service design where the command and control of this complex connected world around us will rely on “casual programming” experiences — giving every day, non-programming people the tools, services, and APIs usually reserved for the hackers and technology elite in friendly and accessible forms."

As I lean further and further into this new line of enquiry, I want to remind myself that the problem space hasn't really changed. I'm still concerned with empowering individuals to be creative in an increasingly closed mobile-centric world. What's changed is the types of creativity and thinking I'm concerned with, and the audience – which I'd argue to be multiple times larger (and hopefully even more worthy of my pursuit for that reason).