Creativity in New Mediums

Thingpunk is the idea that we apply the design of physical things to all mediums, in spite of our new networked digital world. With the web providing a new medium and platform for expression that is wholly outside of the physical realm, how do we allow users to be creative without forcing an understanding of the underlying technology?

There is a market for empowering users to create interesting digital content. There a huge number of photo editing apps for your phone and computer. Instragram is an excellent example, yet it also reflects the Thingpunk aestethic. The photos are not being edited into something new. Instead they are given treatments to make them appear from another time where physical film was a necessity.

Looking back at film photography, it was possible for anyone to experiment with the same techniques as professional photographers. The amateur could easily play with different f-stops or apertures and see the result. There isn’t the same analogy when it comes to digital content as a whole. Even a reasonably simple tool such as CSS is rarely edited by every day users to customize or “remix” their web browsing experience. The chasm between user and creator is too great.

The technical divide is truly tragic. Imagine students creatively dissecting terabytes of data. Social networks become pointless when people can simply compose their own graph of relationships, pointing them to each person’s identity (real and created) on the web. The walled gardens for content can finally come down because the masses have the ability to stake a claim and start a business without technical gatekeepers.

As a programmer, my wish is that people would take the time to learn, but that wish is naive. My wife proves this to me every day when we send links via email. Even though the information she needs is a single search term away, I am called upon to find it, package it in an email message and send it, knowing the process will be repeated. This is a failure of our technology.

There are small nuggets of creativity that suggest a future in the machine. Infographics are data centered communication that mix visual design and textual data to communicate effectively and creatively. Currently, creating an Infographic requires analyzing some data that is typically in some technical silo such as a remote database or set of data files.

Imagine if users could create a spreadsheets of any data point. Anything from text messages to receipts would be interesting to look at.

    +----------------------------------------------------------------------+
    |  # of Texts to Mom                                                   |
+---+======================================================================+
| 1 | =SUM([1 for text in PULL(mobile://alltexts) if text.contains(mom)])  |
+---+----------------------------------------------------------------------+

The specific cases aren’t difficult to implement, but a system where general data exists in a meaningful way and can be accessed is extremely difficult. Yet, it is necessary that we force our computers to do the work. The mundane is where our machines excel.

The fear of “Big Brother” goes away if users are empowered and given control. We are concerned about privacy because users must rely on others to provide the technical benefits. What if that barrier didn’t exist? What if true amateurs could take control of their data and safely share details they deem fit? What if they could sell that data themselves? Most importantly, what does the digital medium look like when any user can play with the same settings as the professionals?

While we patiently wait for users to learn the power of personal computing there are steps we can take right now. Hadoop is a great example of an ecosystem trying to provide general users with massive analytical power. There are multitude of languages and systems that provide non-programmer types the means to query huge amounts of data. While it is still far from being generally accessible, it is a start.

Creativity and design are dependent on experimentation. Musicians “jam” to find melodies and rhythms. Painters sketch ideas before committing them to ink. Tools such as Photoshop provide features such as layers and locks in order to allow users a way of experimenting and iterating on their work. We are far from riffing on our data and publishing it to the new medium of the web, with the result being we still live in a world ruled by Thingpunk design.