28 August 2019

Dynamicland and the Whimsical Digital Object

Olivia Kan-Sperling

Six hours’ drive north of Disneyland, a building in downtown Oakland houses a kind of computer scientist’s version of the storied children’s amusement park. Its digital magic is of a less spectacular flavor, though; while Hollywood dreams of technofuturia in the style of vapory holograms, and Elon Musk promises to launch us skyward in machines of the old-school brushed-steel-and-silver variety, “Dynamicland” is composed of more modest materials. It’s neither VR, nor AR—just R. Like the early computers of the 1940s, Dynamicland is a computer the size of a room, but without the typical trappings of digital hi-tech. Post-its, magic markers, scissors, and staplers are the primary technologies programmers work with here, augmented by projections cast onto paper and tables. The room looks like a typical co-working space: bright couches, Ikea-hued tables, whiteboards. But the computer, here, is the room; its “smart” ceilings are embedded with cameras that process the visual data that constitute Dynamicland’s computer programs.

Founded in 2014 as a nonprofit, long-term research group, Dynamicland’s small team of engineers, UX designers, and game developers is in the process of inventing a “new computational medium where people work together with real objects in the real world, not alone with virtual objects on screens.”[1] Rather than proceeding via the manipulation of a set of alphanumeric symbols encased in flat rectangles of various shapes and sizes, Dynamicland’s computer programming is done in three-dimensional space. Its basic computational units are pieces of printer paper, bordered with multicolored dots to make them legible to the room’s cameras, on which snippets of code are written. In order to run a program, you place the paper on a table monitored by the ceiling sensors, which read and execute the code, projecting its output back onto the table. It is considered bad coding style to write a program longer than an eleven-by-seventeen-inch page.[2]

Many of the “doodles” posted to Dynamicland’s Twitter are simple, interactive visualizations that respond to other physical objects in the room. “Rain this color” produces a continuous stream of light, the color of which is determined by whatever is placed in a specified area. Another demo shows how multiple programs can interact: “count dots below” takes as its input “dot circles,” which presumably identifies any ‘dot-like’ shapes in its field, and also gives its output to “flowers from dots.”

Some programs incorporate small computers hooked up to handcrafted dials to create more sophisticated means of quantifying user input data. But, as one visitor tweeted, Dynamicland’s unique power lies in its ability to imbue ordinary objects with “digital magic:” to create a virtual paintbrush, “I didn’t have to buy a digital stylus––I could just MAKE one with TWO POPSICLE STICKS.”[3]

• • •

Dynamicland was cofounded by Bret Victor, a former Apple UI/UX designer whose popular web talks articulate a radical vision for human-computer interaction that is grounded in a philosophical consideration of what it means to do intellectual work.[4] Victor is fond of that “something went wrong” evolution cartoon, in which the silhouetted figure of man ascends from the crouching posture of an ape, only to end up hunched over a desktop. A humane technical medium––one that, in Silicon Valley–speak, were to “maximize human potential” would allow people to work embedded in their immediate physical environment, using all of their senses. Victor extols the sensorial virtues of physical objects––“their texture, pliability, temperature; their distribution of weight; their edges, curves, and ridges; how they respond in your hand as you use them”––comparing them favorably to the “hokey visual façade” of our glass-covered iPhones.[5]

In this sense, Victor’s insistence on intimate collaboration with our material environments reads like a textbook application of Deleuzo-Guattarian assemblage theory, Latourian actor-networks, or new materialist feminist “entanglements” to interface design. Dynamicland emphasizes sociality and interhuman connectivity: the ability to make eye contact with your co-workers, to create while sitting around the same table. It also expresses an explicit sociopolitical agenda: to uplift “all people, not just those traditionally advantaged by technology,” and to develop what the organization calls its “dynamic medium” by working closely with the Oakland community in which the lab is based.[6] Dynamicland promises a break from the Cartesian subject of typical tech—Donna Haraway’s all-seeing, body-less “Max Headroom,” the “white male computer hacker in solitary electronic confinement,” acting out fantasies of domination on a social and natural ecology he is radically removed from.[7]

Seen another way, however, Dynamicland’s metaphoric objects merely alienate users from the “real” materiality of machines. Dynamicland’s other cofounder is Alan Kay, a pioneer of the graphical user interface (GUI) and object-oriented programming (OOP). At Xerox PARC, the legendary lab on which Dynamicland is based, Kay led the development of the 1981 Xerox Star, a research computer that introduced the now-ubiquitous interface with which Apple would reach commercial success: a virtual “desktop” populated by representations of physical objects such as folders and paper documents, serviceable via familiar actions like “copy and paste” or “drag and drop.”[8] OOP, similarly, is a coding style in which programmers attribute computer processes to discrete “objects” with neatly circumscribed properties which are imagined to interact in a complex (and fantastical) digital ecology. It follows the logic of a sentence––a noun does a verb––thereby distinguishing itself from, say, functional programming, in which programs are treated more like mathematical equations. New media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun criticizes such metaphoric frameworks for obscuring the material, time-based processes of hardware, thereby enacting the old logocentric adage in which word is deed.[9] This ideological “fetish,” in which the source of causality is incorrectly placed at the fingertips of a sovereign author-programmer-user who seems to directly manipulate virtual objects, encourages fantasies of control rather than ecological, entangled technical practice.[10]

One might call Dynamicland a perverse exaggeration of the object-oriented interface: a creepy animism spawned by the total naturalization of software’s human-object relations via their literal projection onto real-world things, the overwriting of every surface with code, the reduction of every object to a sign in a techno-semiotic system. Not least: the full realization of the dynamic medium––Dynamicland envisions its infrastructural ubiquity, like electrical lighting, by 2060––would presumably entail not only unsustainably high carbon emissions, but total camera surveillance.[11]

• • •

But object-oriented design produces another kind of pleasure: one that has more to do with Dynamicland’s colorful stickers than the heady power-rush Chun warns of. There is a kind of surplus enjoyment generated by skeuomorphic metaphors that is often neglected in software studies; Chun addresses the aesthetic pleasure of metaphor only in passing, as a by-product of its official, epistemological function of enabling reason.[12] But the truly delightful thing about GUIs, and the Desktop especially, is the extra-functionality in their design.

On macOS High Sierra, the function of file deletion can be performed with as much theatricality as the “dragging” of a sheaf of comb-bound papers, which depict a miniaturized version of page one of the full-size PDF, into a small waste bin. To convey the functional analogy, a more abstract graphic would have sufficed, but Apple’s Trash is frivolously realistic: a carefully shaded bin filled to the brim with crumpled office ephemera, the contours and colors of which are discernible even through the container’s translucent white exterior.[13] The lovingness with which the Mac interface, down to the last dramatic drop shadow, is imbued with whimsical skeuomorphic details is almost subversive given the premium placed on “efficiency” in the tech industry––a mandate that has also produced the sleek gray-and-black surfaces that are Apple’s hardware trademark.

Dynamicland, too, eschews the aesthetic minimalism that signals technical sophistication, a tendency best illustrated by Caroline Hermans’s “artisanal code editor”: a sheet of plywood adorned with pleasingly arranged googly-eyes, pipe cleaners, ribbons, and pom-poms, the contents of a digital text editor projected onto its center. Beyond the fact that it is adorned at all, the code editor is charming because of its particular aesthetic. What makes Dynamicland so cute is the surprise generated by its marriage of opposites––kindergarten kitsch with digital technology. Though subtler, the Desktop has a similar toy-like quality: the tininess of its icons elicits the same delight as do dollhouses or Japanese novelty erasers.

The “artisanal code editor” doesn’t exactly do what Dynamicland is supposed to, which is to radically reconfigure programming; it’s just a typical software interface superimposed on a piece of wood. Indeed, Dynamicland’s projects are somewhat eyebrow-raise-inducing from the standpoint of functional efficiency. Victor might decry GUIs as “hokey,” and the rendering of realistic graphics a waste of processor power, but Dynamicland is animated by, if anything, a more bizarre and less efficient charade: rather than dressing technical processes in the costume of real-world objects, forcing physical things to mimic interface icons or Java objects. Instead of un-doing the artifice of GUIs, Victor has laboriously created a fanciful technosphere of fourth-order skeuomorphic simulacra, in which code is written on computers only to be printed onto sheets of paper that are subsequently read back into a computer via camera. Like the first Xerox Star, Dynamicland pleasurably scrambles the categories of analogue and digital in a Shakespearean comedy of dissimulation and boundary transgression.[14] In computer science, the “art” of programming is typically understood as residing in functional elegance and algorithmic efficiency. Instead, Dynamicland activates the basic pleasure of skeuomorphism, of dollhouses, and even of object-oriented programming: whimsy, excess, the invention of virtual realities in which to play make-believe.

  1. Homepage, Dynamicland, accessed 19 August 2019, <dynamicland.org>.
  2. Steve Krouse, “The Next Big Thing Is a Room,” Phenomenal World, 2 October 2018. Available at <phenomenalworld.org/metaresearch/the-next-big-thing-is-a-room>.
  3. Nicky Case, Twitter, 14 February 2018, <twitter.com/ncasenmare/status/963838849125203968>.
  4. See, for example, Bret Victor, “The Humane Representation of Thought” (UIST/SPLASH conference, 2014) or “Media for Thinking the Unthinkable” (MIT Media Lab, 2013).
  5. Bret Victor, “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design,” 8 November 2011. Available at <worrydream.com/ABriefRantOnTheFutureOfInteractionDesign>.
  6. Homepage, Dynamicland, accessed 19 August 2019, <dynamicland.org>.
  7. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives,” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 575–576.
  8. See Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), pp. 225–227.
  9. See Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), p. 22.
  10. See ibid., pp. 48–50, 64–65. Chun’s analysis of code is far more complex than I am able to summarize here. But worth noting, also, is her observation that, while acting as ideology, code also enables ideology critique by allowing users to imagine the complex networks that constitute power under neoliberalism (the “cognitive maps” Fredric Jameson calls for). Victor himself arrives at a similar conclusion; his talk “Seeing Spaces” addresses the need for room-size tools for engineers to understand complex systems.
  11. Homepage, Dynamicland, accessed 19 August 2019, <dynamicland.org>.
  12. See Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions, p. 57. In design, skeuomorphic interface objects mimic non-digital functional analogues via symbolic cues, such as appearance (like an icon of a letter) or sound (like the shutter click of a camera), that were materially inherent to the original.
  13. The paper wastebasket we use now is a domestication of what was once a grungy, outdoor garbage can, buzzing with flies. In the past decades, Trash has kept up with office décor trends; more recently, the old-school wire and aluminum bin was updated to our current plastic iteration. For more on Trash, see Slate’s history of the controversial icon.
  14. Victor himself is a bit of a dramatist: for his tongue-in-cheek lecture “The Future of Programming,” he forwent his usual hoodie to cosplay a mid-century computer scientist, in suit and tie and with a slide projector.

Olivia Kan-Sperling is a writer and coder living in Providence, Rhode Island. Her writing and editorial work on digital technology has appeared in the College Hill Independent.