Tools and textuality: Some thoughts on Bret Victor’s talks

Do you ever think: “For Pete’s sake, if only this 500-page economic book was in a video format instead!”? Or, “Why can’t philosophy books be forced to be written in 5,000 characters or less, so we can get on with our lives?” Perhaps you are impious enough to wonder: “What if this boring course was actually taught in a video game format?”

Image result for kid playing video games

“Aw Mom, I don’t want to turn on my Xbox 7200 and go to school. Can’t I just play outside in AR instead?”

Chances are if you are reading this blog, you are a little like me when it comes to learnin’. These days I will now just google an author in hopes that they have a talk online, when tasked to read a dense book/article. I’ll read the book, but now I’ll often times augment it with a video, or some other media. Judging from the revolutionary amount of media output the Internet affords, I’m not just wildly guessing when I say that most people are not simply textual learners. We want to engage so much more of ourselves when we learn. Speaking of the Internet, one particular media phenomena that I find of increasing interest is the “Video Essay” that is now almost exclusively populating my Youtube subscription video tab. Why are videos like the following, so popular? Because most people are not coders or literature majors, and when faced with a media format that is more humane, more naturally human, we gravitate towards it like squids to the trolling lights. Like pugs to cameras.

A great video essay by Nerdwriter1 on one of the greatest films ever, Pan’s Labyrinth

The current regime of education forces students to learn primarily through textuality (phonetic, symbolic and logical processing) over all other ways of learning and producing knowledge. As we know, this progression of textual thinking gets even more pronounced the higher we go in education. Students at higher levels are increasingly forced to process the world in a way that is akin to forcing a left-handed person to write with their right-hand, but worse. One fellow by the name of Bret Victor, a software tool creator and creative thinker, believes that the current technological design paradigm is in fact inhumane. It truly is a breath of fresh air to come across this fellow as I am on a very similar wave-length. In this heavily text-based blog, I want to talk just a bit more on the nitty-gritty of what Bret Victor talks about in his videos. First though, I’d like to take you on a short tour on how I came across this interesting fellow in the first place.

Image result for seattle traffic

The great Northwest

On my commute to work last week, I listened to my favorite podcast. This podcast is called “Checkpoints” and it is already up to 70 frickin episodes. I’ve mentioned this podcast before. Anyway, the episode that lead up to my finding of Bret Victor was episode 64 with Zach Gage. Zach is an indie game developer who comes from the realm of fine arts and applies his sensitive and creative mind to the world of games. I was so taken in by that episode that I decided to do some digging. I found several videos where Zach gave talks at various places (including Argentina) and just loved the way he thought. I wanted to know what his influences were so I kept a-lookin’. I ended up finding his tumblr blog (Great Talks About Games) where he curates, annotates and shares with the public his favorite video game talks. Many of them are from the GDC vault of which I’ve never really perused myself. The videos he’s chosen truly are some goldies of game dev talks.

One of those talks that I came across was one titled “Stop Drawing Dead Fish” by Bret Victor. Up until this point in my life, I’ve never heard of him. It is about 53 minutes of amazing, and I had asked myself several times throughout the video how I hadn’t ever heard of him. He not only spoke, but he gave a live demonstration on how computers as a medium are dynamic. To fully realize the computer’s capabilities in art we should use its unique properties instead of making flat dead fish art. I was lured in once again and had to know more.

The musings of my mind from the “Dead Fish” video were many, but one thing that I realized, ever more clarified, is that we really are in a technological revolution akin to the invention of writing. The computer age! Yes, banal intellectually, but it was such an interesting video that rather than feeling like a casual truism, it felt more like I was hit by a ton of mircobots in the shape of what I would normally think of as bricks.

Another thought. I’ve been thinking about video games as art, and they are art, but I’ve limited digital art in my mind to a specific kind of software, the video game. Limiting my mind to video games as the sole inheritor of art in the digital realm now feels somewhat childish and myopic. The video expanded my definition of computer art, while simultaneously and inadvertently laying home Will Self’s statement  that the novel is dead. He didn’t talk about this in his videos, but it just jumped into my head when watching. Two disparate things in my mind suddenly connected, the death of the novel and the rise of computers. Before, they were simply two coincidental trends.

He also looks uncannily like my older brother

So, I watched a bunch of videos with him in it and lurked all over his website over the last couple of days. Ultimately, I landed on his latest talk called “The Humane Representation of Thought” (above). If you only watch one video of his, watch this one. It’s like his greatest hits album. Despite his talk being firmly in the Eurocentric paradigm of thought, it is brilliant. It is a critique of media and technology and a call to action. If you haven’t already seen it, set aside an hour to watch it. Make a cup of tea, cozy up with a blanket and enjoy.

I was surprised that he has even read Jerome Bruner, one of my all-time psychology faves, whom he mentions in the video. That would have been enough really for me think highly of the guy, but he really puts a particular phenomenon into clear view: we are living in a textual prison, and letting technology do its own thing is making it worse. He shows that we are like adorable imprisoned Pugs who wish to do doggy things, but can’t because we are trapped. It’s as if this house we’ve built is held together with flathead screws, but most of us only have cross-head screwdrivers. Nevermind that pugs lack opposable thumbs. Nevermind ever harder all the Apple hardware we could bash right now. We can flatten cross-head screwdrivers out through force, but doesn’t that seem rather silly when it’s us pugs doing the designing?  Or is it those darn basset hounds?

Image result for double edged sword

This is supposed to represent technology’s two-sidedness, ok?

Technology and computers are somehow seen in a default way as being this benign democratizing tool, but this really isn’t true. The talk is an intelligent call for better design in media technology because it could marginalize, it is marginalizing. Now is that democratic? He joins ranks with Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and others, who are at least skeptical of higher technology. He says basically that inhumane design happens when nobody is making good design and that’s what has landed us in the pug cages we are in now.

There’s an oft touted statement in the video games world that the tools of video game development are getting cheaper, that the democratization of game development is here. It’s true in a relative sense, but I doubt we are anywhere near harnessing the potential of the human computer relationship.  Not if I have anything to say about it! After watching Bret Victor’s videos and seeing the capabilities of actually good non-text-based tools, I can’t help but envision dams bursting and and ummm cucumbers exploding. There’s something greatly cathartic and guilt-relieving in his talks for someone who is of the computer age, but lacks the right tools.

We’ve lived in an increasingly claustrophobic Procrustean prison of the mind. We’ve all been ensnared by the influence of the Euro-historical logo-centric world brought about by “The Enlightenment”, and I can’t wait for a more humane world to come about. A more humane world to be reborn again (because it was more humane before all this). It’s always been here in fact, it’s in all of us, humanity, but it’s been suppressed. Technology can easily become dystopic, like in the short-video I’ve added to the end of this blog, if let to do its own thing. This, or worse, is the future of our lives if we don’t take control. If we can manage to control technologies, our worlds might become a bit more of a humane and empowering experience like you see within the tools that Bret Victor tantalizes us with in his videos.


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