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5 Questions

The Programmable World

October 10, 2013          

Episode Summary

Whether we notice it or not, we’re surrounded by machines and sensors. Our world is networked and made of code. We need new skills and perspectives to take charge of the programmable world we’ve built. Because if we don’t learn to program the world we want, it may very well program us. In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the “Programmable World” with Matt Nish-Lapidus, Design Director at Normative.

Hi, I’m Dirk and this is the Human Factor. This week we’re talking about the programmable world and the last decade has been incredible where programming is concerned. From ten years ago where designers would scoff at the notion of being expected to or benefiting from being able to program; to today where young designers take for granted that they do need to program if they want to achieve excellence in their field. And have the impact that they want to have in terms of the scope and breadth and real potential of the things that their creating. This emphasis on programming has really become cultural. It has become really a big deal. I recently contributed to a Kickstarter for a board game called Robot Turtles, The Board Game for Little Programmers. As you might imagine, it’s a children’s game designed to teach children down to the age of three how to be programmers with a very simple board game. I wasn’t the only person who backed this thing. It had almost 14,000 backers and they raised over $600,000. Pretty incredible on one hand, but on the other it really taps into what is now a broad realization that programming skills at this moment are really important for people who want to head down knowledge industries, be involved on the creationary craft side of software, of anything having to do with really high technology. It’s just a moment in time. The trick is we’re heading in a direction that will probably look very different. If anyone remembers Google’s releasing Blockly that was a visual drag and drop tool for building apps and learning to code.

In the future, what we call coding today where you have to learn languages, where you have to memorize arcane strings of text, that won’t be necessary in the same way that it seems to be necessary today. We’re going to have user interfaces. We’re going to have essentially WYSIWYG style solutions that let us “program.” By us, I mean more of a broad layer of people. Today the trend appears to be while everybody needs to know how to program, the way the world is changing, software’s everywhere. If you don’t learn how to program you’re going to get left behind.

What’s going to happen is tools are going to be created that remove that requirement. That certainly there will still need to be some minority that has the ability to create code at a really high end potent level, but those people are going to create tools that allow the rest of us to unleash the power of code without having to learn to code ourselves. We’re in this in between moment where those haven’t been created yet. In order to realize the incredible potential and power that we have at our finger tips with software and hardware, we need to be able to code and people are learning how to code.

Some of them long-term will continue doing things that have that requirement and are essential to what they’re doing. But for others it will be like something that they’re able to go as the tools change. What’s happening with coding today is terrific. People learning how to code are gaining valuable skills, learning certain types of logic, are experimenting, are gaining confidence in their ability to make things. Those are all really good things, but what all the people learning how to code today are going to learn pretty quickly are some of the same frustrations that engineers have learned over the decades.

Namely that languages are frequently changing, standards are changing. What you spend a whole lot of time learning today in five years is largely obsolete. You either need to take a deep dive into something completely new, or you need to have been incrementally learning it over time. But if you pick the wrong thing to incrementally learn over time, it won’t end up being relevant and you’ll have to deep dive into the other thing anyway.

Learning engineer skills, learning software engineering skills that remain relevant over time isn’t easy. It’s relatively easy to jump in at a moment and say Ruby’s the big thing. If I learn Ruby I can do all of these different things, that’s great. That is fun, but once Ruby pushes over the hill and the next thing is coming you start to lose some enthusiasm for it. It becomes more chore like, which again isn’t to take away anything from the very interesting moment we have here.

But whereas it might superficially seem, like there’s not a need for a UI for simplification in order to allow people to do things in a programming sense, that today they have to learn skills around as we’ll get into longer progression of how this technology works it will feel very different. The chore aspects and really the difficulty aspects of it will be more and more apparent.

The good news is it’s not something that we’ll really that we’ll have to be worried about for a whole heck of a long time. That will be solved. Who solves it, how they solve it, what is looks like, I’m not sure but even a dufus like me will able to “program” using some tools that are made for the layman as opposed to someone who has to learn lots and lot of code. That’s my story for today. Let’s get back to the show.

Hey everybody, and welcome back to Five Question. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Matt Nish-Lapidus from Normative Design. He’s the design director there in Toronto. Welcome, Matt.

Thanks, Eric.

Today we’re going to be talking about what’s Matt’s called “the programmable world,” and this is really centered around the Midwest UX Conference which is happening in Grand Rapids in October, October 17-19, which should be about a week after the publication of this podcast. Matt, you’re speaking there as well as giving a workshop, is that right?

Yeah, that’s right, and it’s a brand new talk so everything’s still in progress.

Let’s give our audience a bit of a preview of what that talk is going to be about. I think it’s really interesting, and I think it dovetails nicely into some of the discussions we’ve had in some of the previous podcasts around the internet of things and the future of design and technology. Why don’t we just start off by … maybe you can tell us a little bit about what you mean by the programmable world.

Everyone has their own phrase for the internet of things. I think one company is calling the “Internet of Everything,” so I figured, “Why shouldn’t I have my own, too?” So, now I’m calling it the Programmable World.

One of the reasons I like that term, actually, better than Internet of Things, is because it’s not, in my mind, not necessarily about things. The things are a part of it, but it’s also about the people, the networks, the invisible infrastructure, all the policy and underpinnings of the stuff that makes all of these things actually work.

The internet that connects the things is not this invisible force that just exists. It’s got all these regulations and different languages and protocols and ways in which it has to function that make it an equally tangible part of this new world that we live in, where everything can talk to each other and be programmed by each other including the things and people.

I think that’s a really interesting take, that idea that … focusing on the action instead of the objects. I think people … if I think about it, if we focus too much on the objects, the internet of things. I can see two reactions to that. One: a sort of grand scheme where people think, “Oh, I can control everything. I have all these things in front of me, all these objects and nouns that I can take advantage of,” and then you have this other reaction, maybe it’s more of the … that first is the technologist, and the other is more of the general public, that takes a more passive view, like, “I don’t have control over this. These things are just happening out in the world.”

Right, or you don’t even notice them. They’re completely invisible to you. Even at a high level, at the urban scale, things like stoplights, traffic lights, are now computer controlled and use sensors that are embedded in the cement under the intersections to adjust traffic flow. That’s something that most people probably aren’t even aware of, it’s just part of our infrastructure now; but the fact that it’s there and that it can be tweaked and programmed and that it communicates with the rest of this vast network of stuff is a really profound fact that can change the relationship that we have with all of these things that are around us.

We also have to start thinking about the idea of programmability being more than the control that we exert on objects but also the control that the objects exert on us. The traffic light is an interesting example because a programmable traffic light actually influences the behavior of humans in and around that intersection, and in the subsequent intersections that they run into. In a sense, the people who are programming that stoplight are also programming the software that runs the relationship that we have with the intersection, itself, and whatever other interactions we have around that intersection.

I think that’s a really interesting point, the idea of it’s not just around what are we controlling, but how are these things that we’re putting into the world have an impact on what we do. You mentioned a couple things that I think I want to follow up with. One is who, in your mind, or your conception of this future, who is it that is engaging with this programmable world? Is it just a select few, or is it everybody, or what do you see happening?

I’m hoping that it’s everybody. From my personal ideological stance, I would prefer to see everybody interacting with it. I think there’s two extremes that this could go to. There’s a dystopian and a utopian extreme future for this. The dystopian extreme is that there’s a very small group of people that have control over these things and system, and they influence from behind the scenes the way everyone else behaves and the way the world works. That’s extreme dystopian. Extreme utopian in an ideological way would be a world in which everybody has equal control and understanding, and all of the things that make a world work are visible.

I think there’s an ethical question around the visibility of programmable systems, when you decide how much of something people should see. Whether or not they have control over it is another layer, but I think the fundamental level is do we even know that it’s there, and what are the ethical implications or knowing or not knowing that the system is there and what it’s doing for you, or what it’s doing to impact you as an individual?

That’s something that we don’t talk about that much, either as general public like when we talk about policy or we talk about governance, but also when we talk about this stuff as designers. Every decision that we make when we design a system that’s going to exist in an organization or going to be a product that someone buys, we’re making ethical choices about how much of that we give them access to and how much of it they even know is happening.

The fingerprint scanner on the new iPhone is a great example. They say that it’s totally secure and that it’s not being transmitted anywhere, but you also can’t look. There’s no visibility into that system. There’s nothing in there that’s actually telling me what’s happening with my identify information. I just have to take their word for it and trust that they’ve made a decision in my best interests. That can become very problematic as these things start to invade every aspect of our lives.

I think that’s interesting. Ethics is one of those topics that I seem to have in conversations with other designers in small groups, but it’s not necessarily a topic that is widely discussed in the broader community or in public, like at a political level or a policy level. I think ethics is something that we don’t talk about in terms of design decisions.

I think it’s interesting we talk a lot about as designers the concept of constraints and designing within constraints, but we don’t then follow through and talk about how our design decisions are placing constraints on our end users, at least not in the same language. I think we get around that conversation, but I think that that idea of really explicitly talking about how do the design decisions we make affect people’s … what you were calling their visibility into the implications of those decisions, and when we’re not creating those feedback loops for our end users, for people that are using the products that we make, to see how they work.

That doesn’t mean that it has to be completely open and people have to be down in the infrastructure mucking around with stuff, but at least giving them feedback to understand so it’s not just a black box.

My position, and I think it’s okay to have different positions on this, but my personal position from the things that I design and make is that I want to give people the information they need in order to make an informed choice about the way in which they use or don’t use the thing I designed.

It doesn’t mean that everything has to be out in the open and that people have to be able to dig in and control every aspect of it. That would be overwhelming and confusing probably. What it does mean is that, when we have to make a choice that impacts that person’s ability to control what happens with the stuff that they use this system for, we need to be very clear about the choice that they’re making.

The example that always come up about this, which isn’t really an internet of things example but is Facebook’s privacy policy. In my mind it’s not that what they put in it is necessarily wrong, it’s that the people who decide to use it aren’t making an informed decision about the choice that they’ve made.

I don’t think Facebook has any … or any of these systems — Google, Facebook, whatever comes out them — have any responsibility to us as the consumers of that system to do what we think they should do. What I do think they do, or what responsibility they do have, is to make sure that we know what they are going to do so that we can choose whether or not we want them to do that with our stuff and opt out.

I think that’s right. I see an analogy as well in the food system. I see technology today much like the grocery store of the supermarket where most people go in, they buy their food, whether it’s packaged or even if it’s fresh produce from a grocery, and they have really no conception of where that food came from, how it got there, what choices were made. They’re making that uninformed decision about how they’re going to buy their food. You start to see people making different decisions around the food that they eat when they start to understand what’s the process and how did the food get from where it was originally grown to their supermarket.

I see the same thing happening with technology. If we can open that up and make it a little more visible, people have that informed choice that they can make.

Exactly. The food one is interesting because food has become an opaque, complex system where not only is it hard to understand because of lack of information, but it’s hard to understand because I don’t think anyone knows how it works anymore. There are so many moving pieces. There are so many rippling implications that it’s basically become, in some ways, magic.

That’s happening with a lot of the systems that we used. Government … you look at what’s happening all over the world, not just in the US but in Canada and in Australia recently, and we’ve got these government systems that are so complicated, and the inner workings are so complicated and so hidden, that they become a black box; and even the people working within it don’t really understand how it works anymore.It’s the technology that time forgot, and now we just use it because it’s there but we don’t really know what it does.

That’s exactly what I’m trying to get at with this idea of a programmable world, which is that programming and the idea of code isn’t just something that resides in an object that contains a computer. It’s something that exists at a societal level.

One of the examples that we talk about a lot here at Normative is this idea of networks as systems that are much bigger than we usually think about them. We go back to the railroad as one of the first main examples. The railroad was a network that was created and designed in order to allow for the faster distribution and movement of goods and people; but just building the infrastructure, just putting the tracks down, wasn’t enough to make that network function. What they needed was software, so they built software on top of the network, and the software was corporations, it was the schedule, it was the chain of command that allowed the trains to run on time, that allowed people to know when a train was coming and when another one was coming on the same track so they didn’t have collisions. All of that was a type of software.The software became what we know now as corporate structure. The railroad was kind of the birth of our current corporate structure.

What we’ve got there is a network, a physical network, we’ve got software that runs on it, and then we start to develop these systems that rely on the software to do its job. Once you get up to the system level, we start to have cultural and societal change, to the world becomes smaller now that we can move faster. All of a sudden you can get goods shipped from across the country in a matter of days rather than weeks or months, and we start to change way that we think about what we can do.

Automobiles was another big network revolution. We built these networks of roads that changed the foundation of how we live our lives. All of a sudden, commuting was an option. Commuting was never even a thing before cars. No one would work so far away from where they lived that they couldn’t walk there.

Now all of a sudden commuting becomes an option, which means our urban infrastructure changes because people move further away to get a different lifestyle. Now we’ve got this network that was built, and we’ve got a new type of software that runs on top of it, and the software again impacts cultural shifts that then have rippling and rapid effects and last for centuries, potentially.

Now we’re in the midst of another big network shift which is that not only do we have these physical networks, but we have this virtual network. We have the ability for people and for machines to talk to each other over vast distances with basically no delay at all. We can ship goods, virtual goods, instantly. We can ship physical goods quickly.

The impact of this new network is a new type of software which is the software … like the web is one example of software that runs on the new network, and it’s a way for devices and people to communicate over this new network, which is the internet.

I think we still don’t know what the effects of that are really going to be. We’re seeing the early stages of it now, but it’s going to be another ten years, probably, before we really know the long-term effect that it’s going to have on society. Just as we start to undo some of the effects from the other networks that we’re building on top of people move back into cities, away from suburbs, and start to value things like walking more. We realize the downside of the network of roads and the automobiles that we built for them in terms of the lifestyle changes that came out of it, but we didn’t really realize that for 50 or 60 years. I think we’re going to see the same thing with this new network development.

I think it’s really interesting the couch the internet in the moving forward … whether it’s the internet of things or the programmable world, whatever you want to call it … framing that in this historical context of network development, whether it’s trains and railroads and those systems or if it’s automobiles or any of the other … electrical grids is another system that changed the way that we view the world. We look at all these infrastructural developments, and we start to then frame the internet not as this magic utopian network that is going to improve our lives in this sort of magical way, but it’s just one more network and there’s a pattern to how these things develop and grow.

I think we do have to take into account what are the unintended consequences, and try to understand how these things, these choices that we’re making now, are going to impact our future. The internet, just as any of these other networks, allow us to do things faster or better, and sometimes that’s good and that opens up new capabilities or it frees up our time to do something new that we couldn’t have done otherwise; and sometimes that’s bad as in people are driving more, they’re not walking as much. You have to then supplement that time you spent walking that had a second purpose of getting you actually from place A to B. Now you have to walk for exercise.

I think there’s some really interesting things when we start to really … it’s so simple … look back at history and look for patterns where we’ve done this before, and let’s stop viewing what we’re doing now as this magical thing, but it’s just one more example of things that have happened in the past.

There’s a lot we can learn from, and there’s also a lot of things that are genuinely new, like this idea of privacy policies was never a thing before because we just weren’t sharing stuff in this way, in a way that’s stuck around.

There’s all these new results of network technology. The big question for me, and the one that I don’t have any sort of answer to, is if we think about culture as the ultimate software. All these other things that we make that lay the foundation for ultimately what is the culture that we l I’ve in. Culture is software that runs on people, and if all the networks that we create and all the technologies that run on these networks impact our behaviors and our language and the way we relate to each other and relate to the things in our environments, what is the ultimate impact going to be on the evolution of our culture?

You can see language changing over the last 20 years as the internet has become a thing that people are familiar with. The terms like download were not an everyday term 20 years ago, and now we talking about downloading information from person to person. There’s all these elements of language that are starting to shift.

I think language is actually a really interesting way of looking at the expression of our cultural software. We use different words for different things, and they often represent the importance of those things to us or the way that we understand our relationship to those ideas and, therefore, our relationship to other people. All of that is now being impacted by how much technology and now much programmability is in the world.

I think the idea of culture as the software of the human condition is something that’s near and dear to me, but I think you’re hitting on it when saying that language is then a representation of that culture, but language also then shapes our perception of how we understand the world and how we … what are the metaphors that we’re using to disambiguate the things that we don’t understand, all these new implications of these networks that we’re creating?

Yeah, absolutely.

I do want to switch gears just a little bit as we’re getting to the end of our time and talk a little bit about … you talk about this idea of code, and maybe what code means or how that’s changing, or the conception of code, and is that something, again … and we talked about this a little bit at the beginning … is that something that everyone should be doing? Is that something that just a select few people …? And what are the implications of those things? How do we actually interact with this new programmable world?

I think we live in a really amazing time for a lot of these things because the ability for every individual to have an impact, or to make their own things that exist in this environment, is becoming easier and easier.

Twenty or thirty years ago, a lot of the stuff still existed, but it was really hard. It was impenetrable. You needed to learn all these arcane languages and really understand the inner workings of everything; but now we’ve got easy access to prototyping tools and little kits, and we’ve got like the maker community, and all of these things that are providing us with easy entry points to really understanding how this new programmable world functions … and programmable not just in a physical like, “I’m going to code up a little Arduino thing that has a wi-fi chip on it that allows me to interface with the internet and make LEDs blink.” That’s one type of programmable; but the other is in the effect that we can have on the environments that we live in and our ability to really shape the world through these types of interactive devices.

I think it’s something I would encourage. I would encourage everybody to try their hand at it. I see kids doing it. We just had a big maker fair here, and there were little kids building robots. It little kids can build robots, then this is not out of reach for anybody to start tinkering with and understanding; and the more that you understand how the stuff works and that’s it’s not a mystical black box, that it is something that is understandable, the more empowered we all become to shape our environments and to make the decisions that we actually want to make for ourselves and for the communities that we live in.

I see this moving into a new conversation, or a new extension of the digital divide conversation, and whether you have digital literacy or programmable literacy in being able to control the world around you and not just be passively moving through it at the fate of other people’s choices.

Exactly. The whole idea of a consumer, I think, is dying a slow death. Even if you don’t make anything that other people use, you’re still making things; and I think everybody now makes something. Whether it’s a hobby or part of your job, we’re all making little things.

The growth of rapid fabrication and cheap and easy electronics, and new easy-to-learn, easy-to-understand programming languages make all of this so much more accessible. Even as a consumer, if you’re ordering something online that’s made just for you, that’s a rapid-fabricated thing from a 3D printer or from a wood shop somewhere, you’re still adding something new into the world.

We just had a print shop open up in Toronto here that’s a 3D print shop. Year-old send them a CAD file, and a couple hours later you can go pick up your object; and they can do fairly big, fairly complex things. And it’s not expensive. It’s the equivalent of going to get a poster printed ten years ago in terms of pricing where you can get a fairly good-sized object for under $100, and it’s a nice-quality thing.

The barriers to creating new types of things in the world are really dropping, and with the prevalence of this network and the ease of interfacing with it, I think we’re just going to see an explosion of this kind of stuff.

I think that that’s right. Matt, I want to thank you for coming on the show today. I really appreciate it. I’m excited to continue this conversation October 17th through 19th at the Midwest UX Conference. Obviously there’s a lot more that we can talk about today, but we’ll have to continue it then.

Absolutely, and hopefully some people who are listening to this will be there, and you can come out and see my talk, and I’ll get in a little deeper on specific aspects of this. I also have a workshop at the conference on design practice fundamentals, which I think is great for anybody, especially if you’re interested in doing these types of things because it gives you an approach to working with all of these different moving pieces in a way that hopefully makes sense for people.

Nice, and how can people get a hold of you outside of the conference?

I am always on Twitter. I am @emenel … that’s my initials, MNL, spelled out phonetically. You can also check out We have a blog where I write about some of these things occasionally, and yeah, I’d love to continue this conversation.

Thanks again for joining us today.

Thanks so much for having me.

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