Analog is the new digital?

Photo credit: Niklas Roy https://picasaweb.google.com/116020019668259353077/CardboardComputerWorkshopAtHfGOffenbach#5847047713177417682

Playing “Speedway PRO 1000 at the Cardboard Computer Workshop” Photo credit: Niklas Roy

There are few areas of human endeavor as rife with error and retrospective hilarity as futurology, the dark art of predicting technological trends. So instead of trying my hand at proclaiming a new direction in human computer interactions, I thought I’d simply report on a couple of projects at the intersection of art and computing that caught my attention at the Eyeo Festival in Minneapolis, a visualization conference held there this past June. Perhaps there’s something more here than separate data points, but I’ll leave that inference up to the reader.

Ubi de Feo, self-proclaimed “creative technologist”, started a workshop titled From 0 to C. The idea is to teach programming (C is a famous programming language, thus the almost-pun name) to beginners without the use of computers. Instead, basic concepts from encoding information as streams of bits, to standard programming constructs such as conditional “if” statements and “for” loops are all taught through the use of physical objects. Ping pong balls are transferred between cups to represent bits, diagrams of code flow are drawn by hand, with pen on paper, pieces of candy are used as counters. The audience is mostly designers and other non-programming folk who have the creative need to use computers, but have always been intimidated by certain “nerdy” aspects of computer culture.

Using the analog world to understand the digital is not by any means limited to the uninitiated. One of the programmers speaking at Eyeo, Karsten Schmidt, used to write out all his code (as machine language in raw hexadecimal no less) longhand on sheets of graph paper when he was a teenager. Admittedly, he only had an hour’s worth of actual computer access per week, and so had to come prepared to use this scarce resource to the max. However, there’s something more than just a quaint story of a determined young geek to it. He then went on to speculate that “we think, if something takes longer than ten minutes, it’s hard, it’s not worth learning because we have so many other things to do. But if you start in the deep end, and if you accept that things last a certain time for your brain to absorb them, and to really absorb them as knowledge, not just as an experience – there’s a big difference between knowledge and experience, in my opinion” (See the original video of his talk here).

And if programming can be taught and learned without computers, then why not make entire working programs – like electronic games – in the physical world without the agency of computers? An amusing example is provided by the “Cardboard Computer” workshop. Besides constructing digital constructs such as logic gates out of balsa wood and string, they even implemented a simple scrolling game, dubbed “Speedway PRO 1000”, in which a tiny cardboard car navigates past cardboard obstacles that whiz past it on a paper treadmill by means of simple wire and string controls.

Moving closer to what most of us think of as actual computing, legendary computer engineer Bill Atkinson gave a talk on a recent iOS app project of his. It’s called PhotoCard and it gives people a great way to send postcards straight from their iPhones and iPads. He started the app as a way enable people to view and share his nature photography – besides being a widely respected programmer, Bill is also a professional photographer, employing large format film cameras to produce gallery-bound photos. He soon discovered that people were just as interested in using their own photos for the postcards. In typical Apple fashion, he obsessed over the interface of the app to make customizing cards easy, intuitive, and to ensure that the results meet the highest artistic standards. The app is free, as is sending digital postcards. But here’s where it gets even more interesting: Bill admitted that a critical part of the project for him was to enable people to send physical, paper postcards to their friends and family. To that end, he and his wife started a business operation, complete with printing, laminating and even error-checking the physical postcard requests that are submitted by the app’s users. He uses his experience with fine art printing to ensure the resulting cards are beautiful, and had to train himself up on the intricacies of the US postal system to ensure that the cards do indeed arrive at their intended destinations. The price of sending such a physical card covers postage and the costs of printing and production. He calls this a labor of love, to channel people’s shared love and goodwill into beautiful, physical keepsakes.

This is nothing new – there has always been a strong tie between the physical and the digital among the innovators of computing, and there are plenty of mainstream contemporary examples. Google has its obsession over driverless cars , not to mention those cute campus bicycles. The Maker movement is experiencing a new wave of interest as 3D printing becomes accessible to the general public. And I couldn’t help but notice that a slim majority of attendees at the Eyeo Festival this year, avowed geeks and tech-heads all, employed pencil and paper to take notes at the talks, not laptops, tablets or smartphones. Perhaps this healthy dose of the physical serves to keep us connected to the real world even as we tend to get lost in a tangle of applications, virtual realities, games and social networks. But I’m not going to propose this as a trend. You decide if there’s something more to this than just a bunch of nifty art projects.

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Maciek Smuga-Otto

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