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Web Development: Reinventing the Flat Tire

The Dynabook is the holy grail of computing. It is the platonic ideal of a computer, whose purpose is “to provide computer support for the creative spirit in everyone” (Design Principles Behind Smalltalk). Yeah! I want my creative spirit unleashed :) Are you with me?!

But how do we get there?

We attack from both sides at once:

  • Education – have computing be as natural as pencil and paper from a young age. And we mean individual creation, not the dependent-consumer model of the iPad, where you can do only what other developers implement, and Apple approves. While the iPad looks like the illustrations from the original Dynabook paper, it is actually the Anti-Dynabook. Much like places in the U.S. that have kept the original Native American names after stealing the land, it adopts the form while betraying the meaning
  • Distillation – if we’re going to invent the future, we need to understand where we are now. Unfortunately, if you wrote the code of the average computing system (i.e. the OS plus and office suite) in books, they would stack the height of the Empire State Building. People (especially old people) feel stupid because they don’t understand computers. I feel compassion for them, but still have to chuckle and say, “don’t worry, neither do the developers at [Microsoft/Apple/Ubuntu]“. If Leonardo Da Vinci were a Microsoft engineer, he would not be able to understand how windows works. Computing in its present form is beyond human potential to understand!

This post will briefly look at the second point, distillation, as it applies to web development.

Why Simplicity Matters

We each have a limited amount of mental RAM, or working memory, with which to create. Less is available, the more complex and indirect our technology stack is…

See we’re here already. It’s assumed that you need to have a “stack” – WAMP, LAMP – an operating system, a database, programming language layered on top, often with a run-compile cycle, probably with tools (e.g. the compiler) written in another language, often glorified text editors as IDEs.

We must reduce the cognitive burden of the technology so that there is enough mental RAM left over to create.

The Vision

If you go back to the original intentions of Morphic from the Self world, the vision was:

  1. Find – physically, visually, find an object (notice, it’s not “find a class”) that looks like/behaves like I want
  2. Copy – again physically, visually, directly, by clicking the original object and dragging the copy away
  3. Tweak – the object directly, not in desiccated file form in a text editor, until it does what I want it to do.
The Reality

This is totally lost in even the best web workflow:

  1. Find - say a Bootstrap template
  2. Copy – find all the necessary HTML and CSS files, which might take a bit of investigation into where they all live
  3. Tweak – If it didn’t seem too bad yet, this is where the wheels really fall off. Edit the raw HTML and CSS files, then if you’re really trendy, click refresh on the browser window you have open parallel to your coding window and see things refresh. WTH?! Where did the objects go? You just cut your extremely limited mental RAM at least in half by working with your objects (forms, buttons, links) in the equivalent of web assembly language, and repeatedly switching contexts.
“Not As Bad” Is the New Better

You say, “I’m tired of programming in assembly in a text editor! Viva la Revolution! Instead of settling for a language piled on top of the manure heap, I’m going to use a live, dynamic environment like Amber or Seaside“. Well kudos! If the Dynabook was our ideal of 100% efficiency and most web technologies are 10%, you’re now at 30%, so you can whip the heck out of your competition.

But, and just indulge me here for a second, what if we’re not satisfied with being the one-eyed man in the land of the blind? What if we were interested in going beyond what’s better exploring what’s possible?

Even writing HTML with a nice DSL in Amber or Seaside, is a non-WYSIWYG run-compile-like cycle. It’s more like programming with punch cards than the live, direct universe hinted at by Self, Sketchpad, Squeak/Pharo, and Croquet.

Hints at What’s Possible

Ivan Sutherland had WYSIWYG (among other things, like constraint solvers) down with Sketchpad in 1963.

Morphic was another powerful attempt. In a Morphic system, if my code editor doesn’t work the way I want, I can drill down into it – without leaving my uniform dynamic environment of live objects – and make it so (theoretically, this is becoming less true with e.g. Spec, which hides the live objects under layers of hopefully-cross-ui-platform-compatibility *).

Here’s a good example of my initial excitement about Morphic. One of my first favorite examples of using Pharo was that creating a new repository in the Monticello Browser (a version control GUI tool) always started with IIRC the image (current) directory, and I have a folder under which all my local repos live. I brought up halos on the “new repository” button, then on the Settings browser, connected the two together, and submitted the fix in a few minutes with 0 context switches… and I was hooked on Smalltalk.

Of course, Smalltalk is just a step on the path toward the Dynabook, albeit the top step to date! To really blow your mind, check out VPRI’s work to build a complete computing system in 20,000 lines of code – about the size of a good novel! Here’s the original NSF proposal and the last published annual status report (still waiting on the final one)

* One of the funny (or sad) thing is that people keep developing UI Builders for Morphic – that’s what Morphic is. The question isn’t how to layer tool-centric crap on top, but how to directly play with the Morphs themselves (remember flaps?) until you have what you want, and then reify that. It wouldn’t be so hard (at least for geometry and layout) to implement “aMorphThatIBuiltViaDirectManipulation reifyAs: #MyCoolMorphSubclass”.

The Challenge

How do we interact with a cool Bootstrap login form as I did with the Browser above – directly, as a live object? How do we dig in to the web, find the live objects, and bend them to our vision, without leaving our live, dynamic, open, turtles-all-the-way-down system? I would love to live in that world.

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