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Episode 109 March 20, 2018 | 37min

Computing is Everywhere: Bret Victor and Dynamicland

Our co-founders sit down with Bret Victor, creator of Dynamicland.

Show Notes

The building is a computer; the computer is a building: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade sit down with Bret Victor to talk to about Dynamicland — a non-profit that’s inventing a new computational medium, where people work together with real objects in the real world. We chat about the tech behind Dynamicland, the importance of creating intentional communities, and how a culture of secrecy at Apple inspired a life-long vision of community computing. Bret also shares a surefire way to impress a date — bring them to Guitar Center and show them your analog modeling synth!

Paul Ford How in God’s name do you convince people to give you money for this? This is like the opposite of everything.

Rich Ziade Also, everyone, don’t try to hire Bret. He’s busy for the next 30 —

PF 30 years [laughs].

RZ — to 50 years.

PF [Laughs] Good. This is good. This is a very good use of time.

RZ His LinkedIn just ends [PF laughs], just falls off a cliff.

PF It’s just — there’s no LinkedIn in Dynamicland.

RZ No. No, no, no.

PF Please, please [intro music plays alone from 0:21 until 0:38, continues playing under voices]. So Rich, someone in the studio who is one of the thinkers I respect in our industry. And I just don’t say that lightly.

RZ No, I know.

PF Um has . . . thought very hard about how to make what we do [music ramping down] moving abstractions [music fades out] and symbols around . . . not just easier but more empowered.

RZ Yeah.

PF And it’s also thought about the — the cultural impact.

RZ Mm hmm.

PF Um of our industry, technology, in the larger world and where we could — where we could do things better and so uh I’m talking about Bret Victor. Welcome, Bret, thank you for being here.

Bret Victor Hey.

PF Bret, where do we start? Where did you start?

BV Um, I grew up in the East Bay of California and I’ve um lived there kind of on and off my entire life. I’ve basically spent my life bouncing back and forth between northern and southern California, and enjoying it and hating it, respectively.


PF And did you um when we were talk — did you study computer science, where you able [trails off] —

BV No, no, no, had um — these are some of the things I don’t like to necessarily admit. I studied electrical engineering and I had the greatest disdain for computer science.

PF Oh you know EE is more serious! I mean it’s got physics in it.

BV The attraction of EE was that you could bring magic into the world, and you could make things that you hold in your hand, and you could give to somebody else, and they could push the button, the light turns on, and — I — I’d been programming forever. I’d been programming since I was um, you know, seven or eight or something like that but . . . the magic was always trapped inside a screen [PF mm hmm] and if you wanted to show somebody the thing that you had made, they had to like come over to your house, and go up the stairs, and sit down in front of a screen together, and um when I discovered then it was like you don’t need the screen, then the magic can be like wherever you want it to be.

PF This is not — I mean I — I’ve known a lot of EEs in my life. Magic doesn’t always come into the conversation [RZ laughs boisterously].

BV Well, right, and that was um —

PF Where’d you go to school?

BV I went to school at Caltech —

PF Ok, ok.

BV — as — as an undergrad and I um —

PF Again, not a place known for magic.

BV Yeah, the culture of Caltech was very much prank oriented [PF ohhhhh ok]. It’s very much making um making crazy, little projects and impressing people with your crazy, little projects and —

PF And that was community, then. So building and making weird things was — was just culture.

BV Oh yeah. Yeah, that was um — that was kind of what you did with people, that was how you had a good time on a Friday night [PF laughs] but and so that — that was basically what I did as an undergrad was I just like built gadgets. And then I went to grad school and suddenly EE was not about building gadgets, it was about how do you push Moore’s law? How do you take a chip that goes at one gigahertz and make it go one point one gigahertz? [PF Mm hmm] And that . . . didn’t appeal to me at all.


PF I know you were — I know you were at Apple for awhile, was that the first thing that happened to you or was that down the road?

BV No, after um grad school I worked at a company called Alesis which makes um pro audio equipment.

PF Mm hmm.

BV Alesis was an interesting company in that they had just gone through a bankruptcy and they had gone from a hundred people to eight.

PF & RZ Woah!

BV And so I came in and it was basically like — the engineers were just kind of running the show and could do whatever they wanted and so we had like all this structure and process in place to support us but, at the same time, I was like, “I wanna build this product.” And they were like, “Ok, go for it! You’re um — you write up the spec, you do the hardware design, you do the software design, you do the product design, you draw the box artwork, you write the manual. Um [RZ that is awesome!] it’s on you.”

The bureaucracy got obliterated; all the machinery that usually slows you down was gone. The parents weren’t home!

PF So for a young, confident engineer, this is heaven. And it’s synthesis. I mean it’s music, it’s immediate reaction, it’s fun.

RZ The bureaucracy got obliterated. The whole — all the machinery got like that usually slows you down . . . was gone. The parents weren’t home!

BV Right.

PF It’s worth noting, too, that the early history of Silicon Valley was just as much around audio, early days like Ampax and sort of recording technology in the forties and fifties [RZ huh] and so there’s a — you were part of the rich tradition that was probably then just transitioning and imploding.

BV Yeah.

PF What did you make?


BV So three products. The first one was the Alesis Ion which was a um what’s called an analogue modeling synth. So it’s a digital version of the analogue synthesizers people used to make where they would have like oscillators and filters, these little boxes, and they’d put, you know —

PF Patch cords and wires.

BV — yeah, patch cords and yeah. So in this product the patch cords are all virtual and you have like a menu where you hook up things to that.

RZ Fun.

BV After that product . . . I was kind of at a crossroads and there was kind of a new, very big keyboard product starting up, and I had some pretty unconventional ideas about where that should go. I kind of saw it stuck in a 20 year old tradition of real recordable user interface. And I was like, “We could reinvent music. We could make this amazing new um keyboard.” And that led to . . . a number of um . . . internal debates and conflicts with like the — the people — the person that was actually officially assigned to me designing this thing and the — what was left of management. And um they decided that they didn’t want to take the risk. That they wanted to make something that was kind of known bad instead of something that was risky but could be really good. And so I said, well — and so I’d been slated to work on that product. I said, “I don’t wanna work on that.” And they were like — they didn’t really know what to do with me and so I proposed another product called the Alesis Micron which was basically um I took everything that people had liked about the Ion and just compacted it, made it very small, and added a whole bunch of stuff that was less about sound and more about . . . making music with those sounds. So um arpeggiators, and rhythm sequencers, and a bunch of stuff. So you could actually kind of produce an entire song on this tiny little box that you could have on your lap or carry around with you.

PF It’s gotta be pretty exciting for a young engineer to actually have your stuff out in the market, in boxes that people buy and talk about.

BV Yeah. I would bring dates to Guitar Center and I would like point to like [PF hah!], “Hey! I made — ” [RZ laughs] I [stammers] would press the — like the secret combination of buttons that would like scroll the credits across the screen [PF mm hmm] and like for the Micron I had did done most of the work myself and so the parts I put in were like, you know, Product Design: Bret Victor, Sound Design: Bret Victor, Electrical Engineering: Bret Victor —

PF Ok. What are the dates doing? How are they reacting?


BV Um . . . polite interest.

PF Yeah this sounds like [RZ laughs] — this sounds like you had a really good idea that when tested, you know —

BV It all worked out.

PF Yeah it’s fine.

BV But I mean, you’ve got a thing at Guitar Center, you gotta show that off.

PF [Laughs] Ok so what happens after Alesis?

BV Because one of the dates had gone well and I was now dating somebody who was now living in northern California, and so I left to um be closer to her [PF mm hmm]. So the product at Alesis which was . . . can you say “red lit”? Is that the opposite of “green light”, “green lit”?

PF Yeah, yeah. Red lit.

BV The product that was um rejected [PF yes] was um — I still had that on my mind, I still was like, “I want to make this amazing new musical instrument.” And so I kind of pretended I was starting a company [PF mm hmm] but I don’t really know what the distinction is between actually starting a company and pretending —

RZ There is none.

BV Yeah.

PF Yeah, that’s true. You just keep pretending.

BV Yeah [RZ chuckles]. A friend of mine and I started kind of designing this new instrument. I guess what happened was I got distracted by some things. Well I was at least as I’d thought really interested in user interface design. That story was basically that I was working on this key — I was designing this keyboard and um a friend of mine came over and said, “Hey, looks like you’re making a user interface. You should read this book about user interface design.” And I didn’t know what that meant because at Caltech there was no — design means circuit design, I had never heard the word design before um in that sense. And so I read this book which was um Alan Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum [PF sure] which is not a good book, it’s a screed. But it was kind of exactly what I needed at the moment to realize this is what I’ve always wanted and um didn’t know there was a name for it. And this was — this kind of answered a lot of questions about why I um was so miserable in grad school. It was like, “Oh. I want to make things for people.” And I didn’t realize that as an engineer you could do that. So —


PF So it was a good enough book?

BV Oh yeah! So that — I kind of fell in love with this new thing I had discovered called interface design and kind of read everything I could about that, got really deep into that, I was going through like all the HCI course syllabuses I could find online and you know reading [RZ laughs] — you know just expecting that to be my thing. And so shortly after Alesis, I discovered Tufty and got really big — really um big into information design . . . which kind of dovetailed with the whole interface design [PF sure]. So —

RZ Mm hmm.

PF So oh — so for people who don’t know: Edward Tufty is the author of uh I think three or four now books on information design which are — are just sort of seminal in the field.

RZ They’re beautiful books just . . . as physical artifacts really.

PF They’re just very opinionated about how to cleanly represent lots of data for humans.

BV And there isn’t really a thing comparable to them. Um —

PF No.

BV Like there’s William Cleveland’s book and a few other things but actual kind of . . . visual design for analytic information and data, like [RZ yeah] is a very um sparse field.

PF So you start to find the key texts . . . and go, “Wait a minute: this is what I need to be doing.”

BV Yes. That was also challenging because . . . you know I had found this um this field and I was thinking, “Well maybe this is what — this is what I am, you know, this is what I’m supposed to be.” So I tried reading like design blogs and like design magazines [RZ laughs] and that kinda thing and I was like, “These people are concerned with an entirely different set of things than — they want to know what color is the new other color and that — that — that — So what is it that I’m interested in?”

PF There was a lot — there was a lot of print legacy there too, like you know ty — things around type and things around website biography [BV right] that if you’re more purely focused on interaction design, are less of a priority.


BV Yeah, I mean I love typography, and I love calligraphy, and I love visual designs but the — the sorts of things that I saw kind of the capital “D” Designers concerned with left me really cold.

PF Not for you. Right, so what do you do?

BV One thing that happened was my friend who I was working with on this fantasy company was really into trains and so as kind of a joke for him, I made this train trip planner for the subway in the Bay Area called BART [PF mm hmm] and um because I was really into UI, I kind of made this UI playground where you could try out different um different techniques. And that got some attention but also . . . I was . . . I was interested in analyzing it and kind of writing a little paper on like what the UI techniques that I had designed for it, why they worked. And so that grew into um —

PF Where are we year wise, here actually? What’s the?

BV Oh man. Probably um 2005.

PF Ok.

BV Yeah.

PF So the internet is well along, not quite at a peak but things are happening.

RZ “Post crash”, quote/unquote.

BV And so, um, I pulled off this much smaller project which was this train trip planner and then I ended up pulling off basically a small book which had, as a kernel, here’s how this train trip planner was designed, but ended up as kind of this giant manifesto of a different design philosophy and that was called Magic Ink. And so the two of those thing got some amount of attention. I won an Apple Design Award for the train trip planner. That got me in contact with people at Apple. The — the company had kind of faded into the background um [RZ right], I was starting to get lonely and antsy. And so I started looking for — “Maybe I should be working somewhere again.” And this thing had brought me in contact with Apple, and I started talking with people at Apple [RZ uh huh], and then ended up um taking a job there.

RZ So this is like ’06, ‘07-ish?

BV ’07, yeah.

RZ When does the like veil of secrecy get lifted? Can we ask you what you did at Apple? Has the statute of limitations expired?


BV I don’t know. I don’t really know what the — I think a lot of the — the secrecy is kind of self-imposed. I don’t know — if [stammers] [RZ chuckles, says something inaudibly] you’ve left, I don’t know if they actually kind of come — you know come after you if uh you know the special agents that drop down from the ceiling.

RZ Alright, cool! So what did you do there?

BV Worked on secret things [boisterous laughter].

PF Oh man!

BV But yeah there — there is a very strong culture of secrecy and um like especially — [stammers] that may have lifted a little bit but this was still kind of the Steve Jobs era [PF mm hmm]. Like me first office there, you had to like badge through three separate kind of locked doors to kind of go progressively into the inner of the inner sanctums [RZ yeah] and then my office, I had to keep the blinds down on the windows of my office cuz the people in my hallway did not know what I was working on [under his breath PF wow].

RZ Kinda depressing.

I came in the first day, went to my desk and there was an iPad sitting on my desk. This was 2007. The iPhone had just been released. The iPad was not a thing at all… and I said, “what is this?” and my boss said, “well we don’t know yet. Steve wants a tablet”.

PF Yeah it doesn’t sound fun.

RZ Yeah.

BV So the story that I guess I tell about the early days at Apple which is, you know, probably at least 80 percent accurate is I came in the first day, went to my desk, and there was an iPad sitting on my desk. This was 2007. The iPhone had just been released. Um the iPhone — the — the iPad kind of was not a thing at all.

PF You’re like, “Why did they give me this crappy, giant iPhone? This is terrible.”

BV And I said, “What is this?” And um my manager said, “Well, we don’t know. Steve wants a tablet but what it would be for [PF chuckles, RZ laughs boisterously], what people would do with it. [PF laughs boisterously] Um what — how — what form it would take, what the interface would be like, how people would use it, none of that had been kind of like — the actual, the real design team at Apple had been, you know, basically busting their asses for years to make a phone [PF mm hmm] and so they hadn’t had any chance to look at this tablet thing.


RZ “Steve wants a tablet.”

BV Steve wanted a tablet and I was like —

RZ So you were doing SCI, Steve Computer Interaction?

BV Yeah, well that’s — that’s what the entire company is like [PF and RZ laugh boisterously] — like it’s a focus group of one. And so I was like, “Ok, I guess I will try to answer these questions.” And so I basically just went into this mode where every single week I made a new app, or a new prototype app, for this new device, kind of exploring like: you could use it for this, you could use it for that, you could like take it to the grocery with you and it would like help plan your meals, and like all — you know all these different types of could use it.

RZ So the ask was essentially: play.

BV I don’t think I even gave them the chance to ask anything. I think they were kind of expecting me to take some time to get oriented and instead they just put me in front of this thing, I just started making stuff. And they were like, “Well, we’ll just let him do whatever he happens to be doing cuz it’s — ”

PF That’s cool. Alright. I guess that’s the job. So how long did you do that?

BV On the iPad that — that lasted several months. It started transitioning into a different product which is one that I can’t talk about cuz it was not released [PF ok] and the iPad itself started kinda getting transf — get thrown over the wall to the — the real designers who would actually create the shipping interface, as opposed to what I was doing which was basically just kind of inspiring people with, “Here’s the possibilities.” And so then over the next few years, the team had just been started and the larger team kinda grew up around me as I was making these things, and our — our job was to kind of flush out these fantasy projects.

PF Did you ever have to present to Jobs?

BV Jony was kind of at the top of my food chain.

PF Jony Ive ok.

BV And so um I [stammers] — to Jony Ive quite a bit and then um other people like higher up managers um would show things to — to Steve because Steve kind of had a pretty small circle of people that he wanted to associate with.


I was starting to see that my values and Apple’s values were a bit at odds. Apple ultimately wants to enable people to listen to their music, and read their email, and watch videos, and have an entertaining digital experience. I wanted to enable people to understand things more deeply or create amazing things that they couldn’t create before.

PF So one day you leave Apple . . .

BV Yeah, so I was getting increasingly dissatisfied with both the secrecy and with [stammers] well the secrecy was like . . . my — my style has always been: come up with things and then put it on the internet, so everybody can learn from that [PF mm hmm] and I was in a context where only a dozen people could learn from what I was doing because everything was super top secret. Also, there were a few things I started getting really interested in and I was starting to see that my values and Apple’s values were um a bit at odds [PF mm hmm]. That Apple ultimately wants to enable people to listen to their music, and read their email, and watch videos, and kind of have a entertaining digital experience and I wanted to enable people to understand things more deeply or, you know, create amazing things that they couldn’t create before. And the last year I was there — I was there for like three and a half years, and the last year I was like, “Ok I’m gonna go all in on two ideas that I have.” One was kind of a creative tool and one was an informational tool. And spent um, you know, that entire time just like prototyping, prototyping, iterating, and had this kind of like um whole bunch of users within Apple, like hundreds of kind of internal users of these tools that I was making and, ultimately, they were not accepted by the — the managers that would’ve had to — well one of them was not accepted, the other one ended up shipping but in a form that is so bastardized that I don’t admit that it has anything to do with me.

PF Fair enough.

RZ You think it was quality but just not associated with you or did you just not like what turned out?

BV It was something that um required a lot of — a lot of breadth to be useful, or required um the integration of dozens and dozens of different services [RZ got it] and it was kind of the breadth of that that made it useful and it got to the point where it’s like, “Ok, um we like this feat — feature. We’re gonna ship it but then we went — um we went to marketing and marketing said, ‘Ok, people are going to get confused by this set of things, so strip them out,’ and then UI said, ‘Ok, these are confusing, strip those out,’ and then legal said, ‘Oh we can’t do the deals for these things, let’s strip them out.’” And we ended up with just like a tiny set of —

RZ Watered down —

BV Yeah.

PF That last paragraph explains an enormous amount about the entire world.

RZ Exactly.


PF So this is the ear, I’m assuming, I knew you primarily as an essayist, a interactive, dynamic document essayist. When I say “essay” it’s code and ideas and design and it’s all put together and it — it — whenever Bret releases an essay it tends to sort of pause the internet.

RZ I use the word “fun”.

PF Yeah, they are. So were you just sort of kind of on your own at that time writing and thinking or did you go get another job or what were you doing?

BV So it was a couple of things going on. One was that there was a interactive book that I was working on with Mike Matas and Kimon Tsinteris and some other kind of former friends from Apple which was um called Our Choice by — by Al Gore. Al Gore had written a book about climate change and he wanted to make it into an ebook [PF gotcha] and so I was — I was involved in doing the kind of interactive graphics for — for that book.

PF That’s right. He was like on the Apple board too, right? Like he was kind of in the world?

BV Yeah and then um I put all my stuff in a storage container and got on a train and spent the next six months taking a train around the US.

PF Woah!

BV Um just living in random places, meeting — going to like different research labs and different universities, and meeting people, writing interactive essays from like public libraries and different places.

PF Mm hmm. So you were on the road, seeing the world, decompressing, thinking new thoughts?

BV That was the plan, yeah. I had um I just built up a . . . a set of things I wanted to think about that could not be thought at Apple. It was kind of this — um I had a bulletin board in my room and had like all these little pieces of paper that I had stuck to that board. And so when I went on my trip, I kind of scooped all those papers into like three little plastic baggies, and then at some random public library somewhere in the middle of the country, I spread out those papers on a big desk and tried to figure out what — what is it? Like what — what is the abstraction here? What — what does all these little ideas add — What are the categories here? What does it add up to? And kind of ended up sorting them into three piles which I ended up labelling Dynamic Pictures, Explorable Explanations, and Kill Math [PF mm hmm] and those ended up being the — the kind of three tiers on my website of like different projects I would be doing and did.


PF And now I’m drawing a line too cuz you wrote a similar essay about how the technology industry can help the world make progress around global warming, how it can and can’t. And I’m seeing the connection back to the Al Gore work. So there’s a — there’s a real theme over the — it seems like a period of about three, four years there.

BV It even preceded that. Like even before Apple, I saw climate change as this crisis and one of the most important things to work on. And I’d — I’d tried to work directly on that in certain ways and realized that I just didn’t really have the kind of temperment for going really deep on a scientific problem. I was more of a toolmaker. I wanted to make tools that enabled other people to rally other people in the problem [PF mm hmm]. Even before Apple I had come up with this plan of, “Well, I wanna make this really powerful scientific tool. I don’t really know enough of how [stammers] science is practiced. And so I’m going to like travel around the country, spending a month at a different scie — a different lab um every month. Just kind of offering myself as like, “I’m a free toolmaker, use me how you will.” And then thereby kind of get — get the experience of um after a year of like, “Oh here’s the sorts of needs that scientists have and here is the super tool that I can make.” That plan didn’t really get off the ground because um it turns out I’m not really social enough to reach out to people actively like that. So I ended up at Apple for — I was still working on that but then after — after Apple, I had um I went through this period of traveling around and kind of coming up with these themes. But in the process of doing that, I uh — a team of scientists at um at Georgia Tech and um did some prototyping with them. And the structures that I came up with and the enthusiasm that they had for them made me think, kinda go back to that, “Hey, I really wanna make a tool for scientists. I wanna make a new MatLab or a cross between MatLab and Garageband.” [PF Mm hmm] And so that was um I’ve never admitted this publicly before but that was kind of my — my major project for like the next year or two after that was I was making this um this new scientific tool.

It’s hard to have the level of motivation to pull off something really huge like that, if you don’t have the right support structures in place.

PF That’s a beast! What made you put that aside?

BV It’s sort of like that — the earlier like fantasy company thing where um it’s hard to have the level of motivation to pull off something really huge like that if you don’t kind of have the right support structures in place.

PF That is the absolute truth. It’s very, very hard.

BV I still, in the back of my head, I still think that’s what I’m working on [PF mm hmm]. I’ve had to take certain detours and I realized ultimately that this thing that I wanted to make which I assumed would just be . . . an app. And I made a number of prototypes for that which — some of them have leaked out into other um other venues but ultimately, for various reasons, I realized that that environment of a screen based app was not the right thing to make.


PF So does this get us to Dynamicland, where you are now?

BV Um eventually. Yeah [PF chuckles]. Yeah some of those prototypes kind of leaked out into these talks I gave inventing on principle and stop trying to fish and um drawing down visualizations. Like all — all of this stuff I was showing there were kind of prototypes for this — this scientific tool that I was making. And that was kind of the more public era of — of the story.

PF This is where people came to know Bret, right? Like all of that was actually just sort of the side effects of your much larger obsession.

BV In the same way kinda an artist does studies before drawing their masterpiece [PF mm hmm], like I saw it as the series of studies that I was doing in order to build up this tool. Yeah.

PF But now I have to get to Dynamicland which is or isn’t or [stammers] how does it connect to this?

RZ Well is this the masterpiece?

PF I mean does anyone ever really get to —

RZ Well, you’re your own toughest skeptic. You get really far along and then you realize that, “Mmm I veered off six degrees, let’s start again.”

BV It’s less that this is the master — masterpiece and more like what I wanted to do couldn’t actually be a painting. It had to be another medium, it had to be [RZ uh huh] a, you know, a sculpture or something like that [RZ let’s define — ]. That’s why I had to create this new medium in order to create the thing that I wanted to create in it. Yeah.

RZ Got it. So this is — — so let’s define [PF So Dynamicland] Dynamicland for the listeners.

PF Start with a house [airy laugh] and take me from there.

RZ Requirements. Remember when you used to buy games and they’d have requirements [PF yeah] on the box?

PF “Requirements: one house, [RZ laughs] 486 DX house.” [RZ laughs.]

BV So it’s um it’s not a house. It’s a [laughter], it’s a land. Um it’s the second floor of a large building and it’s an environment that’s intended to be kind of warm and cozy and inviting and the — the lighting is nice and there’s people around that are doing fun things. And there’s a lot of stuff. It’s a little bit cluttered. There’s like lots of papers on the table and that kind of thing. And there aren’t very many screens. There’s not a whole lot of people like sitting down in front of their laptops. Most people are um working with these pieces of paper and that — they are computering. Like the paper and the physical materials are um computational materials. And people are programming, they are creating computational behaviour for these materials.


PF What’s on the paper?

BV Well you can draw on a paper. I don’t know. You can — there’s often text printed on the paper and if there’s text written on the paper then that is the program that the paper follows.

PF So an actual program can like, you know, “Print: hello world”?

BV Uh huh.

PF Ok.

BV Yeah that — that would be rendered as um which are labeled, “Hello world.” [PF Ok] And then as soon as that is written on the paper then the paper has the words “Hello world” splayed across it. Of course if you wanted to do that, the easier thing is to take a Sharpie and just write the word, “Hello world.” And so that — this is kind of . . . a way of thinking that people have to get used to is that a lot of things that seem kind of miraculous on a computer screen such as writing the word, “Hello world.” You can just do that with a pen and paper and so they — the parts that need to be programmatic are those that are dynamic, those that need to change over time or respond to other things that are going on.

PF So — so now we’re back to knobs. I can — I have all sorts of knobs I can play with.

BV Um, yes. And you can make the knobs yourself. One of my favorite devices in Dynamicland is a joystick that was made by one of our researchers, Paula Te, and um so I grew up, again, as an electrical engineer and so I’ve always thought of like if you want a joystick or some sort of handheld control, it’s basically a box of electronics. Paula’s joystick is literally a lump of clay on top of a spring [PF mm hmm] which is um just kind of resting on a foam core piece of paper [mm hmm], and the way that the system works is it’s pretty good at being able to notice dots. So a lump of clay looks like a blue dot and um it’s on a spring so you can move it left and right and it always comes back to the center and then you can have a program that says like, “When that blue dot is left of center, then make Mario go left. And when it’s right of center, make Mario go right.” And so now you have a joystick but there’s no electronics, it’s literally just you crafted a joystick and all the kind of, you know, tech — electronics, technology is up in the ceiling with the projectors and cameras that are providing the sensing to notice where that dot is.


PF So now in my — if I’m moving Mario around, am I moving him — is he being being projected on the table? Do I have a screen going too? Like what’s — what am I doing?

BV We had a game jam um pretty early on in the life of the lab and David Hellman, who’s an amazing artist, he drew a bunch of artwork of like, “Here’s Mario and here’s like the dragon, here’s like walls and doors and that kind of thing.” And we have a wall where you can put up, basically um attach a little piece of paper to — to the wall which say like um, “Draw — draw a floor of the game here; draw — draw a door here; draw um Mario comes out here.” And you can use the joystick to move Mario around and jump over things and, you know, go through doors and that kinda thing.

PF And then, I mean the question I like to ask about anything like this is sort of: what superpower are you giving me?

BV So . . . there’s a few things. One is that um even if you are a programmer, and most people aren’t, the path to creating a useful, working thing involves many, many lines of code, and involves like — like lots of work inside a text editor and you have to reload a webpage and all that. And so much of the code in modern computer systems is simulating a virtual world, it’s simulating kind of virtual physics: being able to drag things around, and click on things and um —

PF Trash Can and Recycle Bin and —

BV Yeah and just even rendering that world of like how do you draw a window? How do you, you know, draw a menu bar? Like there has to be code to draw those things but in the real world, the real world draws itself, and the real world renders and simulates itself, and so the amount of code that we have is actually much smaller than a normal computer system because you have the real world doing — we don’t need code for like moving objects around because you just pick it up with your hand and move it around [PF mm hmm]. You only need a tiny amount of code that like draws whatever dynamic stuff you need on top of that piece of paper.

PF And then — there’s a few people working on this, it’s not just you.

BV Oh no. We’re um a bonafide research lab. We’re six people. We’re a non-profit.

PF And it’s dynamicland.org.

BV Yeah but um we kind of forget the website even exists because um the actual action is happening inside the place.

PF What’s the best way for people to see this thing and understand it?

BV Well you have to visit [PF ok] and a big part of what makes Dynamicland work as a computing environment is the social dynamics that happen when everything is visible and everything’s out and anybody can grab anything and people can learn from each other because they’re actually physically near each other. They can see what each other’s doing. They can learn from the stuff that people have left around. You can change anything that’s been left around. And, you know, the secret sauce is there — the programming language that’s our operating system called Real Talk is designed for a very decoupled way of working where you can — one person can make a thing, and someone else can make a thing, and someone else — a third person can make a thing that makes those two things work together. And so it’s designed for people to constantly be riffing off of each other and learning from each other and remixing uh everything that they see.


RZ When will you sort of take a look at this world and say, “It’s complete.” What is the criteria for completion, so to speak?

BV Is the world ever complete? . . . I guess —

RZ You laid it heavy on me, Bret.

PF See this is a client service company, we don’t get paid until stuff is done [RZ laughs].

BV So — so well no — no [stammers] well I think that’s actually a really good question because um it brings up the distinction between um what we’re doing and a product. So we’re — we’re a non-profit, we’re not making a product, we’re not — what we’re making will never be in a box with a price tag on it. Um —

RZ Are you making something that someone can say, “I would like to have this in my home in Missouri.”

BV A lot of people say that and . . . it’ll be there eventually [RZ ok]. What we’re doing is incubating a new medium and that takes time [RZ sure] um and so one maybe analogy is the internet is not a product. The internet um runs on an infrastructure of hardware and software products, you know hundreds of them, but the internet itself was created in a non-profit context and have had to be for what it was.

RZ Right. So are you building a set of standards here?

BV Yeah, we’re building the technology but also a kind of culture . . . and that’s the part that can’t be rushed [RZ mm hmm]. So over the short term um growing very deliberately in that way. Over the medium term, in the same way there’s a public library and everybody kind of built in every populated area um, you know, we kind of want to have a Dynamicland that’s accessible to anybody no matter where they are and probably the public library themselves would probably just um incorporate what we’re doing. And then the long term — so that’s maybe 20 or 30 years out. Then the longer term, 40, 50 years out, is that it’s built into all infrastructure the way that electric light is today. So today you walk into a building and you just assume there’s electric lights in the ceiling and, in the same way, this’ll just be kind of a computational electric light that’s available everywhere. But it’s gonna take that amount of time to um do it right and do it safely.

Success here is not that Joe goes down to Best Buy and buys Dynamicland Kit Version 5, it’s that a culture of collaborative and humanistic technology is distributed throughout the world.


PF So I mean what’s fascinating to me cuz of the world that we’re in on a day to day basis, success here is not that Joe goes down to Best Buy and buys Dynamicland Kit Version 5.

RZ Right.

PF It’s that a culture of collaborative, humanistic technology use uh is distributed throughout the world.

RZ Well, it’s integrated, right? Like it’s — it’s not a thing. It’s part of the thing.

We want to create a medium that works for all people. So growing our community, we’ve been pretty deliberate about reaching out to people who aren’t on Twitter and who aren’t traditionally advantaged by technology.

PF So obviously if a large corporate funder’s out there going, “Hey, I’d like to be involved in the future of the technology substrative culture for the next 30 to 50 years,” they should send an email. Who else should send — like do you need people? Do you want people to learn about things? What — how do people help right now?

BV So Dynamicland is a community space. It’s intended to kind of um . . . it’s not just a research lab but it’s intended to actually eventually kind of have the presence of a respected public institution like a public library or a museum. Um but we’re growing it as a community space, a place where people come to kind of do their thing with these powerful tools. And so the process of growing a community is — it can be fraught if you kind of go with the default of, “We’re gonna tweet about this thing and then a bunch of people on Twitter are gonna see it and they wanna be involved.” Though they’re wonderful people, but you end up with a very homogenous community [PF right] and so we’re located in Oakland. Um Oakland, California which is uh — or was recently named the most diverse city in America of its size. You know with a certain set of diversity metrics. But that was deliberate. We have access to a community which — it can be a pretty wide cross section of — of people. And we want to create a medium that works for all people. And so um growing our community, we’ve been pretty deliberate about trying to reach out to groups of people who wouldn’t — who aren’t on Twitter and um who aren’t traditionally advantaged by technology.

PF So, to close this out: tell us . . . the most surprising thing that’s been with Dynamicland.


BV I think maybe the most surprising thing just to me personally is that . . . it actually exists, that there is a place that um this — this, to me, crazy vision of creating a computing platform in the form of a physical place, a community space, is actually taking shape. Before any of this, I thought of computing um kind of in the — both the Xerox PARC and sort of the Apple sense of: you make a product, you make a box with electronics that somebody sits down at and like the screen is their world. And there was this vision of like, “No, we’re actually going to create a community space, a physical space, but the — that — the building is gonna be the computer and the computer is gonna be the building and people are gonna walk in and create computational materials, they’ll gonna be lying around, and people are gonna work together, and learn from each other,” and that was . . . such a . . . weird thing to imagine. That to actually walk into Dynamicland and see it actually happening is um . . . is just kind of mindblowing.

PF Bret Victor, thank you for coming on our podcast.

BV Thanks, Paul.

RZ The podcast closes with “mind blowing”?

PF I can’t do any better than that.

RZ We’re ok. We did good.

PF Everyone, if you need us: [email protected] Let us know. Go take a look at Dynamicland.

RZ [Music fades in] Dot org.

PF Start to think about this. You’ve got 30 years.

RZ Take your time.

PF You’ve got a minute. That’s — that’s not something you ever hear about technology. Most technology is like: you need to understand it now!

RZ Q3!

PF Q3!

RZ Launch it in Q3.

PF Think about how a physical substrate for all computation . . . could change your life as you become different things over the decades. That’s what you can do here.


RZ And this is — he’s not aiming for CES 2019.

PF No, no. He’s — he’s aiming for Kid Goes to the Public Library 2065.

RZ [Chuckles] Right.

PF That’s great [music ramps up]