Forrest Oliphant

The long-tail of tool design and transformative programming

2013-10-17

Simon St. Laurent connects some conceptual components in Transformative Programming: Flow-based, functional, and more. He explains the connections between web services, punch cards, Unix pipes, functional programming, and flow-based programming. I have been thinking about these connections for some time, and I'm glad somebody articulated them.

After years of watching and wondering, I’m starting to see a critical mass of developers working within approaches that value loose connections. ...they share an approach of applying encapsulation to transformations, rather than data.

I think that people want tools to solve problems. It is amazing to see the lengths that computer novices will go to get the wrong tools to do what they want. (I talked about this in my JSConf.eu talk this year. It isn't on YouTube yet, so I have no idea how coherent I was.)

If we make it easier to stitch together minimal tools, then we could make our own environment for different kinds of tasks. Wire in a spreadsheet when we need tabular data, timeline when we have linear media, dataflow graph when we want to make A/V synthesis and filtering... building software should be the practice of recognizing how to stitch these components together.

More people should have this skill. My main research interest is in making this skill (really, superpower) more accessible. I want to do this for myself, but also for my parents, kids, friends, and myself as a 9-year-old.

Monolithic software suites try to solve every problem in a broad domain with a giant toolbox, and then get abused to solve problems in other domains. Photoshop isn't a web design tool, and it isn't a dynamic web/mobile app design tool, but it is bent to solve those problems. Toolboxes are useful things to have and understand, but every digital media challenge is different.

meemoo-illo-by-jyri-pieniniemi I think that the upcoming custom elements web standard + NoFlo is going to be a powerful combination to make tools to get stuff done. I agree with St. Laurent that making the high-level picture dataflow is an effective way to make this work. My Meemoo.org and Mozilla App Maker are two potentially-compatible concepts for building toy programs like this. NoFlo is bringing this method to general purpose JavaScript, which now includes many spheres of possibility: server, browser, audio, video, 3D.

At JSConf.eu Jason Frame demoed a prototype window manager made for slicing up a screen and stitching together tools like this, using dataflow wires to connect widgets. I imagine a system like that which can also zoom in (open up?) to make more complex logic in a NoFlo graph.

This is the long-tail of tool design. 5 billion people will come online for the first time in the next 10 years. What problems will they be interested in solving? How many of these problems will be too obscure or not profitable enough to be suitable for a company to attempt to solve?

Right now, today, we can't see the thing, at all, that's going to be the most important 100 years from now.
-- Carver Mead

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St. Laurent also writes about "Humans as Transformers." Lauren McCarthy made a project where she farmed out all decisions during some dates to strangers on the internet in real-time. This got me to imagine a "Mechanical Turk" component for NoFlo: inputs data, text for directions, and price per item processed; outputs the human-transformed data. You could run these in parallel to compare answers, and use NoFlo's normal flow controls to handle the asynchronous nature of the component. This would be a quick and dirty way to encapsulate any programming challenge too complex or difficult to express in code.