Learning to Write

The recent slew of changes that Apple has made to the secret iDevice developer agreement has finally pushed me to write up these thoughts, which have been nagging at me for a while now.

In the new world of computing, “devices” are king. And nobody sells a device these days without also having the forethought to build a walled garden around it. Apple is now the poster child for the “app store” model, but the video game industry had already proven the value of controlling both the hardware platform and software distribution.

It would be disingenuous of me to decry the practice outright. I’ve owned a variety of these locked-down devices, and have purchased software through the “approved” online stores. Yes, I have been frustrated by the consequences of restrictive copy-protection – re-buying games that I had already purchased when my XBOX 360 came up with a Red Ring of Death. Yes, I have often pondered “jailbreaking” these devices, and occasionally tried it out on those that I was willing to risk “bricking.”

In all of this, I have never stood up and “voted with my wallet” – passing up on a device because I didn’t approve of its software development and distribution model. Simply put, the value I got out of these devices – the latest Nintendo game, or the ease-of-use of the iPhone – surpassed the cost – the inability to load my own software and fully customize the device. Or at least, that was the only cost I could perceive at the time.

Now that I have a daughter, my perception is a bit different.

My generation has already formed a powerful attachment to our mobile devices – I often joke that given the choice between air and my iPhone I would have to think carefully. My daughter is going to grow up thinking that it is normal to be able to stream live video from across the world while riding in the back seat of a car. We could debate whether this pervasive access to technology will be harmful for the next generation, but this misses the point. The presence or absence of technology is not what is important. What is important is how future generations will relate to the technology of their time.

Remember that written language was once a “technology.” Those of you reading this have grown up in a world immersed in that technology; most of us are within sight of written words every moment of every day. The spread of literacy over millennia has changed human society, human history. We know that mastery of this technology – the ability to both consume and produce – is necessary for success in our society.

Those in my generation who consider themselves “computer literate” can often trace their learning process back to a handful of software systems: “turtle graphics” in Logo, BASIC on the Apple II or DOS, HyperCard on the early Mac. All of these systems allowed anyone with a computer to experiment with programming, and allowed even young children to use the technology to create and not just consume. The Scratch project provides a similar exploratory programming environment for today’s children. My wife teaches a technology course that, among other things, has 7th and 8th grade students build their own computer games using Scratch.

In case you hadn’t noticed, all of those software systems have another feature in common – none of them are allowed in Apple’s App Store. Children who want to use an iPad to create animations or games in Scratch can no longer do so. If they are especially motivated, and have helpful parents, I suppose they could pay to join Apple’s developer program, go out and buy dense technical books to teach them C, Objective C and Apple’s proprietary APIs, and spend months or years creating a project that would have taken mere minutes in Scratch.

That hardly sounds fair, though. It’s like telling kids they can have their Dr. Seuss book after they finish a thesis on Finnegans Wake. There is a reason these simple, intuitive programming environments exist, and the companies selling these devices shouldn’t just ignore the programmers of the future – the authors of tomorrow’s technology – in the name of platform lock-in.

I guess I’ve already nailed the point into the ground, but just to throw in a few closing comments: There are two technologies that shaped me most in my formative years – books, and desktop computers. What really frightens me is that both of these are brilliant ideas that would never be invented in today’s world. Books, which can be read, shared, bought and sold by anyone in any country – that don’t need to be bought separately for at-home and on-the-go use – would never even be considered by today’s media companies. The earliest PCs/Macs, which allowed anybody to buy, sell, install and develop any software they wanted, without diverting revenue back to the hardware manufacturer, would be seen as a squandered opportunity.

These technologies – books and computers – changed the world for the better, and now we are making haste to bury them in favor of their more profitable successors.

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One thought on “Learning to Write

  1. I’ve often regretted how much harder “casual” programming has become, and how much higher the barrier to entry seems to be. C was still the lingua franca of “real” industrial programming when I learned it, and C just wasn’t that much harder than BASIC and Pascal. Today C++ has gotten so sophisticated that I barely recognize it, and on those infrequent occasions when I need to actually code on something it can take me days to set up all the IDEs and libraries and paths and actually compile something.

    Like probably much of my generation I was motivated to learn programming in part because the (arcade) video games of my childhood seemed totally in reach. I frequently used to think that our kids’ generation will have a lot less interest in programming, both because it’s harder to get started and because the vastly increased production value of today’s games removes the “I can do that” feeling. The trends of casual mobile games and indie games give me some optimism on the latter front, at least.

    What happened to Scratch, did it used to work on iOS and get locked out? My biggest complaint with scratch is the limited canvas size, otherwise I think it’s brilliant. My six-year old son loved “playing” Scratch.

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