The myth of “programming is the only creativity”

One of the often-used memes concerning Apple’s approach to iOS is that it’s for “passive consumers”, people who aren’t creative. In an interesting post on Google App Inventor, O’Reilly’s Mike Loukides dredges this one up again – and I think Mike is committing a classic geek error.

Mike contrasts the approach of App Inventor, which is designed to encourage simple programs for Android, to the higher barrier of entry for development on iPhone, and concludes that it’s a cultural difference:

“But Google has taken another direction altogether: the user’s experience isn’t going to be perfect, but the user’s experience will be the experience he or she wants. If you want to do something, you can build it yourself; you can put it on your own phone without going through a long approval process; you don’t have to learn an arcane programming language. This is computing for the masses. It’s computing that enables people to be creative, not just passive consumers.” [My emphasis]

Here’s Mike’s first error: Conflating “creativity” with programming, and “passivity” with, well, everything else. Mike isn’t the first to do this – I think my friend Cory Doctorow is responsible for the meme, as I pointed out in an earlier post. I’d argue, in fact, that the history of computing teaches us the exact opposite: the less people are required to learn programming in order to be creative with computers, the more creative work you get.

The history of computing over the past 30 years is a move away from requiring people to engage with computers “on their own terms” via programming, and towards enabling users to do creative things through applications. The flowering of creativity this has enabled has been the main creative triumph of the computer. Think of how much less creativity there would be without Photoshop, QuarkXPress, iMovie, or Final Cut, to pick just a few.

These tools have democratised creativity for millions of people. To claim that simply because a platform doesn’t have simple programming tools makes it “only for consumers” is as absurd as claiming that a platform which doesn’t have a easy-to-use DTP package is “only for consumers”. It’s the arrogance of assuming that your chosen mode of creativity is the only mode of creativity.

Look at the iPhone, which is the most pertinent example. Despite having crappy camera hardware, the iPhone made it very simple to take and upload an image, something that wasn’t true for most previous camera phones. What’s more, and this is important, it was a playful experience, one which was enjoyable.

Are all those images “not creative” because the iPhone doesn’t have easier to use coding tools?

Get thee to the engine room, slave!

Mike also brings in an analogy which I think fails:

“It’s sort of like travel: you can go to Club Med or take a cruise ship if you want a crafted experience. But you won’t find out anything about the local culture, you’ll only eat the local food in controlled settings, you’ll never hear the native language spoken. You’ll just do the limited set of things the organizers want you to do.”

I’d argue that the approach he’s taking, which encourages users to get deeper into the hardware and software, to (as he puts it) “find out about the local culture” is actually more like requiring the passengers to do their stint maintaining the engines of the ship, whether they want to or not. The price they “have” to pay for getting on the ship in the first place is to become engineers.

But in the end, the reason why Mike’s argument falls down comes down to choice. The problem is that App Creator isn’t “programming for non-programmers” – it’s “programming for people who want/need to learn programming”.

And most people simply don’t want to learn (or to have to learn) programming. If there’s anything that the history of the personal computer should show clear, it’s this. HyperCard died, not because it wasn’t brilliant (it was, and WAY easier than App Creator) but because 99% of people who got it free with their Mac never found a use for it. It was capable of wonderous things, but most users didn’t even notice when it died.

Most people don’t program not because of lack of simple-enough tools, but because of lack of desire. They want to get on with creative things like taking and editing pictures, writing novels and blog posts, editing home movies, and compiling their family history. And they want to do all that without having to learn to program to do it.

The geek era is over

The geeks – the people who have, so far, been the dominant part of culture in technology and the Internet – are like priests of a religion that finds themselves no longer the centre of their culture’s world. They are displaying all the standard behaviours of a dying religion: Flocking to new prophets, who aggresively promote their message; lashing out bitterly at the heretics who are “betraying” them; and even trying desperately to preserve their way of life by saying “look how easy it is to become a priest!”

What they don’t understand is that their place in the universe has changed. They’re still an important part of the culture, but they no longer run the world. They’re just a part of it, and their creativity is no more – or less – important than anyone else’s.

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  • Moose

    I think the first time I heard “With our [new thingy], creating programs is not just for those nerdy programmers any more!” was in the early 80s. And again every other year since.

    If he wants programming creativity, Jesus! Has he not been paying attention? The App Store is directly responsible for the rebirth of the bedroom coder; for the first time since the 8 bit days, every school kid is looking at games and thinking “hey, I could make one of those” – and doing it. And it’s thanks to a shiny gadget and the promise of instant fortunes, not the specific details of the tools they’ll need to use.

    Also, Palm’s Ares is much slicker.

  • Michael Tan

    people will do what is trendy. Hypercard stacks weren’t exactly trendy, but apps … they’re hot. So people will make apps using Appinventor.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Moose – Yep. “Being able to make money, on your own” is a bigger incentive to learn to code than “here’s a really simple tool”.

    Michael: I’m sure they will, although it’s “trendy” only amongst the tech bubble, which is a very small place. I’m in favour of easier coding tools, but App Inventor isn’t “coding for non-coders”.

  • Simon

    Also the level of control over these devices which these people decide is “worthy” is pretty arbitrary. All systems are built up in layers, and most programmers are working at somewhere above the raw chip level. The programmer is “creating” based on a set of tools prescribed by the level below. It’s no more (or less) creative or free than the person who then uses that application to make a podcast, spreadsheet, pretty picture or whatever.

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  • Steven Fisher

    It’s interesting. I’m a programmer, but I’ve never held this illusion. In fact, I’m in awe at the talent out there in other areas that I could never even approach.

    But at the same time, I can’t argue that the illusion exists and is very common.

  • Shawn Levasseur

    My attitude is that the complainers are not really as uber-geeky, just poseurs.

    If anyone was interested in getting into a piece of tech to understand how it works and modify and control it in any way they want, they would find a way of doing so. Not expect that Apple was supposed to give them the means.

    The iPhone, iPad and all other forms of so called “closed systems” all have been hacked by some very resourceful people so that they can tinker with them. Did you think that back in the 60′s and 70′s the earlier hackers were complaining that AT&T wasn’t giving them the means to produce their black boxes to get free long distance? I seriously doubt it.

    Nope the whiners are the ones who can get an advance copy of a piece of hardware, open it up and not realize that the screen is higher resolution, or that a metal band is actually the devices antennas.

  • Roger Levy

    I’m commenting as a guy who has never owned a smartphone and is planning to buy an Android.

    So if programming is just another form of creativity, like you say at the end, what’s the big deal? Are you launching into defense mode because this form of creativity threatens the iPhone’s status because it does not provide a similarly easy and free way to make apps?

    Maybe some people (like myself, imo) don’t fall neatly into the programmer/non-programmer binary. And an app like this which makes it easier to make apps, suits those types – those who like the idea of making an app, but don’t have the time to wrestle C++ or whatever.

  • Ian Betteridge

    Hi Roger – first, I think, there’s no “defence mode” here. Pointing out that there’s a massive flaw in the perspective which leads to this idea that products like the iPad aren’t “creative” isn’t defensive, it’s just being rational about it.

    Programming is just another form of creativity, no more or less important in the great scheme of things than anything else. Attempting to rank crafts (which is what they all are) in order of “creative importance” is a mug’s game.

    And if you want to make apps at that level – if that’s a major creative thing for you – that’s fine! Use whatever tools and platforms you like, whatever works •for you*. I’m happy that there are tools around that meet your needs and let you express yourself creatively. I’m not going to make the same mistake that the “iPad is not creative” gang make, and say that what works for me, what helps me create, is going to be the right tool for you.

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  • Sugarenia

    This hit the nail hard. Especially the last part, where geeks lost their thrones.

    Great insight.

  • Kyle Bumpus

    I think you tool Mike’s comment horribly out of context. That quote doesn’t argue that programming is the only creativity. I’ve never heard anyone make that argument ever, in fact. He certainly isn’t conflating programming with creativity and passivity with everything else. He was speaking about App Inventor, specifically. Context matters.