Try remember how to individuate.

For some time there have been things that have pissed me off, yet in denouncing these things I have often failed to translate my personal distrust into a coherent, communicable reason for such curmudgeonly thinking. Although you wouldn’t know it, I’ve been held back by the worry that I’m quite possibly just an old git and no better than the infinite number of stupid people online (there I did it again).

Tonight something twigged. It’s a wonderful moment, possibly like for a UFO believer if a flying saucer were to land in front of the UN building. Bear with me while I flick through some old ideas again – I hope to offer a shareable joy.

Google has released a little application builder for their Android mobile phones. It’s more BASIC than C++ and the ‘professionals’ are already deriding it as the source of more fart pianos. But, I thought to myself, at least people can make their own fart pianos, which is more than I can do on my iPhone. At which point the whole thing that pisses me off went klunk.

You see, I’ve been hanging around the community for GameSalad, which is a game authoring tool for the iPhone. This was the tool my students used in my Intro To Game Design class. The GS community has become a tedious place where all the talk is about how to get on the App Store, how to make money on the App Store, who is selling the most on the App Store blah blah blah – as if it’s a musicians’ forum where everybody talks about stocking shelves all day. The conversation has been defined from above by the way the entire iPhone ecosystem is set up.

(Stop press – latest addition to GameSalad – in-game advertising. OH right, of course – no arrays, no string parsing – let’s have ADVERTS first. Because it’s not about game design it’s about money. Not teaching this tool next year – their capitulation to Jobsism is complete.)

Instead the Google application builder lets the phone owner slap together something only they might want and without it having to be stocked. It’s a Do It Yourself process – something that has been missing for some time – something which was once a given feature of computing.

Not just the BASIC language of old computers but more recent tools like Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard on the 80’s Mac, or 90’s AmigaVision. These tools served one user as well as they served many. They were part of the personal computer revolution – a revolution that is now being dissolved in “clouds” and “spaces” – the smiley face return of mainframes. A centralised marketplace has (by constant reinforcement) become axiomatic in computing and that is what the rabid social science people call ‘a violence’. I kind of like that. ‘A violence’.

Aligned words from Dale Dogherty on the iPad:

… I am just pointing out the lack of really good tools available for amateurs and professionals to use to create new kinds of applications for the iPad. HyperCard was not only used by The Voyager Company; it was used by teachers to create coursework; or students to prepare a report; it was used by individuals to develop novelty applications like recipe databases…

… If the iPad is just another consumer platform for consuming and not creating content, then it will just be another way to watch TV …

Which is exactly what it is supposed to be.

Following the Android page leads to MIT’s Scratch project which I’d looked at before and decided wasn’t suitable for teaching game design. But another look, particularly reading this article (warning PDF) has led to clarity. As the MIT crew explain they are trying to inspire creative programming of the sort that’s been missing since the old home computer days, empowering people and reversing a tendency to passive social networking (“I have X friends, I have X cows”). Justifiably proud of their achievements they may have neglected some other people working on the same problem – e.g. Microsoft’s SmallBASIC which leads up to Visual Studio Express or HyperNext which is a free HyperCard replacement. And GameMaker which has just hit the Macintosh.

All of these initiatives are politically important. You can see what happens when in the case of GameSalad the whole dialogue becomes one of seeking approval from a gatekeeper. It’s like the old idea of ‘broadcast standards’ that kept control of television with the major networks. Of course the majors broadcast rubbish in the way the App Store stocks fart pianos – the idea of ‘broadcast standards’ is not about the worth of the programming but control of the programming. Or use the example of bands and record labels if that’s your concern. Recent malarkey with the terms of use in the App Store simply yanks the chain to cause anxiety, break dissent and remind the community of where the power lies.

But along with this self policing governmentality comes a smokescreen of limited and directed dialogue – where arguments are merely about brand allegiance and ‘fanbois’ line up to defend the people that exploit them. A more pathetic version of the way the lower middle class can be whipped up to vote for the controlling upper classes by controlled media.

wonderful great amazing

If you have previously bothered to read this blog you will recognise old themes I have tediously covered many time before. The change is that a coherent protest is starting to form – which therefore promotes a coherent response. And given I am responsible for teaching digital media it is my responsibility to go over this again and again trying to form the most helpful and liberating ideas.

Try to remember how to individuate, to rebel. There are infinite ways – that’s the key – there’s not the correct way. The person that uses FaceBook to coordinate their Friday nights with their real friends should lecture me, who looks at FaceBook like a poisonous snake. For my part I begin to understand why I instinctively took on the teaching of game design. The computer has become a projection, a kind of idol with which we’ve become intertwined. As more and more people have adopted a computer as identity (an avatar, a persona, a mediator) there’s been a push to make it an appliance and therefore an aid to what Foucault termed ‘technology of the self’. This constantly connected, linked to a mainframe, rights managed consuming device serves as a very poor role model – to individuate it to run unique, self serving, (even if badly written) applications is healthy for individuating our minds.

I can sum it up: D.I.Y.
Make software for the self and not the marketplace.

In the way that ‘indie’ was a term introduced to dis-empower independence and ‘alternative’ was adopted by the major labels to market rock, the use of ‘my’ and ‘i’ by the new major broadcasters is an obvious signal of the intention to remove the real ‘I’ and ‘My’ from our creative palette. The only way to regain these is to know the difference and exercise it.

To program, and perhaps to programme to entertain ourselves, not mediated by a marketplace, is effective (and fun) dissent.