Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Power of the Possible

Our work is constrained by our beliefs about what is possible. We can only create what our minds can first conceive. So when we encounter something that lies outside our mental limits, it is an incredible event. We can think thoughts that we could not think before and create what was previously inconceivable. It is like a painter living in a black and white world who discovers color for the first time.

People that have the capability to do creative work outside the limits of what is currently believed to be possible are rare and important. They have a powerful catalytic effect on human progress. Once a boundary is breached it triggers a wave of exuberant productive energy. New fields of art, science, and technology are launched. Creators delight in discovering that their belief in some limit was wrong and eagerly explore the fresh world of new possibilities.

In the computer industry, Steve Jobs was known as a creative genius, and with good reason. His work in human-computer interaction at Apple Computer corp. revolutionized personal computing. The iPhone is one example of Apple's pioneering work.

Before the iPhone, smart phones looked very different. They were clunky devices with tiny screens and big keyboards. GUIs were activated with styluses. The few applications available for them were crappy and expensive. The programming environment for these phones was atrocious. Due to their limited capabilities and high price, the ownership of smart phones was restricted primarily to large corporations which gave them out to highly paid employees so they could keep up with their email. The devices were good for little else.

Fast forward two years after the iPhone’s release. Now most phones are composed of a beautiful rectangle of glass, controlled by touch. With their large, colorful screens, they provide an excellent web browsing experience and they are doubling their share of global website visits each year. They offer cheap or free programming environments that are a joy to use, generating a burgeoning ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of innovative applications. Phones are now the fastest growing category of gaming devices. A vast crowd of new smart phone owners were created - even my computer-challenged father owns one. In 5 short years the smart phone has revolutionized the web, business, and gaming, and its influence on society is still growing at an exponential rate.

The pivotal point for the cell phone market can be traced to Jobs announcement of the iPhone at WWDC. The effects of that talk spread outward like ripples on a pond until the whole industry was changed forever by Jobs' creative vision. His presentation is rightly considered one of the best technology demos of all time. It is the moment when Jobs' new ideas about what a phone could be were introduced to the world.

For the last week, I’ve been raving about a presentation given by Bret Victor at the CUSEC conference. Aside from Jobs’ presentation of the iPhone and The Mother of All Demos, it is the best technical presentation I have ever seen, and certainly the best to come from a single individual’s creative efforts.

Bret Victor - Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

Bret's talk is divided in two remarkable halves. The first part is a mind-blowing technical presentation that presents new kinds of user interfaces never before seen. After watching his talk, I can conceive of possibilities for software that were previously outside my comprehension, like I grew a new sense.

The second part is Bret’s creative manifesto. He lays out an explicit philosophy that guides his work, enabling him to push beyond the boundaries of current software. Few innovators have such self-awareness and none so clearly lay out their methodology for others to follow.

Bret’s passion and idealism recall images of Steve Jobs in his prime. Like Jobs, he has the air of a technological prophet, preaching his gospel. Like any good prophet, Bret hooks us with the miracles before proceeding to the sermon. He promises that if we follow his teachings, then we too will be capable of miracles. It's an enticing offer.

Watch it. It’s one of the best hours of video I’ve ever seen.

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