Everyone should be a programmer, says Clive Thompson in Wired. We couldn’t agree more — but let’s face it, not everyone is going to be able to manipulate lines of code like Neo in The Matrix. It needs to be easier than that.
Impure is the latest stab at bringing coding to the masses — or techno-savvy infographics-junkies, anyway. It’s a “visual programming language” that lets you build hot-looking data visualizations right in your web browser by drawing out the structure in a kind of diagram, rather than typing it out in arcane computer-talk.
Now, let’s admit right up front that Impure is still in alpha, and its air-traffic-control-like user interface needs work. But the basic idea — that snapping together blocks of logic like Legos and drawing lines between them is at least slightly more intuitive than C++ or Perl — is a good one. And the fact that Impure runs in a web browser makes it super-easy to take it for a spin and mess around without feeling like you’re going to break something.
Impure still uses a lot of programming jargon, but as a way for noncoders to realize visual concepts out of raw data, it’s easier to grok than, say, Processing. It builds on a programming concept we’ve already seen in MIT’s Scratch and Microsoft’s Kodu — both of which use simple visual “blocks” and gamelike interfaces to get kids interested in coding.
Programming is fundamentally abstract. But the best way to get it to catch on with non-coders is to make it as visual and “physical” as possible — after all, who doesn’t understand Legos and Tinker Toys? It’s a natural way for programming to go, just like computers themselves evolved from intimidating mainframes to iPads in just a few decades. If the physical form-factor of computers can be easy enough for babies to use, why not the logic that powers them, too?
But the real importance of tools like Impure and the others isn’t just for making eye candy. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in this new book Program or Be Programmed, it’s dangerous to build a society full of a passive digital users. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple don’t always have our best interests at heart — and the best way to keep a critical mindset about what computers can and can’t (or shouldn’t) do for us is to learn how to really control them.
After all, our gadgets work for us, not the other way around. Tools like Impure — while they still have a long way to go before they turn average Joes into code cowboys — are a great reminder of that fact.