Back in October, we published a series of community responses to “Take Back the Future.” One of them, by Spencer Chang, was about magic:
Rather than giving cake to the masses, we must give them the recipe. I demand a future where the magic is ours, the people’s rather than just an elite class of wizards and faceless entities. The software we interact with every day should not only allow, but encourage us us to make it our own: to create our thoughts, art, and experiments rather than merely consume SEO-juiced content; to express our full selves rather than settling for uniform cookie-cutter molds.
In today’s newsletter, Spencer expands this idea, explaining why good software is agency-promoting, and a necessary step towards reclaiming the magic.
✨ everyday magic
By Spencer Chang, full piece available on his website
the magic of technology
When humans first discovered fire, they thought it was a gift from the gods; only now do we understand the underlying processes that produce it. Fire was so universally useful then that people didn’t care how it worked or where it came from. It was easier to think of it as magic and focus on using its powers to achieve your desires rather than question its mechanics.
Computers, software, and the Internet are the same. Built on complex foundations, they are phenomena that only an elite set of privileged individuals have the ability to shape. For the rest, they have no choice but to take technology for granted, leveraging it for practical value. As long as technology is magical but inaccessible, there will be a power split between technologists and non-technologists—a divide between those with agency and those without.
Agency, the freedom that arises from the ability to exert influence over something commonly thought of as uncontrollable, isn’t limited to what people commonly think of as “software development.” Making a budgeting spreadsheet in Excel, combining browser extensions to make the web more readable, and even creating a fun art piece on your TI-86 are all like creating and designing an app, software tailored to your specific needs. Though these moments are rare among our daily software, many non-technologists have tasted this freedom, and once one gets a taste, they start to expect it in every piece of technology.
Many tools and movements, like the right to repair, the right to own your data, and no-code movement, advocate for more user agency in technology, promoting the belief that technology should be viewed as something commonplace, like a household object, rather than personalized ads and experiences from companies. For example, Situated Software, software that is “personal from its inception,” and end-user programming, paint visions of software tailored to people’s specific personal needs by those who know those needs best (ourselves), so that anyone can seize the magic and change the technology they rely on.
How can software help break down this divide of power and give everyone the ability to wield magic?
good software creates agency
To create good software, the kind that empowers users to take control, we can leverage malleable systems, playful environments, fast feedback loops, and data interoperability.
Instead of cookie-cutter UI and limited data retrieval, malleable systems empower individuals to tinker with and mold their software into the shape that’s perfect for them.
For example, Coda provides access to the power of a database, leveraging the familiar feel of a “document” to introduce building blocks that grow to power an entire app. What starts as a bulleted list can become an agenda with an interactive poll. The same document can flex to fit the evolving needs of its makers
Rather than designing specific flows for one-off use cases, these tools focus on providing building blocks—software Legos—which can be combined together into a custom masterpiece. Rather than forcing users into rigid flows designed by someone else, these tools flip the power dynamic by giving individuals the power to craft their own software at a more approachable entry than writing code. These tools are only the start of how far technology can go in enabling agency in every moment, and I’m excited to see how this space dramatically expands the set of people who can shape technology in the long term.
In most agency-rich tools, the learning curve for understanding the fundamental concepts needed for making something of one’s own can be steep. It’s important to make the learning fun rather than excruciating: a new game rather than assigned homework.
Some of my favorite examples of playful software solve boring utilitarian needs by embedding fun into the core experience, rewarding experimentation and learning through doing.
For example, Figma provides simple operations around aligning shapes and vectors, and as a result, you see people creating everything from digital art pieces to tic tac toe.
(See the full thread of projects.)
Sprout is a video conferencing tool that provides a space to hang out in and cultivate with your ideas and personality.
mmm.page is a new website builder that aims to bring back the personality of websites that harkens back to Geocities, providing easy GIFs, colored text blocks, and links that can be drag-and-dropped to create a new piece of digital real estate.
fast feedback loops
At the inception of ideas, harnessing creative momentum is essential. Any delay in how actions affect the end output and how much setup a working foundation requires can derail that pure creative desire. Fast feedback loops require being responsive to updating on changes and streamlining any complexity secondary to the core creative effort.
Document tools, like those mentioned above, provide “databases” that update on response without requiring complex syntax or proper database management. “Code-easier” tools like Glitch and Replit hide the complexities around running a server and serving a web page through a live preview of your code. No-code tools like Bubble aim to give non-technologists the full power of creating an app with visual drag and drop editors.
Interoperability refers to the ability to transfer data between apps seamlessly. Practically, this means having easy and comprehensive flows for importing and exporting data into and out of other apps. A fully interoperable world requires the implementation of common data standards for apps or open data models, but the question remains of how we might transition between most current data, held in proprietary, company-guarded data moats, to a more open, community-driven world. Craft built their data model on top of common standards and works to ensure the exported data is as useful as possible in other app contexts. Ink and Switch, a research lab exploring how computers can aid humans, has advocated for local-first software to ensure individual ownership of data outside of centralized company servers.
In a world of fully interoperable software, new apps can have immediate value because individuals can bring data in from existing apps. This immediate access eliminates the moat that incumbent software has over new creations—multiplying the effectiveness of individual agency by giving full control over produced data.
why personal agency?
As we navigate our digital worlds, we're subjected to software that treats us as subjects to be converted into revenue. Tech companies and hungry apps crave us for our attention rather than our being—our acts rather than our humanity. What if we inverted that power dynamic and gave individuals and communities the power to shape their software as they see fit?
Imagine we’ve achieved a world where all of our software embodies the aspects outlined above. The software we use daily empowers us with the agency to create our own tools, mold our own experiences, and transport our own data.
In the context of software, agency comes down to whether someone feels in control and powerful when they’re using a piece of software, rather than coerced and scared. It’s the difference between wanting to continue exploring rather than dreading continued use.
Agency shifts the balance of power—from corporations and startups to everyday communities and neighbors. In the ideal world, individuals would not only have the power to reject agency-deficient and agency-depriving environments, like those with dark design patterns, misaligned profit models, and pyramid scheme-esque incentives; they will also be responsible for using that power towards a future they want to see.
Still, even with these tools, we might still be relying on companies, often profit-driven and outside of our control. Additionally, these tools should be structurally accountable to the broader community while maintaining the momentum of innovation.
How we get there is another essay entirely. Perhaps the tools of the future are all open-source, collectively maintained, and led by trusted full-time individuals, such that anyone has the freedom to fork their own version while the broader community can collectively decide future directions. Many successful projects for important tooling like languages and infrastructure already follow this model; can we adapt those for the tools we use every day?
towards everyday magic
Can we build towards a world where all technology inspires and gives hope and calls us in? Many have sat by while crucial software deprives people of agency. Instead, let’s fight for a future where magic is as common as the air we breathe, and it’s second nature for people to shape it into something personally meaningful.
If interested, you can find more resources here!
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Spencer Chang is a creative technologist and stubborn dreamer who is passionate about making agencyful software, finding hole-in-the-wall food spots, and cataloging great lighting. He works as an engineer at Coda and experiments with journaling, writing, and fashion.
You've been doing a challenge for yourself with the goal of writing 100 pieces in a year—what have you learned from it, and what's been surprising?
Given the raw nature of the pieces, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve connected to others through this medium! The tension between being raw and public has pushed me to be more honest, intimate, and provocative in my writing, and I think that’s translated to being more authentically myself as a person as well.
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been reading a variety of short story fiction recently, including Tenth of December, Tokyo Ueno Station, and Turbulence, and I’m actively reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and hoping to start The Unreal and the Real soon! Very much subscribe to the belief that fiction forces us to reflect in new, interesting ways.
On the anniversary of her firing, Timnit Gebru’s announced the launch of her new research center, Distributed AI Research.
For those tracking antitrust in hardware, the FTC’s suing to block the merger of NVIDIA and Arm.
Internet of shit but make it woke?
💝 closing note
If you have a response or rebuttal to today’s essay, we’d love for you to leave a comment or reply to this email with a short paragraph sharing your thoughts! We’d love to publish them in the next newsletter.
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Nice article, this fits the topic rather well 👉 https://www.notboring.co/p/power-to-the-person