Postcard — September 20, 2018, 11:08 am

Indistinguishable from Magic

Dynamicland seeks to free us from our devices—through technology

All photographs by the author

Rain was falling inside Dynamicland, but no one could identify its source. Bright, pixelated raindrops dotted a table covered with paper as the space filled with the soothing sound of a gentle rain shower. Dozens of projectors—large and minuscule—hung from the ceiling, their lenses aimed down at all manner of surfaces covered in white sheets of paper and immersed in flickering lights. Every piece of paper in Dynamicland is bordered by colorful circular stickers arranged in a careful pattern, which act as a kind of barcode that renders the paper recognizable as a piece of code. In Dynamicland, coding doesn’t mean tapping away in front of a computer—it means physically creating code on the page. Somewhere on its expansive floor, someone had evidently switched on the code for “make it rain.” A crowd of onlookers didn’t seem to mind.

A nonprofit research group with the feel of an artspace, Dynamicland was first conceived by Alan Kay, an influential computer scientist who is known as the “father of mobile computing,” and a designer named Bret Victor, who once held the title of “Human Interface Inventor” at Apple, where he helped create products like the Apple Watch. Together, Kay and Victor began working on their new medium in a research lab modeled on Xerox PARC, where things like Ethernet, laser printers, graphical user interfaces (and with them, the mouse) were developed. In late April, I went to experience the group’s nascent technology, which Victor sees as an antidote to the “inhumane” products he once helped create. Through Dynamicland, he hopes to destroy them, or at least render them redundant by inventing a new medium that does not require users to be chained to an illuminated rectangular screen. The space, which resembles an elementary school more than a lab or an office, was teeming with dozens of visitors gawking at the technology surrounding them, many of them wielding their smartphones like defensive shields, snapping photos of the simulations hovering over every surface.

Dynamicland belongs to a cohort of new Bay Area projects dedicated to freeing us from the tyranny of our devices. But where others have proposed simpler tactics, like disabling notifications, abandoning infinite scroll, and taking “breathers” from one’s screen, the team behind Dynamicland has taken a more radical approach, encouraging visitors to leave their mobile screens in their pockets and marvel, instead, at life-size programmable interfaces built into the lab’s walls and floors and furniture.

A team member handed me a brochure at the entrance: “The entire building is the computer,” it read. “We are inventing a new computational medium where people work together with real objects in physical space, not alone with virtual objects on a screen.” I looked around, waiting for this computer to reveal itself. Instead, what I saw would be more aptly described as a playroom for adults where every surface is a screen; men sat cross-legged on a carpeted floor before a projection of an interactive graph that was beamed down from an array of cameras and motion detectors fixed to the ceiling. Using popsicle sticks and rectangles of white paper lined with multicolored dots, they compared the life expectancy and GDP per capita of the United States, Japan, and China in 1987. The program mimicked the famously entertaining presentations of the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, who used data to teach people “how not to be ignorant about the world,” and became a fixture on the TED Talk circuit for his optimistic sermons about rising global prosperity. In a corner, a group lingered in front of a paper display labeled “exquisite corpse”; they knew they were supposed to do something to make the illuminated 2-D corpse come alive, but they couldn’t be sure what.

I wandered over to a small library, where there were couches, books—Einstein’s biography, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, and an encyclopedia of imaginary flora and fauna from a nonexistent world—and relics of computational mediums past (including a Ritz pocket calculator, a slide rule, a West German Addiator, and a weathered copy of The Principles and Practice of the Chinese Abacus). Above, a timeline traced technology’s evolution from cave paintings through written language, the public library, the printing press, disposable paper, personal computing; and then, finally, triumphantly, in 2050 ad, Dynamicland is fully realized and the dynamic medium is born. Standing before this display, in 2018, I had the feeling of both being ahead of time, and behind.

In 96 ad, the Roman Emperor Domitian was murdered in the defenseless position of holding a scroll with two hands. A few decades later, the codex, a predecessor to the modern book made from parchment and string, came into use, allowing readers to read with just one hand and to use the other for self-defense, if need be. At Dynamicland, Victor envisions a similarly emancipatory project, a technological advance that frees us from our laptops and cell phones. “We’ve invented media that severely constrain our range of intellectual experience,” he remarked in one talk. The answer to this problem, evidently, is to free us from our screens by turning everything into a screen, into a computerized, programmable, interactive interface. At one point, the sound of birds chirping filled the space, their songs interrupted by the enthusiastic cries of young programmers milling about before an interactive map of the Bay Area. “This is so cool!” one young man exclaimed.

Dynamicland might seem to be something like a life-size version of Microsoft Paint, or an unnecessarily aggressive enhancement of smart-home technology; in reality, it is something like both of those put together, a world where everything is interactive, where the divisions between the material and the virtual are obliterated, where simulations blanket our physical environment. The dissolution of these boundaries can be useful for things like playing games and presenting information, but it might also seem rather disorienting, and even dangerous, for those of us acquainted with the more inhospitable corners of the online world. For now, Dynamicland is dressed up as a whimsical place that frees its inhabitants from the tyranny of having to periodically glance at their devices, but it is easy to see how this new freedom can quickly start to feel entrapping. Dynamicland was certainly cool, but it was also frightening—if its technology can transform the entire world into a computer, what happens if you want to get out?

A few weeks after the community showcase, I returned to Dynamicland for an official tour led by Isaac Cohen, an artist and volunteer, and Virginia McArthur, the research group’s executive producer, who previously helped bring The Sims to life. On one table, an animated jellyfish—one of Cohen’s many dynamic creations—hovered over a piece of paper labeled “Jelly Rainbow.” He had written the code to connect every program on his workspace: each paper “page” became the end of a wiggling, neon tentacle. In a corner, a live feed of BART arrivals and departures illuminated the painted plaster wall.

By 2050, they hope, Dynamicland will have moved far beyond its Oakland headquarters, spreading into new cities and states not as a curiosity but as a piece of infrastructure, rendering all the surfaces—sidewalks, roads, streetlamps—into dynamic, programmable mediums. Around us, the walls and floors and tables glimmered with simulated shapes and sounds. Staring at an activated surface in Dynamicland is not wholly unlike staring at a screen, but it is far more pleasant: the colors are softer and slightly less alluring, which makes it that much easier, that much more natural, to look away.

“So much of what Silicon Valley believes is that technology can never be bad. But look at the history of what that is,” said Cohen. “I think everyone around here understands that we could really fuck this up, and that’s scary.”

Soon we were shaking hands and saying goodbye. Once I made it back onto the street, I fought the urge to pull my phone out of my back pocket, but I couldn’t find my way onto the freeway without it. Once I found my car, I sat down and opened Google Maps on my iPhone, and reveled, a little bit, in the thoughtless pleasure of listening to the navigator’s soothing staccato voice guiding me home.  

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2019

A Play with No End

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Call of the Drums

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Brutal from the Beginning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Alps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
A Play with No End·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I caught up with the Gilets Jaunes on March 2, near the Jardin du Ranelagh, they were moving in such a mass through the streets that all traffic had come to a halt. The residents of Passy, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Paris, stood agape and apart and afraid. Many of the shops and businesses along the route of the march, which that day crossed seven and a half miles of the city, were shuttered for the occasion, the proprietors fearful of the volatile crowd, who mostly hailed from outside Paris and were considered a rabble of invaders.

Article
The Call of the Drums·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Kurultáj, an event held annually outside the town of Bugac, Hungary, is billed as both the “Tribal Assembly of the Hun-­Turkic Nations” and “Europe’s Largest Equestrian Event.” When I arrived last August, I was fittingly greeted by a variety of riders on horseback: some dressed as Huns, others as Parthian cavalrymen, Scythian archers, Magyar warriors, csikós cowboys, and betyár bandits. In total there were representatives from twenty-­seven “tribes,” all members of the “Hun-­Turkic” fraternity. The festival’s entrance was marked by a sixty-­foot-­tall portrait of Attila himself, wielding an immense broadsword and standing in front of what was either a bonfire or a sky illuminated by the baleful glow of war. He sported a goatee in the style of Steven Seagal and, shorn of his war braids and helmet, might have been someone you could find in a Budapest cellar bar. A slight smirk suggested that great mirth and great violence together mingled in his soul.

Article
Brutal from the Beginning·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Celebrity sightings are a familiar feature of the modern N.B.A., but this year’s playoffs included an appearance unusual even by the standards of America’s most star-­friendly sports league. A few minutes into the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston ­Rockets—the season’s hottest ticket, featuring the reigning M.V.P. on one side and the reigning league champions on the other—­President Paul Kagame of Rwanda arrived with an entourage of about a dozen people, creating what the sports website The Undefeated called “a scene reminiscent of the fashionably late arrivals of Prince, Jay-­Z, Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Article
The Alps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Toyota HiAce with piebald paneling, singing suspension, and a reg from the last millennium rolled into the parking lot of the Swinford Gaels football club late on a Friday evening. The HiAce belonged to Rory Hughes, the eldest of the three brothers known as the Alps, and the Alps traveled everywhere together in it. The three stepped out and with a decisive slam of the van’s side door moved off across the moonscape of the parking lot in the order of their conceptions, Rory on point, the middle brother, Eustace, close behind, and the youngest, ­Bimbo, in dawdling tow.

Article
Hurrah for the Plaza·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There has been a proliferation of plazas in the past twenty years, here in New York City but also elsewhere in America, even in Minnesota, where I’m from. Maybe in the zoning laws there is provision for the apportionment of sunshine, or maybe it’s just leftover space waiting to be developed, but here it is, an open ­plaza where people can mingle freely, enjoy face-­to-­face encounters, take a break from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram—­the national unconscious with its fevers of conspiracy and ancient hatreds and malignity—­and walk out into the fresh air of democracy, where the general looseness—­no security personnel, no ropes, no questions—­testifies to the inherent good manners of one’s fellow citizens. There is no sign reading: your consideration of your neighbors is appreciated. thank you for not engaging in abusive talk or elaborate paranoia. People just behave without being told, as if their mothers were watching them.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

“What’s the point?” said Senator Tim Scott, who is paid at least $174,000 per year as an elected official, when asked whether he had read the Mueller report.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today