Taking Candy Seriously
Monday, March 20, 1995 by Dave Winer.
The concept of a "socal interface" has been making the rounds in the software industry. The leading product, Microsoft's Bob, has been widely criticized for numerous reasons, mostly technical. But I like Bob! Because it makes an important statement.
Yes, let's try to make computer interfaces light and fun, even humorous. I think it's OK for the computer to have a personality. Or even better, I think it would be great if the computer reflected the better parts of my personality.
Looking at my Mac desktop, it reminds me that certain parts of my life are unorganized. My desktop is littered with icons for utilities that I use sometimes, old email messages, various versions of scripts, folders for lots of different projects. And one monster folder called Old Desktop Stuff. I never look in there. Every once in a while, usually when I return from a trip, I select all the icons on my desktop and drag them into that folder. A clean desk! I like it.
My Mac desktop can be a claustrophobic view of Dave's World. But inside my mission-critical apps, I see blue sky. Eudora is great. I like Netscape. I like my outliner and C compiler and scripting tools. But when I run out of ideas or enthusiasm for real work, my mainstay, the one that gets my creative juices flowing the best is SimCity from Maxis.
SimCity is total eye candy, but it's also mind candy too. It's deep and subtle. Every city teaches you something, allows you to try new tactics. I have my own style. I always make 6-by-6 blocks. I always put stadiums in commercial districts. When my cities grow to a certain size, I drop the taxes on commercial property, and raise them for industrial.
When I look at someone else's cities, they look strange. Just like looking at someone else's spreadsheet, someone else's source code. Someone else's kitchen cabinets. All our cities are different.
OK -- SimCity is just a game, right? No! It's much more like a word processor. I create documents in there. I always turn disasters off. Can you imagine a word processor with a Disasters menu? [If you can, it's time to get a new word processor!]
Using SimCity is a lot like programming. Totally visual. A much more substantial virtuality than current pretenders that just draw boxes with drop shadows around traditional language constructs. They're little more than program flowcharters. An outliner makes a much better program editor.
A city is just like a program that you constantly revise while it's running. But it has its own momentum. I write programs. There's very little difference between what I do when I'm using my C compiler and when I'm using my city compiler and its runtime environment.
So where does this go? Right now SimCity *is* just a game. But what if we took this interface seriously, viewed it as a social interface, just like Bob, and built networking and communication into it? What if there was a way to interconnect my cities with other people's cities? To walk a web of dynamically updating cities.
How would it work? One person has write permission for each city, everyone else has read permission. New rule: you can link to my city so our economies intermingle. You can apply tariffs to all value that passes thru your links. Not just a social interface. A social economy! I think that's heavy.
You can also drop little notes for the owner of the city you're visiting. Propose a treaty. Plot and scheme. Win-win deals. We hope...
Another peaceful use of the Internet!
PS: I hope Maxis is doing this. I don't know if they are. Last time I checked, about 8 months ago, a Berkeley startup, Optigon, led by one of the SimCity authors, was getting ready to launch an online system for multiple player cities. But their concept was limited to sharing cities, not webbing them. I hope they've been using the time to expand the concept.
PPS: HyperCard was probably a social interface, even if it didn't have talking animals. HyperCard was also the precursor to the worldwide web. It's not a color environment, the web is. But the HyperCard programmer had a lot more control over the pixels and the logic. It *was* way ahead of its time, just like everyone was saying. But not the way people thought it was...
PPPS: SimCity is mostly a guy thing, like model trains. Add networking and women might think it's more cute because it allows them to be more smart.
PPPPS: I keep wondering if one of these simulation products could be used to add intelligence (the real human kind, not the artificial kind) to world systems that are operated by computer. Bar room games that add intelligence to trading systems. Or the traffic flow of a real city. There's a broad river of human creativity that isn't currently being harnessed. It's a potentially big idea, but one that's very hard to describe in words.
PPPPPS: Apologies to the Wall Street Journal for my comments in a postscript to "Fred Chokes on Cherios." I definitely crossed the line. Thanks to several friends for pointing this out and arguing with me about this. I got it! I still have lots to learn about this stuff. I appreciate the patience people are showing.
I've uploaded two of my cities, so if you want to take a look, just click on either or both of the following icons:
Hope you like 'em!
And in case you don't have a Mac or SimCity2000, here's a snapshot of the downtown section of City #1: