The architecture of creativity: "Low floor, wide walls, high ceiling."
Issue 4: Hyped about HyperCard, Seymour Papert, how Notion is in and of itself a "request a feature" button.
Thanksgiving week is upon us so I wish those of you celebrating a healthy, safe and warm holiday weekend ahead. A reminder that if you were forwarded this newsletter or stumbled here by accident, do check out some of the past issues here and if it reads like something you'd want to receive weekly in your inbox, please consider subscribing.
Four issues in and I'm excited to share that this little newsletter that could just recently passed its 100th subscriber mark. While this isn't a huge number by any means, I was originally expecting to be writing for only a dozen or so folks in the the first year of publishing till forever, so this is all very pleasantly surprising. If you are new this week, welcome!
Speaking of subscribers, I asked my mom if she read last week's issue to which she replied, "it’s very long. need some pictures." I will do my best to oblige.
This week, I'm hype about HyperCard.
A few days ago, Notion — atop a few other exciting updates — released a new version of their template gallery. Templates, as I mentioned in the last issue, have been a huge contributing factor in Notion's growth over the past few years. The revamp has, as Fast Company put it, truly [underscored] how extensible the software can be. Notion put out a blog post detailing the template gallery update, written by none other than Molly Mielke, author of Computers & Creativity (a thesis I wish I wrote in college and is as excellent as its title sounds). In the blog post, Molly compares Notion templates to HyperCard stacks, a connection I've been excited to talk more about, so I've made some space to expand upon it in this issue here.
To talk about HyperCard in the context of Notion is to talk about the idea that software can in fact be made malleable, blurring the line between "users" and "programmers" and to delve into that, we'll have to first take a step back to the late 80s.
Some of you may have heard of HyperCard, some not. Launched by Apple in 1987, HyperCard was for all intents and purposes, a tool for making tools, software that enabled the making of more software. Bill Atkinson, creator of HyperCard (and MacPaint!), wanted to create a tool that both programmers and non-programmers could use to write their own computer applications and likened HyperCard to an "erector set" for software. The fundamental building blocks of HyperCard were documents called "stacks", which were made up of a series of related "cards". Each card in a stack could contain a wide variety of multimedia formats including text, images, buttons, and even audio. Over the last few days, I've been pouring over the HyperCard Handbook which describes some examples of listed applications (or "stacks") one could create: "an appointment calendar with cards for the various days, weeks, or months; a photo collection; an atlas; or even a library card catalog".
Sound familiar? It should. It's what you can now do with Notion.
To borrow a phrase from computer scientist Seymour Papert, just like Notion is today, HyperCard embodied the concept of low floors and high ceilings: technologies that are easy to begin working with but still have lots of open-ended potential. It provided space for both the beginner and the expert. Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab and co-creator of Scratch writes, "For a technology to be effective, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling)."
The image above — from Mary Adelaide Brakenridge - expands upon Papert's principle a bit more:
low floors with ramps, in both the physical sense of allowing access to a building and the metaphorical sense of inviting people to approach the floor in the first place
wide walls with frames of interest, to help narrow the many possibilities offered by the wide walls for those who might be overwhelmed by the choice or prefer a very focused approach
high ceilings, tall ladders, to serve as the technical and social scaffolds required to move through a platform
reinforced corners, to consider what additional supports or resources may be needed to support all learners
Request a feature vs. create your own feature
It would be a stretch to say that Notion — in its current form — could create standalone applications ready to be packaged and distributed as product and many would argue that this was the very reason that HyperCard didn't survive the early aughts. Tools moved to the web, collaboration became key and what HyperCard wasn't, at least in its early days, was collaborative, nor was it ready for the World Wide Web.
As Atkinson lamented in this 2002 interview: "I missed the mark with HyperCard, I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I'd grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser. My blind spot at Apple prevented me from making HyperCard the first Web browser."
HyperCard stacks, just like Notion templates, thrived in the community as standalone applications for one-off use cases that could be duplicated and remixed. Users of HyperCard spoke of user group community members that created and sold to each other, almost never using stacks exactly the way they were purchased. Quite like the economy of Notion templates today, when you duplicate a template — the act of what comes after is in the name itself. The “template” is merely a pattern for a process, a preset format the more likely than not, will be changed and tailored to suit the operating system of the person or company using it.
So what makes Notion successful now given that it closely resembles a product that came and went almost 30 years before its time? It appears to me at least, that we've reached a nexus in the age of software where users are becoming more opinionated than ever before. Almost any software application out there today inevitably comes with a "request a feature" button. Have something that doesn't work for you or need an application tailored for your specific use case? Request the feature. From there, your request - along with 90% of other requests - will likely sit idle, buried in the quicksand of a “backlog”.
Notion is in and of itself that very "request a feature" button. If you want something bad enough, you more likely or not can find a workaround for it. As a Notion Ambassador, I am grateful to be on the front lines of a shared Notion database where ambassadors can request and upvote on certain features. Even just glazing over the list, it surprises me how a lot of currently requested features almost certainly have a working — albeit clunky — solution or workaround. You want built-in database forms? Rely on a Typeform or Tally form integration via the Notion API. Recurring tasks? Here's a workaround. Want charts and graph views to visualize properties in databases? Say hello to Deepnote.
The creative power that Notion lends to its users, the means by which users are empowered to create solutions to tailor the tool to work for them, is a trend that I love to see. To take a most recent example, even before simple tables were introduced as a built-in feature, the community had already created a workaround for it.
As Arbesman puts it in The forgotten software that inspired our modern world, the legacy of HyperCard is the normalization of end-user programming for ordinary users and I'm certainly here for a world where we can actively empower more users to take creative agency over technology and start seeing applications not just as the end product, but rather, as an artifact of the exploration itself. Perhaps HyperCard was simply too ahead of its time, as most technological advances usually are.
We've reached the end here and it pains me that I can't go on some more about this since there is so much left to talk about. I will, however, link to a few more places on the web that you can continue exploring if HyperCard has tickled your fancy as it has mine. Unfortunately, I never got to experience HyperCard firsthand so if you are reading this now and want to share your experiences on using HyperCard, want to let me know if there's anything I missed or didn't cover properly, I am all ears.
Until next week, keep exploring →
Computers and Creativity by Molly Mielke (read)
The forgotten software that inspired our modern world by Samuel Arbesman (read)
25-plus years of HyperCard, the missing link to the web by Matthew Lasar (read)
How document-editing upstart Notion plans to beat Microsoft and Google by Jared Newman (read)
All Hyped Up for HyperCard by Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez (read)
And of course, the HyperCard Handbook — scanned for your enjoyment (1987) (read)
Computer Chronicles, HyperCard ft. Bill Atkinson (watch)
Your Tour of HyperCard (watch)
Justin Falcone: The Origin of HyperCard in the Breakdown of the Bicycle for the Mind (watch)
Have a wonderfully wonderful week ahead.
Low floor and high ceiling is an *excellent* way to describe Notion. That has matched my experience pretty well. I started using it to just write text but now I use it to manage my tasks, store my game design, hold my recipes, and figure out what movie to watch next.
And congrats on 100 subscribers! I remember that milestone very well for my own newsletter. 😊