Review: John Palmer on Spatial Software

What happens when virtual spaces mirror the mechanics of the real world, and how better connecting them may be the start of the next innovation boom.

John Palmer’s framework for talking about how apps and programs can improve by more closely mirroring the mechanics of physical spaces inspired me to think differently about how we build our digital world. As a civil engineer, I spend much of my day thinking about how we build and interact with our physical world, so it was refreshing to think about how we do the same in the virtual realm, especially because of how different and often loose the constraints to virtual worlds are.

In reading Palmer’s piece, the abstract vocabulary is at first less than welcoming to the reader, but if you go back and review the preceding piece; Spatial Interfaces, the post opens up and becomes much more straightforward. After dissolving the semantic tripping stones of the piece, the basic thesis of Spatial Software is that most of our virtual worlds today are arbitrarily organized in a vertical stack, and usually ordered by timestamp. Twitter is a good example of this. What Palmer proposes, is that we could gain new insights and methods of informational navigation by representing our largely vertical worlds differently.

While Palmer's examples of social media platforms and notes apps being possible places where spatial organization may be widely used in the future are interesting and have large implications for the wider world, I think he may have missed one important way that spatial interfaces could change our world forever.

One of the biggest inputs to the rate of change of our online world is the amount of brainpower that works to improve it every day. Giving the expert coders we have new tools is great, but bringing new people into the fold of software engineering is better. This prompted me to ask: “what if we could code in a way that was spatially familiar?”. The more that rookie coders can rely on intuition and spatial familiarity, the lower the field’s attrition rate will be, and the more innovation we’ll end up with.

So what would these systems look like, how can we make coding more approachable to potential software engineers by employing the idea of spatial intuition? One example of this is Minecraft’s infamous Redstone system. By manipulating the arrangement of virtual blocks within the game world, players can build simple logic machines to full on computers capable of emulating other video games.

Another example which may be more broadly known among coders is Scratch. By representing pieces of code as jigsaw-puzzle like pieces, and allowing the user to interactively use their intuition to put them together, Scratch exemplifies just how easy spatial coding interfaces could make software development in the future.

By creating more and better spatially intuitive coding interfaces, we may be able to circumvent some of the barrier to entry to software engineering, and jumpstart one of the largest explosions in human innovation yet. The prospects are boundless, and the cost minimal. Needless to say, I am very excited to see what comes next.

-Connor, Of All Trades

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To learn more about spatial software and interfaces, take a look at palmer’s site here