Processing Community Day 2019

My brief introduction for Processing Community Day on in Los Angeles.

Good morning. I’m the Ben Fry half of the Casey Reas and Ben Fry who started the Processing project almost 18 years ago in 2001.

The name Processing comes from two things. It’s a play between the definition of computers as machines that process information, and the idea of code being part of one’s creative process. That writing software is one link in a broader creative endeavor. And the way that’s done is highly iterative, and the process itself can be as important as the outcome. Processing is a means, not an end.

We started the project in part because I was frustrated watching friends—people smarter and more talented than me—who would otherwise drop out of Computer Science courses because they were getting tripped up on data structures or O-notation or some other eat-your-vegetables sort of concept that the curriculum had prioritized over engaging students and helping them create. What an incredible loss to not have their voices contributing to the conversation.

We were similarly frustrated by all the esoteric things first necessary to even begin coding — installing multiple software packages, setting environment variables, and finding your way around a complicated development environment. These unnecessary steps create barriers that disproportionately affect the people who you most want to bring into the community — those not as naturally drawn to technology or computing. So we made it a priority to have a tool that was simple to download and immediately use: Double-click. Write a line of code, and have something visual happen on screen. Run an example, alter the code a bit, see what happens next.

Going a bit further, this is about creators having control over their own tools. I want people to be impatient with what’s readily available to them. I’m less interested in someone creating the next Photoshop; I want them to create a tool that is the Photoshop they need for the project they’re working on.

Software can be very daunting, and the technologies and tools we use can seem very distant, so I think it’s easy to feel detached from them and not feel the necessity of circumventing the systems we’re given.

I think we’ve been too willing to use the tools provided to us, created by companies whose primary interest is really in their bottom line, and not necessarily the artifacts we create with their products. That’s not an anti-corporation, or anti-profit argument — it’s about the importance of understanding where your tools are coming from, and the decisions that drive their evolution. It’s about having more agency in your own creative process.

And that goes for Processing too. You should be making things that circumvent and leap past what we’ve done. In fact, the sooner you do this, the better. It’s been 18 years and this is exhausting!

Open source has always been an important theme for us. Foremost, it’s a central part of establishing trust with the community. But for me personally, it was also about paying forward the generosity of so many people who had shared their code with me. This was how I learned to code, even before it became fashionable to label things as “open source” or manifestos about free software had been written. I wanted others to benefit the same way, so open source was simply obvious and familiar.

As far as accessibility, we’ve come a long way from when Casey and I started grad school in the late ’90s, which was at the tail end of this work being limited to research labs with computers the size of a mini-fridge. By the early 2000s you could buy a capable computer for a few hundred dollars, which meant the means were coming into place. We just needed to provide the platform, which Casey and I sought to do via Processing. Now in the current decade, the means are ubiquitous and we have newer initiatives like p5.js, which reinterprets our original ideas in more contemporary ways. More importantly, Lauren McCarthy has led the project with a renewed focus on inclusion and diversity. Which means we’re at a point where we have more room to consider how this work is situated socially, and how we can extend the boundary of those participating in the field.

As the PCD site says, “A focus of this project is to make learning how to program and making creative work with code accessible to diverse communities, especially those who might not otherwise have access to these tools and resources.” The sessions today are about digging into what community, accessibility, and diversity really means.

A field gets interesting, and only truly evolves, when it expands by bringing in people with different kinds of abilities and experiences.

I look forward to spending the day with you all to help us find our way to these goals.

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