If you can't tell people anything, can you show them?

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Sat 29 August 2020

The other day I made a sadpost on the fediverse that said: "simultaneously regularly feel like people don't take the directions I'm trying to push seriously enough and that I'm not worth taking seriously". (Similarly, I've also joked that "imposter syndrome and a Cassandra complex are a hell of a combo" before.) I got a number of replies from people, both publicly and privately, and the general summary of most of them are, "We do care! The stuff you're working on seems really cool and valuable! I'll admit that I don't really know what it is you're talking about but it sounds important!" (Okay, and I just re-read, and it was only a portion of it that even said the latter part, but of course, what do I emphasize in my brain?) That was nice to hear that people care and are enthusiastic, and I did feel much better, but it did also kind of feel like confirmation that I'm not getting through to people completely either.

But then jfred made an interesting reply:

Yeah, that feels familiar. Impostor syndrome hits hard. You're definitely worth taking seriously though, and the projects you're working on are the most exciting ones I've been following.

As for people not taking the directions you're pushing seriously... I've felt the same at work, and I think part of it is that there's only so much one person can do. But also part of it is: http://habitatchronicles.com/2004/04/you-cant-tell-people-anything/

...it's hard to get ideas across to someone until they can interact with it themselves

So first of all, what a nice post! Second of all, it's kind of funny that jfred replied with this because out of everyone, jfred is one of the people who's picked up and understood what's happening in Spritely Goblins in particular the most, often running or creating demos of things on top of it using things I haven't even documented yet (so definitely not a person I would say isn't taking me seriously or getting what the work is doing).

But third, that link to Habitat Chronicles is right on point for a few reasons: first of all, Spritely is hugely influenced by the various generations of Habitat, from the original first-ever-graphical-virtual-worlds Habitat (premiering on the Commodore 64 in the mid 1980s, of all things!) to Electric Communities Habitat, especially because that's where the E programming language came from, which I think it's safe to say has had a bigger influence on Spritely Goblins than anything (except maybe this paper by Jonathan Rees, which is the first time I realized that "oh, object capability security is just normal programming flow"). But also, that blogpost in particular was so perfect about this subject: You can't tell people anything...!

In summary, the blogpost isn't saying that people aren't foolishly incapable of understanding things, but that people in general don't understand well by "being explained to". What helps people understand is experiences:

Eventually people can be educated, but what you have to do is find a way give them the experience, to put them in the situation. Sometimes this can only happen by making real the thing you are describing, but sometimes by dint of clever artifice you can simulate it.

This really congealed for me and helped me feel justified in an approach I've been taking in the Spritely project. In general, up until now I've spent most of my time between two states: coding the backend super-engineering stuff, and coding demos on top of it. You might in the meanwhile see me post technobabble onto my fediverse or birdsite accounts, but I'm not in general trying too hard to write about the structurally interesting things going on until it comes time to write documentation (whether it be for Goblins, or the immutable storage and mutable storage writeups). But in general, the way that I'm convinced people will get it is not by talk but by first, demonstration, and second, use.

Aside from the few people that have picked up and played with Goblins yet, I don't think I've hit a sufficient amount of "use" yet in Spritely. That's ok, I'm not at that stage yet, and when I am, it'll be fairly clear. (ETA: one year from now.) So let's talk about demonstration.

The first demo I wrote was the Golem demo, that showed roughly that distributed but encrypted storage could be applied to the fediverse. Cute and cool, and that turned the heads of a few fediverse implementers.

But let's face it, the best demo I've done yet was the Terminal Phase time travel demo. And it didn't hurt that it had a cool looking animated GIF to go with it:

Time travel in Spritely Goblins shown through Terminal Phase

Prior to this demo, people would ask me, "What's this Goblins thing?" And I'd try to say a number of things to them... "oh, its a distributed, transactional, quasi-functional distributed programming system safe to run in mutually suspicious networks that follows object capability security and the classic actor model in the style of the E programming language but written in Scheme!" And I'd watch as their eyes glaze over because why wouldn't their eyes glaze over after a statement like that, and then I'd try to explain the individual pieces but I could tell that the person would be losing interest by then and why wouldn't they lose interest but even realizing that I'd kind of feel despair settling in...

But when you show them a pew pew space lasers game and oh wow why is there time travel, how did you add time travel, is it using functional reactive programming or something? (Usually FRP systems are the only other ones where people have seen these kinds of time travel demos.) And I'd say nope! It doesn't require that. Mostly it looks like writing just straightahead code but you get this kind of thing for free. And the person would say, wow! Sounds really cool! How much work does it take to add the time travel into the game? And I just say: no extra work at all. I wrote the whole game without testing anything about time travel or even thinking about it, then later I just threw a few extra lines to write the UI to expose the time travel part and it just worked. And that's when I see peoples' heads explode with wonder and the connections start to be made about what Goblins might be able to do.

But of course, that's only a partial connection for two reasons. One is that the time travel demo above only shows off a small, minute part of the features of Goblins. And actually, the least interesting of them! It doesn't show off the distributed programming or asynchronous programming parts, it doesn't show off the cool object capability security that's safe to run in mutually suspicious networks. But still: it gave a taste that something cool is happening here. Maybe Chris hasn't just been blowing a bunch of time since finishing the ActivityPub standardization process about two and a half years ago. (Yikes, two and a half years ago!?!)

To complete the rest of that demonstration of the other things in the system requires a different kind of demo. Terminal Phase was a demo to show off the synchronous half of Goblins, but where Goblins really shines is in the asynchronous, distributed programming stuff. That's not ready to show off yet, but I'll give you the first taste of what's in progress:

Goblins chat GUI demo

(Actually a bit more has progressed since I've recorded that GIF, multiple chatrooms and etc, but not really worth bothering to show off quite yet.)

Hmm, that's not really all that thrilling. A chatroom that looks about the same level of featureful, maybe less, than IRC? Well, it could be more exciting if you hear that the full chat protocol implementation is only about 250 lines of code, including authenticating users and posts by users. That's smaller even than its corresponding GUI code, which is less than 300 lines of code. So the exciting thing there is how much heavy lifting Goblins takes care of for you.

But that's hardly razzle-dazzle exciting. In order for me to hint at the rest of what's happening here, we need to put out an asynchronous programming demo that's as or more interesting than the time travel demo. And I expect to do that. I hope soon enough to show off stuff that will make people go, "Oh, what's going on here?"

But even that doesn't complete the connection for people, because showing is one thing but to complete the loop, we need people to use things. We need to get this stuff in the hands of users to play with and experiment themselves. I have plans to do that... and not only that, make this stuff not intimidating for newcomers. When Spritely guides everyday people towards extending Spritely from inside of Spritely as it runs, that's when it'll really click.

And once it clicks sufficiently, it'll no longer become exciting, because people will just come to expect it. A good example of that comes from the aforementioned You can't tell people anything article:

Years ago, before Lucasfilm, I worked for Project Xanadu (the original hypertext project, way before this newfangled World Wide Web thing). One of the things I did was travel around the country trying to evangelize the idea of hypertext. People loved it, but nobody got it. Nobody. We provided lots of explanation. We had pictures. We had scenarios, little stories that told what it would be like. People would ask astonishing questions, like “who’s going to pay to make all those links?” or “why would anyone want to put documents online?” Alas, many things really must be experienced to be understood. We didn’t have much of an experience to deliver to them though — after all, the whole point of all this evangelizing was to get people to give us money to pay for developing the software in the first place! But someone who’s spent even 10 minutes using the Web would never think to ask some of the questions we got asked.

Eventually, if we succeed, the ideas in Spritely will no longer seem exciting... because people will have internalized and come to expect them. Just like hyperlinks on the web today.

But to get there, in the meanwhile, we have to get people interested. To become so successful as to be mundane, we have to first be razzle-dazzle exciting. And to that end, that's why I take the demo approach to Spritely. Because it's hard to tell someone something... but showing them, that's another matter.

PS: It's also not true that people don't get what I'm doing, and that's even been reflected materially. I've been lucky to be supported over the last few years from a combination of a grant from Samsung's Stack Zero and one from NLNet, not to mention quite a few donors on Patreon. I do recognize and appreciate that people are supporting me. In some ways receiving this support makes me feel more seriously about the need to demonstrate and prove that what I'm doing is real. I hope I am doing and will continue to do a sufficient job, and hope that the upcoming demos contribute to that more materially!

PPS: If, in the meanwhile, you're already excited, check out the Goblins documentation. The most exciting stuff is coming in the next major release (which will be out soon), which is when the distributed programming tools will be made available to users of the system for the first time. But if you want to get a head start, the code you'll be writing will mostly work the same between the distributed and non-distributed (as in, distributed across computers/processes) asynchronous stuff, so if you start reading the docs today, most of your code will already just work on the new stuff once released. And if you do start playing around, maybe drop by the #spritely channel on freenode and say hello!