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Exploring Possible Futures with Computational Media

In thinking about software, we often think about monolithic applications on specific devices: We use our laptop to write text in Microsoft Word or edit photos in Adobe Photoshop, use our tablet with pen input to read and annotate documents in Adobe Acrobat Reader, and use our phones to chat in WhatsApp on the go.

By doing so, applications compartmentalize functionality into fixed silos—applications are good at doing what they do, but going beyond that, they are usually highly inflexible. When editing photos, one would rarely take up Word, and vice versa, one would not use Photoshop for writing text documents. Further, are options to tailor and extend applications often sparse and centered around visual changes such as toolbars, rarely allowing users to extend functionality itself without using additional development software.

The notion of computational media looks at software from a different angle. Instead of seeing it as tools for a specific task, it sees it as a malleable medium that the user can form and mold to their own needs and easily share with others. Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg compare computational media with paper or clay, allowing for many different ways of using it. Recently, research and commercial products picked up this sentiment of software as a medium in platforms such as Webstrates or Notion—their potentials and limitations, however, are mostly unexplored.

My research aims to explore computational media and contributes by defining properties and values of it, exploring potentials and limits of it, and identifying domains and use cases where computational media thrives. As these aims are rooted in exploratory research, my approach focuses on qualitative methods and the creation of high-fidelity prototypes. These prototypes allow people to glance into possible futures of software as a malleable medium rather than monolithic applications. The insights of my work intend to shift the focus of software towards a malleable and shareable foundation, overcoming boundaries of applications and devices.