Start Music Hacking Now

I keep hearing myself say:

There has never been a better time to get into music technology than now

– Haig Armen

These days there is so many choices of software and hardware platforms and resources designed specifically for any level in what was once an extremely specialized field.

Not that kind of Hacking…

‘Hacker culture’ is a subgroup of the DIY ethic, so by ‘hacking’ I don’t mean the process of illegally breaching the security of computers as the term is often incorrectly defined.

Hacking is the process of building software and hardware through experimentation, and includes extending a system’s functionality or repurposing technologies for other uses. Examples of music tech hacks include; developing custom software that allows a games controller to control your music software, or adding various sensors to your guitar to control its sound in unique ways.

1. Learn Graphical Programming

Graphical or visual programming languages are probably the easiest way to get into software development, as they just involve connecting or ‘patching’ together graphical objects instead of having to write any code. The two most popular graphical programming languages for music and audio are Max (which you may know in it’s Max For Live form) developed by Cycling ’74, and the community-driven Pure Data (aka Pd). Both are very similar in their functionality, however while Max provides a more user-friendly interface and professional support, Pd is free and can run on a higher number of platforms and devices. 

Pure Data, otherwise known as Pd, not as pretty as Max but more open

2. Learn Some Beginner-Friendly Coding

The next step up from learning a graphical programming language is to learn a textual programming language. While it may seem like a daunting task, there are now many coding languages, environments and toolkits designed specifically for beginners to create music and audio programs quickly and easily. Even though there is a steeper learning curve for coding compared to graphical programming, textual languages generally offer a lot more flexibility and provide you with a much better and more expandable skillset for not just DIY and hacking but also for more serious software development endeavours. As you’ll see later on in this article, knowing textual programming languages is essential for hacking and developing for certain hardware platforms and devices.

There are two broad types of coding platforms to mention here – Audio Programming Environments, which are designed specifically for creating music and audio programs; and Creative Coding platforms, which are used for developing software containing a range of different types of multimedia including music and audio. Here are some examples of the most popular coding platforms within the music tech DIY & hacking community:

  • SuperCollider – SuperCollider is an environment and programming language designed for audio synthesis and algorithmic composition, and is very popular for live coding and algoraves.
  • Processing – Processing is a creative coding environment and programming language originally designed for teaching programming, however it has since been adopted by the DIY community for creating rich multimedia applications.
  • openFrameworks – openFrameworks is a creative coding toolkit that uses the C++ programming language and a range of third party development environments. While less beginner-friendly compared to Processing, it is more flexible with much stronger audio capabilities.
  • Other platforms include ChucKCsoundFAUST, and Cinder.
  • Sonic Pi.

3. Start with Arduino or Pi

Arduino was the most popular platform for hobbyists to create their own interactive hardware projects and devices but it seems to have been surpassed by the Raspberry Pi in recent years. Whereas the Arduino comprises of a single microcontroller boards, with dedicated software application and programming language, the Raspberry Pi provides a full Linux OS and multiple programming languages to choose from including Python, Javascript and C++. Both platform are popular in the music tech DIY and hacking community due to being extremely beginner-friendly and highly programmable as almost any type of music or audio device. As you’ll see later on in this article a few commercial hackable musical products are built using Arduino and RaspberryPi platforms.

Arduino UNO

Arduino has many core and extension libraries for dealing with MIDIsynthesis, and almost everything else music related, and there are many hardware ‘shields’ for Arduino boards for providing extended music-related functionality and IO, such as MIDIaudio playbackFX, and synthesis.

An Arduino board being used to hack a toy piano into a MIDI controller

4. Hack an Audio Platform Device

Programmable audio devices are hardware/software platforms designed specifically for developing your own electronic musical instrument, synth, MIDI controller, FX unit, sequencer and so on. They usually consist of a piece of hardware containing freely assignable controls and inputs/outputs, as well as a software element for programming exactly how the hardware behaves. Compared to using a general purpose platform – such as Arduino – they’re generally a bit quicker and easier to use, however with that you may sacrifice some of the flexibility and configurability that general purpose platforms provide. 

The Axoloti Core micro controller board

Here are some examples of currently available programmable audio platforms:

5. Hack an instrument

You don’t need to wait for permission to hack an instrument, and some products are more hackable than others – whether it’s a synth, FX unit, MIDI controller or similar – that you are able to modify and customize in great detail so that it can operate in ways more specific to your needs. I’m not talking about opening up your expensive gear, prodding the electronics and voiding your warranty in the process – these are products that the manufacturer has allowed the end-user to hack via official methods. They’re not primarily designed for DIY development like the above list of platforms and therefore aren’t always as flexible in this aspect, however having the product’s existing functionalities and controls at your disposal can provide a quicker and easier hacking process.

Roli’s Lightpad Block is hackable

Here are some examples of currently available hackable musical devices:

  • ROLI Lightpad BLOCK – You can customize this 3D touchpad MIDI controller using a simple and specifically-designed programming language and application. See this tutorial to learn how you can go about hacking the Lightpad.
  • Critter & Guitari Organelle – This small desktop device allows you to run your own Pure Data patches on it, allowing it to become a personalized standalone synth, sampler, FX unit, or anything in between. Therefore you simply just need to learn how to use Pure Data to hack this device.
  • Bastl Instruments Kastle Synth v1.5 – This is a mini modular digital synthesiser that is DIY-friendly due to it running on two Arduino-compatible chips that the user can reprogram to modify all aspects of the synth’s engine. Prior knowledge of the Arduino platform is expected if you want to hack this device.
  • Other options include the Novation Launchpad ProSound Machines NS1nanosynthMeeblip, and Soulsby Atmegatron

Let me know if you’ve ever tried hacking an instrument or made an instrument using electronics.


Introducing PureData

I’ve been posting my experiments exploring sound/musical instrument design and prototyping, and it occurred to me that although my writing had focussed on the creative process and user experience of playing instruments, it would you the reader to have more context and explanations of the technical side to go beyond just embedding links throughout my posts. Today i’d like to introduce you to Pure Data, an amazingly deep yet seemingly-simple music and sound creation development environment. Here’s the official description on the website:

Pure Data

Pure Data (Pd) is a visual signal programming language which makes it easy to construct programs to operate on signals. We are going to use it extensively in this textbook as a tool for sound design. The program is in active development and improving all the time. It is a free alternative to Max/MSP that many see as an improvement.

As I learn more about Pd I realize that it has a number of redeeming characteristics that make it incredibly resilient. Apart from MaxMSP and VVVV, Pure Data is uniquely visual the only piece of software that allows you to program your own applications using a visual flowchart-like graphical user interface. Pd is open-source and platform-agnostic – working consistently across Windows, Mac and Linux platforms (and yes, RaspberryPi!). Pure Data is also extremely extendible, you can install libraries (Externals) to add new capabilities and many people write their one libraries. Finally, Pure Data can be embedded into other frameworks and hardware, there’s a libpd library that is used for iOS, Android and OpenFrameworks application development.

Ultimately, Pd enables musicians, visual artists, performers, researchers, and developers to create software graphically without writing lines of code.

Pd can be used to process and generate sound, video, 2D/3D graphics, and interface sensors, input devices, and MIDI. Pd can easily work over local and remote networks to integrate wearable technology, motor systems, lighting rigs, and other equipment. It is suitable for learning basic multimedia processing and visual programming methods as well as for realizing complex systems for large-scale projects.

Here are some of the basic components of Pure Data:


In Pd we use a flowchart with lines connecting boxes together to build programs. We call these boxes objects. Stuff goes in, stuff comes out. For it to pass into or out of them, objects must have inlets or outlets. Inlets are at the top of an object box, outlets are at the bottom. Here is an object that has two inlets and one outlet. They are shown by small “tabs” on the edge of the object box.


The connections between objects are sometimes called cords or wires. They
are drawn in a straight line between the outlet of one object and the inlet of
another. It is okay for them to cross, but you should try to avoid this since it
makes the patch diagram harder to read.


The stuff or data being processed comes in a few flavours: sound signals, and messages. Objects give clues about what kind of data they process by their name. For example, an object that adds together two sound signals looks like |+ ~|. The + means that this is an addition object, and the ∼ (tilde character) means that its object operates on audio signals.

Edit Mode

When you create a new object from the menu, Pd automatically enters edit mode, so if you just completed the instructions above you should currently be in edit mode. In this mode you can make connections between objects or delete objects and connections.


Hovering over an outlet will change the mouse cursor to a new “wiring tool.” If you click and hold the mouse when the tool is active you will be able to drag a connection away from the object.

Bang Message

This is the most fundamental and smallest message. It just means “compute something.” Bangs cause most objects to output their current value or advance to their next state. Other messages have an implicit bang so they don’t need to be followed with a bang to make them work.

Float Messages

“Floats” is another name for numbers. As well as regular (integer) numbers like 1, 2, 3 and negative numbers like −10 we need numbers with decimal points like −198753.2 or 10.576 to accurately represent numerical data. These are called floating point numbers, because of the way computers represent the decimal point position.

Number Box

For float numbers we have already met the number box, which is a dual-purpose GUI element. Its function is to either display a number or allow you to input one. A bevelled top right corner like this denotes that this object is a number box. Numbers received on the inlet are displayed and passed directly to the outlet. To input a number click and hold the mouse over the value field and move the mouse up or down. You can also type in numbers. Click on a number box, type the number and hit RETURN.

Toggle box

Another object that works with floats is a toggle box. Like a checkbox on any standard GUI or web form, this has only two states, on or off. When clicked a cross appears in the box like this and it sends out a number 1; clicking again causes it to send out a number 0 and removes the cross so that it looks like this .

Sliders and Other Numerical GUI Elements

GUI elements for horizontal and vertical sliders can be used as input and display elements. Their default range is 0 to 127, nice for MIDI controllers, but like all other GUI objects this can be changed in their properties window. Unlike those found in some other GUI systems, Pd sliders do not have a step value.

Message Box

These are visual containers for user-definable messages. They can be used to input or store a message. The right edge of a message box is curved inwards like this , and it always has only one inlet and one outlet. They behave as GUI elements, so when you click a message box it sends its contents to the outlet. This action can also be triggered if the message box receives a bang message on its inlet.

Symbolic Messages

A symbol generally is a word or some text. A symbol can represent anything; it is the most basic textual message in Pure Data. Technically a symbol in Pd can contain any printable or nonprintable character. But most of the time you will only encounter symbols made out of letters, numbers, and some interpunctuation characters like a dash, dot, or underscore.


A list is an ordered collection of any things, floats, symbols, or pointers that are treated as one. Lists of floats might be used for building melody sequences or setting the time values for an envelope generator. Lists of symbols can be used to represent text data from a file or keyboard input.


As in other programming languages, a pointer is the address of some other
piece of data. We can use them to build more complex data structures, such
as a pointer to a list of pointers to lists of floats and symbols.

Tables, Arrays, and Graphs

A table is sometimes used interchangeably with an array to mean a two-dimensional data structure. An array is one of the few invisible objects. Once declared it just exists in memory.


Role Playing at an Intersection

Today I wanted to reflect on my role in the team on the Recon Jet Project. This project is another chance for me to experiment with the intersection between design and development disciplines. As many of us have learned, there are many ways to communicate our intentions and proposed solutions in digital media. One of the greater issues in digital creation is the fundamental difference in how designers and developers communicate and work. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with my contemporaries about the near-misses and train wrecks that have been caused by ill communication between designers and developers. The problem amplifies as companies build design departments and agile development teams that have no way of working together. What do you do if you feel like you’re both a developer and a designer and feel that picking sides isn’t the best way forward?

As with most research, I have more questions than answers. How do we negotiate these differences between developers and designers? Can we start by beginning to understand the differences in perspectives and building a bridge by agreeing upon common language and shared work methodologies?

I’m fascinated by how differently we think and how culture plays such a huge part in how we interpret the world. It’s become one of my favourite dinner conversations at my house, many of the discussions stem from this article that I read about how Americans see the world differently called We Aren’t the World which is based on a research paper called The Weirdest People in the World

I’ve chosen to challenge myself this term by not playing the role of the typical UX designer as this is an area that I’ve spent 15 years practising and teaching. It’s not to say that I’ve learned all there is to know about design, but rather that one of the areas that much of the design industry is still in the dark about is the communication with developers. I would go so far as to say that designers become better at design by learning more about coding and how programmers think.

The way to explore this intersection will be using Lean UX methods. If you’re curious to know more about Lean UX, here’s a great article by Jeff Gothelf, the author of O’Reilly’s Lean UX book:

What are your experiences of negotiating the designer/developer intersection?


Creating Social Books

Written by Haig Armen and Lucinda Atwood

In this paper, we describe a new approach to digital textbooks: The textbook as a participatory and social experience. By meshing reader-generated commentary with the original text the textbook becomes a dynamic documentation of the course material and the discussion around it.
The author or teacher maintains control over the narrative by approving and promoting important comments to integrate into the original text, and by deciding the location and frequency of comment-enabled areas.


Social media is everywhere, yet books are still understood to be static, unidirectional documents, and reading them to be a solitary activity. This does not reflect current expectations of dynamic information and new approaches to collaboration, nor does it take into account the importance of discussion and group learning in education. This project explores the pedagogical potential of social books. We want to graduate students from being passive consumers of textbook content to socially engaged participants who create, collaborate and contribute.

The key points are:

  • The textbook as a participatory and social experience.
  • By meshing reader-generated commentary with the original text the textbook becomes a dynamic documentation of the course’s text material (multiple texts could be compiled into one textbook) and the discussion around it.
  • The author or teacher maintains control over the narrative by approving and promoting important comments to integrate into the original text.

Ebook formats have emerged that let users place comments in the book, but only relegated to a sidebar near the referenced text. The comments in these ebooks are either private or shared to external social channels and lack their original context. Additionally these marginalized comments clutter and limit the reader’s interface and impede an uninterrupted reading experience.

This article explores the possibility of integrating shared reader commenting directly within a textbook and discusses the design considerations made to accommodate presenting what the author or teacher considers important and relevant comments without
disrupting the reading experience.


While marginalia notes and comments are acknowledged as useful to readers and essential for learners (Wagstaff 2012), most current ebook formats don’t allow for shared comments, remaining essentially static, one-way documents. If the author wishes to develop a community around the book, they create online communities (Facebook and Twitter, for example) that the reader must locate, join, and sign into, in order to participate in the discussion. (Biňas, Štancel, Novák and Michalko 2012)

Once online, the problems don’t stop there. Current ebook formats make it difficult to cite the exact locations of passages (Richardson and Mahmood 2011), so comments are often untethered to the text they reference.

Annotations can be an essential part of an ebook textbook; the platform should be able to incorporate comments and additional content to the original content (Wilde and Glushko 2013). Ebook formats have emerged that can place comments in the book, but only relegated to a sidebar near the referenced text. This still separates comments from text, limits the interface design to boxed frames, and makes the book’s reading area smaller.


In order to clearly describe our ideas about the evolution of the digital textbook we’d like to present you with a case study. Our social book framework was originally created to hold a book called “50 Years of Life Online” by Alexandra Samuel. The book discusses the history of the Internet as juxtaposed to her own history, and is structured in articles on a timeline broken into decades and years. We present screen captures of interfaces from the “50 Years” book to illustrate a number of concepts throughout this article (see figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. “50 Years of Life Online”
Figure 2. “50 Years of Life Online” Table of Contents

This book’s central interactive metaphor is a continuous scrolling page that unfolds at key points to reveal a threaded social commentary relevant to that specific content. The unfolding is facilitated by the familiar reverse pinching gesture, which reveals a deeper layer. (Although almost ubiquitous, the reverse pinch has not yet been used in this context.) This reinforces the metaphor of digging deeper, creating an interaction where readers can find more information or become participants in the book itself.

We designed the platform to exploit tablet technology, specifically network-enabled tablets. They allow a mobile book application to communicate with its online comment repository via an Application Protocol Interface (API). The API seamlessly sends contributors’ comments back to the server and syncs the book app to include the latest comments (see figure 3).

This social book framework is ideal for school texts. The original authored text remains, while the book becomes a living learning network. Students can work at their own pace, self-evaluate (test) when they think they are ready, return and review as necessary, add to the class discussion, and support co-learners. Teachers can tell from the comments and questions in each lesson or pedagogical area where to apply clarifications, individual assistance, or further group teaching and/or exercises.

Students support each other’s learning and cement their own knowledge acquisition by adding examples and insights that helped them understand or retain concepts and facts. This supports the variety of learning acquisition types in group learning situations.

Right now, most ebooks support only highlights or private annotations. Social ebook platforms hide comments away in a sidebar. In our model, the most insightful or useful comments—as determined by the teacher or author—are promoted to the top of the list. (See figures 4 and 5.) A number assigned by the teacher determines whether the comment is displayed as a prominent pull quote or a concealed (folded away) comment. This provides extra value to the book, and offers an opportunity to engage with the discussion surrounding that portion of the text.

Readers are able to see both public comments and their own private comments in the same dedicated areas. The two types of comments are differentiated by colour. In the high fidelity wireframe (see figure 6), all the public comments are marked with the colour red while private comments are indicated with blue.

Figure 4. “50 Years of Life Online” showing promoted
Figure 5. “50 Years of Life Online” showing comments

After tapping on the comment in the previous slide, the comment has expanded and is shown in a list of all the comments on a particular section of the text. From there, the thread of replies can be viewed or a new comment can be added.

Original content is still the primary element of the book, so the majority of public comment areas are not presented like this. Instead, they are “collapsed” with the opportunity to visually and conceptually “dive in” to the discussion. This is done using the reverse-pinch “zoom in” gesture on touch enabled devices.

As a prototype our Social Book System was built using some existing open source software tools. Here’s a breakdown of how one would build a social book.

  • Install WordPress on a web server—a relatively simple task if you’re web savvy.
  • Install the JSON-API plugin for WordPress (
  • Determine the Book’s information structure and build sections accordingly.
  • Input text from the book into WordPress, broken down into comment-able segments.
  • Specify Social Book App’s configuration file to include API address and WordPress segmentation labels.
  • Save original JSON file from WordPress and include into Phonegap package with SocialBook files.
  • Style your book using CSS and images.
  • Compile Phonegap software into desired mobile platform: iOS, Android, Windows or Blackberry.

3.1 Benefit One

Ease of use by the reader. “50 Years of Life Online” complies with the invocation that navigation should be simple and effortless(Mod 2012). We followed basic information architecture principles of breaking content down into understandable categories with clear ways of visually communicating the content structure. Because comments remain inline with the associated content, navigation is simple and intuitive, creating books that are easier to use.

3.2 Benefit Two

Granularity of commenting. In our Social Book Framework we use WordPress as the content management system for a book. This allows the author to determine which passages of text can be commented on. The big innovation here is the granularity of commenting—the author or teacher has the ability to control exactly where in the text comments can be added, whether it is at a sentence, paragraph, section or article level. Each commenting area can be individually set; there is no global setting that must be conformed to.

3.3 Benefit Three

The ability to promote comments that the author/teacher sees as especially valuable, insightful or useful, and give them prominent status within the original text, for example as pull quotes.

3.4 Benefit Four

Ease of administration. At the end of the course, semester, or school year, the instructor is able to wipe the slate clean, if desired, for the next batch of students. This can all be done without much technical knowledge on the part of the author/teacher/administrator.

3.5 Benefit Five

The book as a micro network. As opposed to crowdsourcing textbooks, the author or teacher controls who can participate and contribute, and can invite readers to participate in the book in early stages of development.

3.6 Benefit Six

The book can be output to multiple formats. When a book is contained within an online digital repository (WordPress as a content management system) there is the opportunity for the content to be distributed in a number of formats. From WordPress we can output to the web as a “Book in a Browser,” a Social Book application, a standard eBook format, and even a printed document via PDF that is output and sent to a print-on-demand system. (see Figure 5).

3.7 Benefit Seven

Ease of bookmaking. Building a social book will require only a basic understanding of WordPress and standard web technology like HTML/CSS. The flexible structure of the platform allows authors to easily add tiers (chapters or sections—the author chooses the label), to choose where comments are included, and where the promoted comments are placed.



The final project will include documentation for building a social book using a number of open source software tools. Creating a social book using these tools will require only a basic understanding of WordPress and standard web technology like HTML/CSS. Once set up, an author/teacher can use the same framework for a number of books without any coding skills at all.

There are a number of aspects of the Social Book project that can be developed further and were only touched upon within the project yet were taken out of our goals for this phase of the project and this paper. Here are the components that could be refined:

  • A clear navigation system—The gestural folding navigation points to a new way to interact with a book, yet in its current iteration needs refinement to make it more intuitive and easier to use.
  • Place-holding and bookmarks—Helping readers understand where they are in a digital book has become a challenge for digital book design. Many of the ways of understanding where in a book someone is are based on the physicality of a book—new visual affordances must be established to help communicate this important aspect of book reading.


We are just beginning to think of a book in terms of a larger ecology of content, authors and audiences. This project represents the first step in engaging the audience of a book through their participation as commenting contributors. The idea could be taken much further by having a book’s audience contribute other kinds of relevant content, for example maps, images, audio or video. Additionally, audiences could be asked to participate in activities within a book, and their results presented back to the larger book’s audience. Teachers will be able to see and manage students’ participation and contributions. As textbooks become able to incorporate the discussions and contributions of select collaborators, learners will be able to participate more fully in their education.


Our thanks to: Jonathan Aitken, Celeste Martin, Alexandra Samuel, Kenneth Ormandy, Katherine Pihl


[1] Seton Hill University. Discover, Create, Communicate: Learning Transformed. 2012.

[2] Giunta, C. iPad and Web 2.0 Pedagogic Innovations In Marketing: Utilization of Entrepreneurial Skills. Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness vol. 6(5). 2012.

[3] Biňas, Štancel, Novák, and Michalko. Interactive eBook as a Supporting Tool for Education Process.
ICETA 2012 10th IEEE International Conference on Emerging eLearning Technologies and Applications. November 2012.

[4] Richardson, John V. Jr., and Mahmood, Khalid. eBook Readers: User Satisfaction and Usability Issues. October 2011.

[5] Wilde, Erik and Glushko, Robert J. Bridging the Gap between eBook Readers and Browsers. Position Paper for W3C’s eBooks Workshop. February 2013.

[6] Wagstaff, Kiri L. The Evolution of Marginalia. November 2012.

[7] Mod, Craig. Subcompact Publishing: Simple Tools And Systems For Digital Publishing. November 2012.

[8] McGuire, Hugh. Book as API. Feb 2013.

[9] Maxwell, John W. Dynabook: The Once and Future
Platform. 2013.


A Bird in the Hand: Index Cards and the Handcraft of Creative Thinking

A Paper by
John W. Maxwell
Publishing @ SFU
Simon Fraser University

Haig Armen
Faculty of Design & Dynamic Media
Emily Carr University of Art and Design

John Maxwell and I presented this paper at Congress 2013 in Victoria in June 2013. In fact, we wrote a lot of index cards and stuck them on the wall in front of a projector as our presentation. The talk was part of a session called Mediating Creative Practice that was put together by Frederik Lesage and Ben Woo.

* * *

The humble index card (and card index) has a rich history. It is the precursor to the electronic database. Its role in many a writer’s practices has been celebrated. Cards and card sorting are popular too in design research and agile software methodologies. Cards are protean artifacts in that they are indexical, iconic, and textual; different card practices privilege these aspects differently. This paper looks into personal and ephemeral uses of cards in creative practice. We explore cards as “personal dynamic media” in both individual and collaborative settings, and question the extent to which these practices can be modeled in software.


This paper is about paper–and its role in the creative process. It is easy to think of paper in superficial terms: it is the traditional home of the written word and it provides a convenient and wonderfully portable storage medium for text. And yet paper has become so cheap and ubiquitous in contemporary life that it is easy to take it for granted. Indeed the advent of the ebook in recent years has cast the role of paper in particular relief, and we are ironically reminded of its physical qualities, its relative permanence, and its centrality to literary practices. The book’s traditional manifestation on paper at times seems almost poised for a renaissance, at least in bookish circles (Bosman 2011). And our stubborn tendency to print out electronic drafts for editing, articles for leisurely reading, and even correspondence for filing speaks volumes on our inability to leave it behind (See Sellen & Harper 2001). But, easy as it is to imagine so many sheets, sheafs, and codices that we often overlook the subtler ways we use paper beyond the obvious document forms, and underestimate the complexity of our relationship to paper. As Ian Sansom points out in his remarkable book, Paper: an Elegy, “We are … paper fanatics and paper fundamentalists: even when it’s not there, when it has been shown to be unnecessary or not to exist, we continue to imagine it, to honour it, and to wish it into being.” (Sansom 2012, xvi)

One of our favourite paper forms is the index card. We (the authors) have been interested in the culture of index cards for some time. Index cards – ubiquitous and wonderfully low-tech–have a long and complex history that extends from the beginnings of organized print culture right into the midst of digital media. The extent and details of cards’ role in the mediation of creative practice is woefully under-represented; like the blind men and the elephant, cards and card practices look very different depending on whom you talk to. Writers tell a certain set of stories about how they use cards (e.g., Nabokov 1967; Benjamin 1928); researchers tell another (e.g., Niklas Luhmann; see MK 2007a); designers and software developers still more. To a certain extent, we have found a number of recognizable traditions of practices with cards, but it is also true that individual card practices can be very idiosyncratic. UBC English prof Janet Giltrow even suggests that note-taking and such “supplementary practices around research and writing” are, by and large, not taught; they are not “craft practices” that are deliberately passed on across generation of scholars (Giltrow 2012). And yet card practices persist; every university bookstore is well stocked with decks of lined and unlined cards, not to mention blocks of similarly sized sticky notes. Cards and card practices turn up again and again when we look at creative practices. So what are we doing with them?
Our study—into cards and card practices on the threshold of the digital revolution—is only in its embryonic stages. We have yet to present quantities of empirical data on card use, we have yet to create new prototypes for card use in the digital age; though we intend to do both. But even a general survey of card use in recent history, which this paper does present, reveals interesting patterns in how people move thoughts, ideas, and chunks of information between their minds and their hands. Much of the more practical fundings presented herein are drawn from our first-hand practices with cards, as researchers, scholars, designers, and software developers. We have approached this initial report as “reflective practitioners.”


Card play (including note taking, sorting, shuffling, etc.) is one of a variety of high-level methods creative people use to organize thoughts and generate ideas. The card practices we focus on here can be compared with a number of other organizational strategies which include the production of conceptual sketches or diagrams (including mind-maps), writing in Moleskine notebooks, compiling big (non-)linear MSWord documents (whose structure may be opaque to all but the creator), and even spreadsheets–not of numbers, but words and thoughts.1
What distinguishes cards from other kinds of documents (whether paper or software) is that cards can be and are used in at least three distinct modes. First, a card is a textual document; a writer could compose a novel on a deck of index cards (as Nabokov did) and you could read that novel by reading the cards as if they were pages in a book (or, presumably, as hypertext). Second, a card can be indexical–hence the “index card”, and even more so, the “card index” that forms the backbone of all library catalogues (even though the cards are now electronic). In the indexical mode, a card stands in for another object, providing a means of storing, sorting, and random access much more easily than manipulating the collection itself. The indexical mode of card practice is, we argue, the very prototype for the software database.

But a third modality of card practice is an iconic mode, in which the visual (not to mention handy tactile) characteristics of cards make possible arbitrary arrangement in two or more dimensions—on a table, say, or a cork-board. Here, cards are manipulables. This is the modality that makes possible most card games, from Tarot to Solitaire,2 and also a good deal of contemporary card practice in design and software development. Icons work differently than both text and index in that they are immediately recognizable; they work visually rather than linguistically (see Peirce 1955). The visual/iconic aspects of card practices allow us to move ideas around in physical space in an almost unique way. This is also, ironically, the piece that almost all attempts to mimic index cards in software miss.


Card play, then, is multifaceted. We look at cards in one or more of these modalities: we can read them textually, like a document, by attending to the words written on the card. We can read them indexically, as in a library catalogue. We treat the cards iconically, as visual stand-ins for their concepts, and we are able to push these around a surface, organizing thoughts as though they were baseball players on bubblegum cards. Not surprisingly (Bruner 1966, 10ff), different people (and different practices) put different emphases on different parts of card play; perhaps no two people do it exactly alike.
The history of card play is a long one. Evidently, its origins are in playing cards – as games (like Poker, Hearts, Solitaire, etc.) and as cartomancy (like the Tarot). Cards allow both sorting and randomizing (pick a card, any card); they often have two sides: a presentation side and an anonymous side, and thus can present as visible or hidden. Random access to cards is a key idea in card play. It makes games possible, obviously, but also allows a single card to take focus from the rest of the deck. There are myriad variations on this theme. An example is the card deck created by famed producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt. The cards featured printed aphorisms, and were used as a means of breaking creative blockages. Eno apparently played these cartomantic games in the recording studio with David Bowie in the 1970s, encouraging lateral thinking. Bowie, for his part, apparently wrote lyrics by the “cut-up” technique of arranging snippets of text on cards—a technique initially popularized by William Burroughs.3
Markus Krajewski’s 2011 book, Paper Machines traces the history of cards and card catalogues from the 16th century to the 20th. Krajewski credits Swiss physician Konrad Gessner with the earliest published method for card play in organizing information; Gessner’s book Bibliotheca Universalis published in 1548, presents a system of copying out excerpts and ideas, one per line, cutting them into individual slips, and organizing them in small boxes. (Krajewski 2011, 12–13). Krajewski pays especial attention to the kind of boxes Gessner used, and compares them to the wooden type-cases developed by Gutenberg and other early printers. The suggestion is that the card index is part of the re-organization of knowledge and expression that print brought about (and the “segmentation” that Marshall McLuhan noted). Later, the development of a national bibliography and unified catalogue of French books in the swirl of the French revolution in the early 1790s led to the standardization of the cards themselves, as uniformly sized and formatted cards rather than mere slips of paper—drawing directly from the example of playing cards (p45ff).
Krajewski goes on to trace two subsequent historical threads. The first is the development of a somewhat standardized set of practices around what he calls “the scholar’s box,” a means of organizing and filing notes, references, and excerpts by an individual scholar. Within a collection of cards emerges a set of cross-references, and Krajewski points out that the value of an individual card is nil, but an inter-connected collection becomes something like a book, if not hypermedia itself (64ff). Through the 17th century the practice of keeping massive card indexes flourished. And yet, this practice was oddly curtailed by other cultural movements. Krajewski writes:

In their time, men like [18th-century lawyer Johann Jacob] Moser could proudly refer to their index cards as a text-generating technology, contributing to the Enlightenment with an almost uncanny production rate. yet around 1800, with the blossoming or the European idea of genius, the light dims, and production aesthetics undergo a fundamentalk change. From now on, painstakingly produced drafts go unmentioned, veiling the writing process in the darkness of a productive sleep. Darkness keenly protects the trade secret of textual genius. (62)

Krajewski’s other interest is the development of card-based filing systems in library catalogues, a practice with its roots in the French Revolution, but which comes of age in Melvil Dewey’s masterful standardization of the American Library Association, (87ff) which gave rise to the card catalogue boxes that still grace many libraries today (or which are nostalgically missed by those of us old enough to remember them).
But Krajewski’s focus is on systems of organization, whether individual or institutional; the role of the card here is primarily indexical, and his vision of cards is in stacks or carefully constructed filing boxes. Krajewski’s purview does not include spreading cards out on a table and grouping and sorting them visually, though it would appear that card-sorting practices have roots in the same playing card traditions that gave rise to the index card itself.
“Card sorting” as a non-recreational practice is traceable, according to the Interaction Design Foundation, to the use of playing cards in experimental psychology. Card sorting was a means of measuring memory and cognitive functions (Hudson 2012). Later, card sorting because used in various methodologies for qualitative data analysis. Interaction & usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen wrote about using card sorting in the design of Sun Microsystems’ website in 1994 (Nielsen 1994), possibly the first published account of the technique being used in service of a design methodology.
Today, card-sorting practices of a wide variety are part of a good deal of contemporary design methodology: as a research technique, as a strategy for increasing end-user engagement, and as a way of conducting the design process collaboratively. Card sorting is widely used by information architects and designers to gather and understand structure for a variety of purposes. A typical use of cards might be to map the information for a website onto cards, and the sorting—a process in which many different people may participate—helps create categories for navigation and the overall architecture. Interaction designer Dave Gray and colleagues distinguish between card-sorting and other common design research tasks with cards or post-it notes:

The applications of card sorting are numerous, and in use it works similarly to Post-Up and affinity mapping. Card sorting can differ from these methods, however. First, the cards are generally prepared in advance, although participants should be allowed to create their own while sorting. Second, the cards are a semi-permanent artifact and can be used as a control over several exercises with different participants to find patterns among them. (Gray, Brown, & Macanufo 2010)

Contemporary software design methodologies similarly employ card play. In particular, the Agile method features cards and card sorting as a collaborative design technique, in which the various parts of a overall system—whether human, software, or infrastructure—can be arranged and manipulated by a team of designers. One such practice, the “CRC Card” modeling technique (Beck & Cunningham 1989) specifies a set of formats and mechanisms by which a team can work out the complex interrelationships of software modules; a form of structured brainstorming by a group, around a large workspace. Interestingly, the CRC Card technique was originally implemented in software, using Apple Computer’s HyperCard. However, the authors note,

we were surprised at the value of physically moving the cards around. When learners pick up an object they seem to more readily identify with it, and are prepared to deal with the remainder of the design from its perspective. It is the value of this physical interaction that has led us to resist a computerization of the cards. (Beck & Cunningham 1989)


How then do we work with cards—physically moving them around, writing on them, having them stand in as ideas in play? The ways in which cards can be manipulated in space are myriad. Organizational schemes include linear (or sequential); grouped (like affinity diagrams); structured as grid, tree or radial, stacked; fanned (like a hand of playing cards, as a horizontally splayed a stack); and, more generally, laid out arbitrarily across a table.
Related to these kinds of organization are ways of working within a card: colour coding (paper colour, and colour tagging) and a variety of structured formats for how and where to write on a card. Card play often involves the general practice of “jotting”—that is, fast, impermanent, and small/constrained by the size of the card. Only a few words will fit, especially if they are to be readable from any distance; many practitioners recommend the use of a heavy marker (e.g., a Sharpie).

Two-dimensional card-play provides a macro view, however they may be organized. The macro view persists even when examining or focusing on one card—and herein may be the unique quality of index cards (often 8x13cm or thereabouts) over other common paper forms. In their small size, they share available space on a surface more easily than larger documents. They are easily handled at this size, and so one’s attention can be shifted from one individual card to the larger arrangement and then to another individual card without requiring re-arrangement. This practice seems harder to achieve with letter-sized paper or books. We may indeed arrange multiple books or documents in order to peruse them in concert and shift our attention from one to another, but not with the same facility as small cards.

The affordances of the workspace are critical. Visual-spatial arrangement requires a relatively large surface, be it a desk or table (for index cards) or a wall (if sticky notes are used in place of cards). A stack of cards lends itself to easy manipulation in the hands, or in one’s lap. Interestingly, software incarnations of card systems tend to assume the stack as the primary organizing form, as computer screens are rarely as big as a desk or table, and therefor limit the macro view of a card arrangement (unless the cards are shrunk in size). Screens afford an excellent micro view of an individual card, and of course computers allow all manner of sorting operations, but screens—at least at contemporary sizes—do not deliver the macro view that seems essential to a great deal of card play.

In practice, the arrangement of cards is messy. Mess is not a bad thing in and of itself; it speaks to complexity. The bigger problem is noise in a complex arrangement, that which prevents one from seeing either the details or the patterns of arrangement. Interestingly, though, index cards provide us a set of ‘manual’ tools for sorting through, or for getting out of the mess, and reducing the noise. By moving cards around on a surface, making and unmaking groupings, we gain topsight on both the details and the possible arrangements. We are reminded of Ariadne’s thread, which allows one to go into the labyrinth and return.

Cards are also collected, piled, sorted into stacks. A stack of cards is an encapsulation of the cards in the stack. It is an abstract representation of the cards, for their order or logic is no longer visually accessible. There may be a significant order to the stack–it is sorted in one way or another–but that order is black-boxed, abstracted away when the cards are stacked. In contrast, the cards on the table are ordered in an immediate, visual sense. We might think of stacks and spreads of cards as ‘closed’ and ‘open’ arrangements, respectively.

So, there is a two-dimensional arrangement or cards on a table or a wall, and there is a different arrangement in a card stack. By putting these together, we—potentially, at least—get three dimensions. But regular card play rarely goes to three dimensions. We say rarely, because most of the obvious card processes are in one or other of these basic modes. But we do sometimes go to three dimensions. A good example is in the game of Solitaire, where we move from a two-dimensional arrangement to a set of stacks. By building stacks, we win the game.

In design practice (e.g., Hudson 2012), card sorting takes a generic sequence: see, sort, and distill. The modes are divergent and exploratory thinking (like brainstorming or requirements capture) and then convergent thinking (grouping, sorting, culling, distilling), and the cycle is often repeated. What follows is called “ideation,” where the thinking that is synthesized by the divergent and convergent modes produce insight (or at least provoke) new ideas (Rutter 2010).
Indeed, we “win the game” of creative or design practice when we go to the ideation stage. At this point the thinking seems to move off the two-dimensional surface and hinges toward a new plane. This is the goal, the point, the culmination. Often, this means moving the practice to another mode or medium entirely: to a diagram or sketch, to a written composition (like this one).


Index cards have long been represented in software. In fact, the stack of cards is one of the oldest metaphors in software design. One one hand, the library card index is a direct ancestor of the electronic database; punched cards replacing hand-written ones. On the other hand, the index card is also an appealing metaphor for user-interface design. In the early 1980s, a software tool called Notecards was developed at Xerox’ Palo Alto Research Centre (Halasz, Moran, & Trigg 1987). Much more famously, Apple Computer’s HyperCard software (distributed freely with Macintosh computers in the late 1980s) provided the first ‘mass-market’ exposure to hypertext and hypermedia, via a staight-forward index-card metaphor. While HyperCard came well before the World-Wide Web, one of the Web’s most successful applications, Wikipedia, derives directly from it. Ward Cunningham, who wrote the first wiki software in 1995, reports that his design was taken directly from HyperCard and card-play more generally (Cunningham 2003).4

Almost all card-inspired software mimics the individual card as an interface. A ‘stack’ of such cards can then be sorted, re-arranged, and accessed randomly. Such interfaces have repeatedly proved successful for note-taking and other information collection practices (see MK 2007b). Software-based card decks connected to the Web can then be used collaboratively by small or even large groups of people. Again, Wikipedia is the easy example to point to. Today, scores of software products feature a card-like metaphor for managing and filing short documents.

Software design has primarily succeeded in representing the individual note card in a sortable stack, however. Less successful is the multidimensional, visual sorting aspects of card-play.5 To a great extent, this is the result of screen limitations in contemporary computer interfaces. Rarely do we have access to a computer screen much larger than a letter-sized sheet of paper. As laptops replaced desktop machines, the majority of available screens became smaller rather than larger. And, as tablets and mobile devices proliferate, screens get smaller still. While there is some chance that large (tabletop-sized) touch-screens may become popular in the future, prevailing trends are towards portability.

The trend in consumer electronics may indeed result be the continued popularity of the lowly index card. For now, nothing electronic seriously challenges the combination of facilities card play presents: the immediate, tactile, visually dynamic, and collaborative manipulation of ideas in space. Cards are inexpensive, emphemeral, portable, and satisfying to use. The study of cards and card play in creative practice is a fresh new field. The present paper has served as only an introductory framing of the directions of our research, and we would invite contributions and interested collaborators in this work.

Beck, K. & W. Cunningham. 1989.“A Laboratory For Teaching Object-Oriented Thinking” In Proceedings of the OOPSLA 1989 Conference, New Orleans.

Benjamin, W. 1997. One-Way Street and Other Writings. New York: Verso.

Bosman, J. 2011 “Selling Books by their Gilded Covers.” *the New York Times, Dec 3, 2011.

Bruner, J. S. 1966. Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cunningham, W. with B. Venners. 2003. “Exploring with Wiki: A Conversation with Ward Cunningham.” In Artima Developer.

Giltrow, J. 2012. Comments made at the ReadingDigital Symposium, University of British Columbia Library, Sept 20, 2012.

Gray, D., Brown, S. & J. Macanufo. 2010. Gamestorming

Halasz. F.G., Moran, T. P., & R. H. Trigg. 1987. “NofeCards in a Nulshell” In Proceedings of the 1987 Conference of

Human Factors in Cam- puter Systems (CHI+GI ’87). Toronto. Ontario, Apr. 5–9, 1987, pp. 45–52.

Hudson, W. 2012. “Card Sorting.” In The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction 2md Edition, ed. by M. Soegaard and

R. Friis Dam.

Markus Krajewski. 2011. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548–1929. Trans. by Peter Krapp. Cambridge: MIT Press.

MK. 2007a. “Luhmann’s Zettelkasten” TakingNoteNow blog, Dec 16, 2007.

MK. 2007b. “A Faithful Electronic Version of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten.” TakingNoteNow blog, Dec 16, 2007.

Nabokov, V. 1967. “The Art of Fiction No. 40” The Paris Review. 41. Winter/Spring 1967.

Nielsen, J. 1994. “The 1994 Design of Sun Microsystems’ Intranet”. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, December 31, 1994.

Peirce, C. S. 1955. “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” in Philosophical Writings. New York: Dover.

Sansom, I. 2012. Paper: An Elegy. New York: Fourth Estate.

Scerri, E. 2012. “The Periodic Table” OUP Blog. August 8th, 2012.

Scrivener writing software. See

Sellen, A. J. & R Harper. 2001. The Myth of the Paperless Office. Cambridge: MIT Press.

David Straker. 1997. Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-it® Notes. Boston: Da Capo Press.

Trello task-management software. See

The use of spreadsheet software to organize ideas–not just numbers–is, in our experience, widespread in today’s office culture. Microsoft Excel is a powerful data-processing tool installed on vast numbers of personal and office computers. Indeed, shy of going to the trouble of developing an actual database, Excel is the tool at hand when people need to organize things. Hence, schedules, duty rosters, content inventories, and so on are often found in the rows and columns originally designed for calculations and bookkeeping.

The pioneering chemist Mendeleev, it is said, played “chemical solitaire” on the way to developing the Periodic Table of the Elements. He wrote the names and properties of known elements on cards and sorted and re-sorted them on his way to discovering the schema we know today as the Periodic Table. See Scerri 2012

The Eno/Schmidt card deck is still available. See Oblique Strategies: See also
Interestingly, software designer and Agile Methodology pioneer Ward Cunningham is the common force behind both the “CRC Card” modelling technique and wiki software. Both draw inspiration directly from card play; both were originally implemented in Apple’s Hypercard. See Cunningham 2003.↩

Some notable examples of writing and personal organization software attempt to provide a visual sorting mode. The writing software Scrivener features a “corkboard” mode in which snippets can be dragged around onscreen like so many cards. The web-based task manager Trello works on a visual sorting metaphor, moving card-based tasks from one column to another.


Cracks, Crevices and Canyons

Various interpretations of the term ‘digital divide’ and the causes and consequences of such divides

In the following article I would like to make a case for how to best interpret the term “Digital Divide”. The term has been used widely since the late 1990’s and has grown to include a variety of meanings. While describing these various types of interpretations I will also point out the possible causes and consequences.

The term ‘digital divide’ can be understood in a variety of ways, the most common and initial meaning is ‘the differential access to and use of the Internet according to gender, income, race and location’ (Rice 2002). As the technological digital divide is quickly decreasing between those with access to the internet and those without, the meaning of the term digital divide is expanding.

This new expansion of the term gives us many angles in which to view the topic of digital media and our relationship to it. Although I will categorized these meanings into three different perspectives, there is a great deal of overlap and one meaning of digital divide may influence the degree of different type of digital divide. For example, if a person’s level of connectivity is fairly low this generally causes the person to have a lower level of fluency in digital media.


The divide can be categorized in three ways of understanding the access to, use of and knowledge of digital media:

  1. Connectivity:
    Who’s connecting, How are they connecting and what are the factors effecting their connectivity
  2. Media literacy – how sophisticated is their usage of digital media, are they consuming, producing or both
  3. Social acceptance – why are they connecting to digital media


Although diminishing, there has and, arguably may always be a gap between those that have access to the Internet and those that don’t.
There are a great deal of causes for the connectivity gap that usually stem from economic inequality or socio-economic factors such as income, education, age, and geographic location to name just a few. The divide is decreasing due to the growing ubiquity of networks around the world as well as the proliferation of affordable mobile devices and laptops. This year (2013) mobile usage of the internet will surpass laptops according to Pingdom.

Mobile share of web traffic

2010 2012 Increase 2010-2012
Africa 5.81% 14.85% 155.59%
Asia 6.1% 17.84% 192.46%
Europe 1.81% 5.13% 183.43%
North America 4.71% 7.96% 69.00%
Oceania 2.88% 7.55% 162.15%
South America 1.46% 2.86% 95.89%
Worldwide 3.81% 10.01% 162.73%

In Canada the connectivity divide is primarily between people within urban and rural settings. The digital disparity has become such a concern that the CRTC has called for a public hearing in the fall to consider whether a new “regulatory framework” is necessary to “ensure all Canadians have access to affordable broadband service.” Globe And Mail, 2010

Despite incentives and the CRTC ruling there still remains a great divide when it comes to rural Canadians connecting to the Internet. The consequence of this lack of connectivity will lead to businesses staying in urban centres and possibly issues in urban density in the future.

Media Literacy

While the connectivity divide has been steadily decreasing a more pronounced gap seems to be increasing between those that are literate, proficient and fluent in digital media and those that are not. The undeniable cause of this gap is that a large percentage of the interfaces for digital media are designed by people that are already fluent digitally and make assumptions about how their target users will learn using these new interfaces. Although, generally usability of interfaces has greatly improved over the past decade there is still an immense difference between designing interfaces for digital natives in comparison to baby-boomers.

A so-called ‘second-level’ digital divide, also referred to as the production gap, describes the gap that separates the consumers of content on the internet from the producers of content.
Last year a survey conducted using 80,000 Canadians by online statistics company, Vision Critical that shows that on Facebook 68% of users create only 25% of the user contributions. That seems to be a huge divide between those that are considered ‘sharers’ in comparison to those considered ‘lurkers’. – Invisible Audiences

Although the hardware and software tools seem to be more accessible and usable, there are people between 40-70 years old that find themselves baffled by using these devices and graphical user interfaces.

Social Acceptance

Over the past 5 years two distinct camps seemed to have formed, those that want to understand and want explore the potential of digital media and those that criticize digital media, fear its’ long-term consequences and perhaps feel left behind. The whole Cyberpunk movement seems to reflect the growing sentiment that technology and the Internet are creating more dysfunction, emotionless communication and general detachment from the world around us. The psychological divide can be seen from both a social and individual level and breaks down into the following areas:

Privacy Divide

These factors compounded with our increasing concern for the privacy of our loved ones will bring about even more of a divide. The consequence will be a poor unbalanced representation of our population as they many live there lives online and others avoid it.

Fear Factor

As computer viruses become more sophisticated and traditional media outlets present doom & gloom scenarios of the not-so-distant future many late adopters of the web are fearful and apprehensive to dive in and learn.
“32% of non-internet users cite reasons tied to their sense that the internet is not very easy to use. These non-users say it is difficult or frustrating to go online, they are physically unable, or they are worried about other issues such as spam, spyware, and hackers. This figure is considerably higher than in earlier surveys.” – Non-Internet Users

Data Divide

We are now entering the age of Big Data, an era when what ever can be measured and digitized, will be. There will become a new divide between those with access to and tools to understand digital data and those without. As Vision Critical describes “Assuming you have access to the data and an analytical process in place, you can collect digital data in real time, rather than waiting to draft a questionnaire, field a study, analyze and report on results. You can fail fast and often, innovating on the run” Vision Critical’s New Digital Divide


It is now becoming clear that the technological gap is rapidly decreasing mainly due to the spread of mobile phones around the world. IDATE, a consultancy, reckons that the number of people accessing the internet via mobile devices will overtake the number using fixed-line connections in mid-2014. – Economist 2013

As technology races forward, the crucial aspect of the divide is the human component not the technological one. The concept of a digital divide is extremely important to help us understand how our ever-evolving relationship with technology and digital media is ultimately shaped by societal, socio-economic and psychological factors as much as technology itself. The consequences of these divides can have far-reaching damage to our lives and how we interact with others, not to mention the haves having more and the have-nots having less.


Mobile share of web traffic in Asia has tripled since 2010, Pingdom. May, 2012

Sharers and lurkers, your invisible social media audience

New Digital Divide, Vision Critical blog

Live and Unplugged, Economist Magazine, Nov 2012

Who’s Not Online and Why, Pew Internet, 2013

All images created by Digital Glitch Generator by Pixelnoizz