How God Makes God by Peter Small
Published: Thursday, 10th August 2017
Sometimes, creative men (and women!) have vision that is utterly unlike anything their peers have produced before, or since. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Peter Small and How God Makes God.
I’ve been making a big noise on Twitter (follow me @vintageapplemac!) about my in-browser emulation work at the Internet Archive and that prompted one user to ask if there was “any chance of in-browser emulation of the great B&W CD-ROM How God Makes God?” along with a link to a web page about this title. Having never heard of it, I set about Googling for information and was intrigued by what I found in the few matches that were returned. Released in the early 1990s, How God Makes God (HGMG from now, for brevity) was evidently a Macintosh-only piece of software and apparently almost entirely uncategorizable. Within moments, I was convinced that this would be an essential item to find, emulate, and preserve but, alas, there was no trace of it online at all.
Of course, there was the author’s website, but that hadn’t been updated in more than a decade. Bearing in mind that I had read that when he published HGMG, in 1993, Peter was in his sixties, I had to contemplate the grim possibility that he might be no longer with us. I wrote an email to the contact address on his site, explaining what I was hoping to do, and waited. A couple of days later, my phone rang and I spoke with Peter, who was very interested in the emulation project and at the idea of his software being able to be experienced again. As he said himself, with it being so old and only working on OS7-era vintage Macs, he hadn’t been able to show it to anybody in *years*. This was music to my ears, as if we were able to get it running happily in the Archive’s emulator then it would be putting a long-lost and unique piece of Macintosh software history back into the hands of the masses. Peter said that he would post a CD to me pronto and he was true to his word, with a package dropping through my letterbox a few days later.
We should probably talk about what HGMG actually is. Firstly, it is *not* a religious package. Rather, it is a philosophical meditation on life, expressed through explorations of game theory and computer analogies. It is, essentially, an interactive book, with complex ideas and topics spread across thematic sections of animated slides and peppered with games and activities. All told, Peter reckons that to “complete” the experience would require upwards of 14 hours. It is *massive*.
At this point, I shall hand over to a fantastic detailed write-up of HGMG from Bob Hughes’ book “Dust or Magic: Creative Work In The Digital Age” (Bosko Books, 2000):
PETER SMALL: THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE IN BLACK AND WHITE
Peter Small is a rather William Blake-like figure: his message is a cosmic one, fiercely expressed. His means of expression are utterly idiosyncratic, and he does absolutely everything himself. What copperplate gravure and water-color were for Blake, the Mac and Macromedia Director are for Peter Small.
He arrived on the British ‘multimedia’ scene apparently from nowhere in 1993, aged 50-ish, with an extraordinary, self-produced, self-published CD Rom entitled How God Makes God (HGMG). He had sold his house in order to make it and it took him three years. It starts “In the beginning, there was chance,” and goes on to explain how chance works in every aspect of life from games, to investments, human relationships, natural selection, the evolution of emotion, quantum physics and lots more.
HGMG appeared right at the height of the 1990s ‘shovelware’ epidemic – and probably owed quite a lot of the enthusiastic reception it received in the British computer press to the way it so flagrantly defied the high-gloss, content-free approach that typified the era. Not only did it present the most daunting concepts imaginable – it did so entirely in 1-bit black and white, and used neither sound nor QuickTime. You’re warned at the start: “If you’re hoping for an action-packed game you’re in for a disappointment. However if you want to learn how to win at the game of life, read on.”
WHAT ‘GOD’ DOES
HGMG’s subject seems so perfect for the computer-medium one wonders why so few other people have tackled it: chance. Random-number generation is one of the computer’s most basic functions. (It’s not true randomness – but Small explains why that is.) Where a book merely explains about chance, here you can experience it for yourself, hands on.
For example, you’re given an explanation of a system for winning (modestly) at roulette, then you try it for yourself – and discover why ‘systems’ don’t in fact work. You can experiment with dice and coin-tossing – and of course run much bigger experiments than you’d be able to do with real dice and coins: thousands of throws in seconds – limited only by your computer’s clock speed. You learn about Erwin Schrodinger’s famous ‘cat’ thought-experiment – and try it for yourself.
From these basics you learn how chance gives rise to Life, the Universe and Everything – including such basic, human issues as money, emotion, religion, the odds against popping a champagne-cork so that it goes down the barmaid’s cleavage, and how to decide whether a prospective husband is worth marrying (in actual cash).
THE INTERFACE OF GOD
God’s interface is a bit clunky, but it works (in a mysterious way naturally). Small’s problem was that he had something like 90,000 words that he wanted to get across. There was no way he could do it with sound – even reading it very fast and recording it at the lowest quality setting. He decided to present the whole thing as a comic book, using speech bubbles.
Then there was the graphics problem: he couldn’t afford to commission an artist and couldn’t draw himself. So he spent a few days in the second- hand bookshops of London’s Tottenham Court Road buying old Victorian and Edwardian annuals. From these, he culled a wonderfully idiosyncratic cast of ready-made, copyright-free characters and scenery. There’s a man and woman in a Sherlock Holmes-vintage railway carriage; a pair of seductive, Burne-Jonesish beauties with flowing hair and heaving bosoms; small-time crooks, drunks and horse-fanciers in the snug of a Holborn tavern; distinguished statesmen with pince-nez spectacles and starched collars in the smoking-room of a Pall Mall club, etc … a cast of thousands, all acquired for a few quid. There was still the problem of how to produce the hundreds of animated comic strips he needed, without running out of disk space. His solution was to make Director itself do the animations, at run-time. He built himself a special authoring interface in Director in which he specified precisely where everything would appear and when. When you run the CD, a Lingo ‘animation engine’ assembles the animations from his ‘kit of parts’, on the fly. This way, each piece of artwork could be used over and over again – and he was able to control the action very precisely.
The final sequences have an amusing superficial crudeness – but they are also highly cinematic: well-paced, with wittily-used close-ups, cutaway shots, fades, dissolves and pull-backs. It is a shame that so few other developers have tried this technique.
ABOUT PETER SMALL
Peter Small’s background is at least as odd as his ‘God’. He has alluded to an unusual education among British Government scientists, a career in the fashion industry, followed by another career as a professional gambler – all of which (and such books as Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing) led to a consuming interest in the workings of evolution and randomness – and thence the computer.
He has never made much money from How God Makes God, but the techniques and ideas he developed while making it have made him quite famous – at least, among people who use Macromedia Director and Shockwave. His book Lingo Sorcery has revealed the power of object-oriented Lingo to thousands of new-media workers and its successor, Magical A-Life Avatars, introduces extremely powerful techniques that used to be considered strictly the province of theoretical computer science: for example genetic algorithms and ‘Hilbert space’.
And although his ideas push towards the boundaries of computer science, he still clothes them in the same stock of Edwardian images he acquired for the making of God.
So, yeah, this one’s a real peach, a fascinating piece of Macintosh history. And we got working in the Archive’s emulator, too! Go and treat yourself to an experience right now.