February 20, 2007

The Eloquence of Alan Kay

Over at if: book there's a pointer to an interview with Alan Kay ("The PC Must Be Revamped—Now") that speaks some inconvenient truths. A few outtakes (bolded here and there, for emphasis) that might inspire you to read the whole thing:

Computers are mostly used for static media, basically text, pictures, movies, music and so forth. The Internet is used as a distribution network, so computers are essentially players for this media. This is incredibly useful, but it tends to overwhelm uses that require a much longer learning curve.

When I started in computing in the early sixties, people realized that while the computer could simulate things we understood very well, one of its greatest uses was simulating things that we didn't understand as well as we needed to. This has happened in the sciences; physicists, chemists, biologists and other scientists could not do what they've been doing if they didn't have powerful computer simulations to go beyond what classical mathematics could do. But it's the rare person who quests for knowledge and understanding....

[Doug] Engelbart, right from his very first proposal to ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency], said that when adults accomplish something that's important, they almost always do it through some sort of group activity. If computing was going to amount to anything, it should be an amplifier of the collective intelligence of groups.

...the computing profession acts as if there isn't anything to learn from the past, so most people haven't gone back and referenced what Engelbart thought.

The things that are wrong with the Web today are due to this lack of curiosity in the computing profession. And it's very characteristic of a pop culture. Pop culture lives in the present; it doesn't really live in the future or want to know about great ideas from the past. I'm saying there's a lot of useful knowledge and wisdom out there for anybody who is curious, and who takes the time to do something other than just executing on some current plan.

...the dominant operating system architectures that we have are all from the sixties. Basically, the people who do operating systems got used to this kind of layered architecture in an operating system, and they tend to keep on feeding it, even though layered systems don't scale very well. This is an example of the invisibility of normality. We're not even aware that we're accepting most things we accept. Any creative person has to try and force their brain to reconsider things that are accepted so widely they seem like laws of the universe. Very often they aren't laws of the universe; they're just conventions.

...The spreadsheet, for example, with a few changes in it, would be thought of as being a highly parallel simulation engine. If you think of the purpose of the spreadsheet being not only to tabulate what did happen, but to give you an idea of what could happen, you would immediately redesign the spreadsheet and integrate it with graphical displays or visualization in a very different way. You would be on the road to a different kind of computer literacy.

(the last point is in the same ballpark with Dan Bricklin's recent posting)

Posted by oook at February 20, 2007 03:38 PM

I wonder about alternate reality games and curiosity. ARGs seem to magnetize the kind of collaborative knowledge-development Kay speaks of.

Posted by: Bryan Alexander at February 24, 2007 01:54 PM

Excellent catch of a fine interview. Done bloggerized it up at Infocult.

Posted by: Bryan Alexander at February 24, 2007 06:45 PM