Friday, May 06, 2005

Alan Kay

I was reminded today, by a DECS Xpress editorial of all things, about the creativity of Alan Kay.

I knew that he was the brains behind the first Graphical User Interface (pinched by Jobs and Wozniak when they built the Mac) and author of the first object orientated programming language, SmallTalk, but had forgotten or missed that he also initiated the laptop computer and the tablet computer.

He now heads a team working on educational software called Squeak, which I'm downloading now as I write this.

Alan Kay is a futurist, here are some nice quotes:

The real romance is out ahead and yet to come. The computer revolution hasn't started yet. Don't be misled by the enormous flow of money into bad defacto standards for unsophisticated buyers using poor adaptations of incomplete ideas.

I invented the term Object-Oriented, and I can tell you I did not have C++ in mind.
A new point of view is worth 80 IQ points
Java and C++ make you think that the new ideas are like the old ones. Java is the most distressing thing to hit computing since MS-DOS.
All creativity is an extended form of a joke.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
If you don't fail at least 90 percent of the time, you're not aiming high enough.
Here's an article by him, Predicting the Future, which is a great read, he brings alive the whole idea of thinking about the future, for example:
Another problem is that we don't have a very good concept of the future itself. McLuhan's line--one of my favorites--is, "We're driving faster and faster into the future, trying to steer by using only the rear-view mirror."

Whitehead, the British philosopher, remarked that the greatest invention of the 19th century was the invention of invention itself. Not only were there 10 and 20 times more patent applications at the British government patent office, but about 80 percent of those patents were absolutely crackpot ideas. This was the century in which anybody who had an idea thought he could be an inventor and submit a patent for it because everyone else was doing it.

McLuhan had a great line about the 20th century. He said, "The 20th century is the century in which change changed." He was referring back to Heraclitus, the Greek who said, "The only thing constant is change itself." From our standpoint it's hard to see that as a revolutionary statement, but remember that before the Greeks, it was unreasonable for a person to be born into a world, live in a world, and die in a world that was any different from the world in which his parents had lived, or his parents' parents and so forth. Things were pretty much the same for many thousands of years.

But McLuhan was saying something else, that when change changes, you can't predict the future in the same way anymore; you have some second order or third order effects. So the biggest thing we need to invent in the 1990s is the invention of the future itself. In other words, to think of the concept of future not as a thing that comes from the past--although it has come from the past in a way--but to realize that the forces that are bringing about change right now are so great that it's very difficult to sit down and make simple extrapolations.

Science fiction had some ideas about us going to the moon partly because there were some fledgling things called rockets and someone could imagine one big enough to get us here. And science fiction could imagine robots with positronic brains, because Isaac Asimov did not have to explain how positronic brains worked. But science fiction totally missed the idea of the computer. Before the power of the transistor really became apparent there was just no conceivable extrapolation.


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