Category Archives: alan_kay

try to take some time from your busy day

to read the recent interview with humanist and computer scientist, Alan Kay. Here’s a sample . . .

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. Cicero said, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” People who live in the present often wind up exploiting the present to an extent that it starts removing the possibility of having a future.

questions and answers

in 1980 and 81 i had a dream job — charlie van doren, the editorial director of Encyclopedia Britannica, hired me to think about the future of encyclopedias in the digital era. eb image.jpg i parlayed that gig into an eighteen-month stint with Alan Kay when he was the chief scientist at Atari. Alan had read the paper i wrote for britannica — EB and the Intellectual Tools of the Future — and in his enthusiastic impulsive style, said, “this is just the sort of thing i want to work on, why not join me at Atari.”
while we figured that the future encyclopedia should at the least be able to answer most any factual question someone might have, we really didn’t have any idea of the range of questions people would ask. we reasoned that while people are curious by nature, they fall out of the childhood habit of asking questions about anything and everything because they get used to the fact that no one in their immediate vicinity actually knows or can explain the answer and the likelihood of finding the answer in a readily available book isn’t much greater.
so, as an experiment we gave a bunch of people tape recorders and asked them to record any question that came to mind during the day — anything. we started collecting question journals in which people whispered their wonderings — both the mundane and the profound. michael naimark, a colleague at Atari was particularly fascinated by this project and he went to the philippines to gather questions from a mountain tribe.
wikipedia_logo.jpg anyway, this is a long intro to the realization that between wikipedia and google, alan’s and my dream of a universal question/answer machine is actually coming into being. although we could imagine what it would be like to have the ability to get answers to most any question, we assumed that the foundation would be a bunch of editors responsible for the collecting and organizing vast amounts of information. we didnt’ imagine the world wide web as a magnet which would motivate people collectively to store a remarkable range of human knowledge in a searchable database.
on the other hand we assumed that the encylopedia of the future would be intelligent enough to enter into conversation with individual users, helping them through rough spots like a patient tutor. looks like we’ll have to wait awhile for that.

An Exchange With Alan Kay

Hi Bob –
I’ve been asked questions like this several times in the past, and have never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. I estimate that I’ve read between 15,000 and 20,000 books, with about 1/10th of these being really worthwhile, and perhaps another 1/10th or more really useful as “how not to think about it” that serve as a large field of comparative and contrasting ideas. I think a central answer to your question from me is that I would simply not have my world view if it weren’t for books, and not just a few books but the wealth of multiple perspectives that the printing press made possible and encouraged.
The most important events in my life were learning how to read fluently before school age, and having read many books by the time I got to the constricting dogmas of school learning. This allowed me to resist and to gradually build my own mind, again largely through reading. I believe this is also an important answer to much of the good that has happened in the last 400 years. It’s hard to pick 3 books that changed the world, but there is no doubt in my mind that the combination of new kinds of argumentation and many more points of view from thousands of books broke apart a lot of the rigidity of thought that has characterized most of human existence. Sorry, best I can do …
P.S. If you had to pick one for the 17th century, it would be Newton’s Principia Mathematica. I came upon this in my late 20s or early 30s and it would be my pick for the number one “amazing book” ever written. However, my course and POV were already set by the time I actually got around to buying and reading it.
Cheers, Alan
to which Bob replied:
So . . . do you think books are playing the same role today as they did 40-50 years ago when we were growing up? My instinct is no . . . but even if i’m right, i’m not sure if it is because times are different or because the media landscape has changed so dramatically.
to which Alan replied:
No [in answer to “do you think books are playing the same role today … ] and I think that much of the new technology in the 20th and 21st centuries has been used to automate old oral forms (telephone, radio, movies, TV, voice mail, etc.) and this has taken quite a bit of day to day reading and writing out of most peoples’ lives. We are wired for oral discourse and most are happy to stay there. The larger scheme of things was greatly aided by having writing be the only long distance replicable technology around for a long time — and given that only 1% in Europe in 1400 could read, it really took the printing press to spread the hard to learn and literally mind-changing technology around sufficiently.
Also, McLuhan and Postman were pretty much right: that TV, especially, is a media form that delivers a 24 hour wall to wall environment that seems total, but lacks many important message carrying (and carrier) properties that the “written symbolic” media has. So, it’s not that TV actually tells people how to think, but, as an environment, it is what people try to learn to be fluent in and adapt to, and this makes it difficult for most people to formulate non-TV kinds of thoughts (many of which have been critical to the development of the last 400 years). And TV is much easier to “learn”. In simple: if you don’t read and think for fun, you won’t be fluent enough to read and think for purpose. This is why, when asked, I advise parents to treat TV and other similar media (including computer) like a cabinet of loaded guns or liquor. Locking it up is good, but not having in the house is probably better. But, since they are avid TV watchers and non-readers themselves, this advice has no effect. I think things are getting worse in part because TV is progressively making many more bad ideas seem normal.
Cheers, Alan
…and again, later on…
Hi Bob –Your questions got me thinking about certain books over the years. I stand by my earlier claim that it was the totality of many many books that did the job on me. But, still, there were a few, especially some very early ones that got me thinking one way and not another. For example, the first adult book I read all the way through — maybe at age 4 – was my father’s copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I originally read it because I had gotten interested in the ancient Greeks (he was quite interested). But the last part of the book contained Norse myths and these were in some cases similar to the Greek ones. This got me to realize that these were just stories and needed more than claims to back them up. This helped tremendously in resisting the Bible during later attempts to force this on me. Another early book was a long one, also my Dad’s, Breasted’s Ancient Times, maybe read at age 6 or 7. Again, I originally started reading it because I though ancient (and “lost”) civilizations were cool (and loved the different architectures, etc.). But, I started to realize that human beings are driven to similar forms under similar conditions, etc. This led me to Anthropology later on.
A Life Magazine on the Holocaust (published in 1945, but I saw in 1947 at age 7)completely horrified me, and made me afraid of adults to this day (and rightly so).This was likely one of the earliest insights and shocks that motivated my later long standing interests in helping children to think better than most adults do today. Willi Ley’s Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel around age 8 had a big effect. One memory from this book was the strange idea that you couldn’t just aim a rocket at the planet you wanted to go to, but had to create an orbit for the rocket that would cause it and the planet to meet many months in the future. I can’t quite explain why this had such a big effect on me. Science fiction, especially of Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, etc., had a huge effect, and got me to read many deeper books, like Korzybski’s Science and Sanity. To have a conversation with a professor who didn’t like grad students but did like McLuhan, I spent the better part of the summer of 67 really understanding Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. This was one of the biggest most useful shocks I got from a book. Marvin Minsky’s Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines had a great effect on getting me to think more mathematically about computing (maybe 1968), and this led to McCarthy’s meta definition of LISP in the LISP 1.5 Manual (a book of sorts), which was the key to really inventing objects “right”. And so forth …
Cheers, Alan