Alan Kay: Big Ideas are Sometimes Powerful Ideas

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so we actually are dealing
with an  academic hour here and
be fitting with  our school setting marvin
minsky once  said school was the greatest invention  anybody
ever came up with to keep you  from
staying interested on anything for  any reasonable length
of time because of  course it has all
these schedules in  assembly line movements
and we have one  of those today and I
also wanted to  leave time for questions
but one of the  ways I want to leave time for questions  is
to encourage you to ask questions as  I
talk so I have no idea how long this  talk is
and I am going to stop after
50  minutes and regardless of what what
  happened so please don't be shy ask
  questions as we go if you like and
  because this talk is
not for me but for  you so
in a series of ideas which  are somewhat
connected I hope so
one  contrast I'd
like you to think about is  the notion beach of common
sense that  most
people take the
world around them  as reality I
once came up with a phrase  that said
technology is anything that  happened after you
were born because
the  technology that you're born into is just  part
of your world and it's taken to be  normal there and most people take the
internet Prince the Internet is one of  the great inventions of all time not
the  web but the internet itself one of the
great maybe one of the greatest  engineering feats
of all time and it
  worked so well that hardly
anybody  appreciates it particularly
where they should pay more attention to  why it works so
well so here's a  common-sense
deduction that
has been  made by most people on
the planet for  the slightly less than 200,000
years  modern humans have been here and
that is  something like a king
  natural and normal extension
of the head  of the family
hunted leaders of
hunting  groups and etc etcetera so this is just
  regarded as common sense and in fact
was  not regarded as it as an idea it was  just
part of the part of the world that  people lived
in then in January
1776  Thomas Paine wrote a book
which he  ironically titled common sense everybody
here has heard of Tom Paine's Common  Sense
he had a big idea in it which  was
instead of having the King be the  law we
can have the law be the king and  what he meant
was we can design a much  better society than
the what the natural  seeming
hereditary monarchy as we can  take our future into
our own hands we  can come up with a better plan this
is  an idea that surfaced
a couple of times  in Greece but not not
before not after  and
this book which
pain published at  his own expense initially just
gave it  away had a press run of somewhere  between
six hundred thousand and nine  hundred thousand in six
months so that's  a lot
by today's standards and there
  were 1.5 million non slaves
in the  thirteen colonies back
then and so this  press run encompassed
somewhere between  almost a half to more
than a half of all  men women and children in all
13  colonies so imagine just trying to
reach  that number of people today there
medium that you could do it with except  with the internet
I try to
get sixty  percent of 300
million people no  newspaper
could do it so so
this is a  big idea but
  the powerful idea and
istinction I want to make was the  Constitution
as a big idea is
kind of an  insight and often
insights insights
are  wonderful but they're lightweight  they're
relatively easy to have compared  to doing
something about it so the  Constitution
we should shape  society into a self-organizing
self-correcting shared idea and resource  system and
that is a very radical idea  even
for today for instance most  Americans have no idea
what the design  of the United States
was or is it's  simply not
taught in schools it's not  the way American history
is is taught  and
so most
societies on earth haven't
gotten this idea even at the societal  level most
human beings on earth don't  have this idea
but this is one of these  powerful ideas that
makes qualitative  differences
in almost every area of
life  and it's related to an even bigger
set  of ideas so another
common sense
  another another common sense
notion  which is actually
with most Americans  today according to the surveys I've seen
which is the world is pretty much as it  seems
so we this is what our
nervous  systems are set up to do we're basically
  weren't set up by nature to think we're
  set up by nature to cope and so our
primary mechanism is whatever  environment we find
ourselves in so the  answer anthropologists
know that you can  take a child at
birth from any culture  on the planet and take it anywhere
on the planet  that child will grow up as a member
of  that culture you took it too that's
because humans are rather more similar  than they are different
we have about  300
traits that anthropologists have  identified that
seem to be quite genetic  including things
like language having  culture telling stories and
those  mechanisms get
embodied with the local  varieties
of those and so the reality  you
grow up within the language you grew  up with
is the language and the reality
  of the culture you you're born in Q so
now this big ideas have been had
number of times in history I happen to  like the Talmud
version of it we see  things
not as they are but as we are so
  this is a bit I'd love to know
what  actually happened
to the person who came  up with this idea did
they take it to  its logical conclusion
considering and  was
interesting that was published in  this Talmud is part of the
commentary  but
this is one of
the great big ideas  of all time this is
a really hard one  because it completely
relative izes  what's going
on however it's not a  powerful idea
but had numerous times and
idea came in the 17th
century  and you could point to a
number of  people and you could point to various
  societies but 17th
century has a has a  perfect
atomic bomb place
where science  started
because we had Galileo and  Kepler and maybe
Copernicus beforehand
  and a few other people but in fact when
  Newton did the Principia
he actually  revolutionized human
thought and it's  probably the largest leap in human
thought of this kind that we know of  historically
this is why most scientists
think of Newton as being the greatest  scientist and he
was almost the first  scientist and
not just in relative terms  but
in absolute terms the amount of  distance
he was able to cover not just  in terms of
knowledge but in terms of  about look and
the powerful idea of  science is not so
easy to state  everything else comes
out pretty nicely  as slogans and there's
more to science  than just this but
this is one half of  it which
knowledge  as niels bohr
said science is not there  to tell us about the
universe is what  most people think most
non-scientists  most kids in school are taught
what is  called science as in
roughly the same  way they learn religion in
when they go  to church or synagogue or
mosque but as  in what science
is at all it's not about  knowledge it's
about relating the stuff  we can
do and can't do in here all
the  things that we can do with our  representational
systems to stuff out  there that
we can't get to directly  because
everything we do is filtered  through our nervous systems
as filtered  through our culture's is filtered for
  through the the difficulties we have  with
making relationships about
things  and this was not an easy idea
to have  we'll see in
a bit but what's
happened  in the last 400 years in
many many  dimensions has
been more than has  happened in the rest of
the 200,000  years and you
know the cliche that most
  scientists 90 more than ninety percent
of all the scientists who ever lived  you're alive today and
most of the  things that are happening
today and some  of the problems and
some of the  solutions to those problems are
all  caused this by different way of looking  at the world
much is made particularly in
the pop  culture of bringing
bright this
is  because pop culture's
or cultures  without a lot of developed
knowledge  basically live by
their wits and so you  out
with each other and you compete at
  the level of width but imagine
being  born with an IQ of 500
who knows how  smart
leonardo was let's just
no 203 who  because those figures
don't what does IQ  me in any way but let's
just say hey  suppose you're just a
hell of a lot  smarter than anybody who ever lived but
  you were born in 10,000 BC how
far you  going to get so
you can probably out wit  everybody around you before they burn  you at
the stake
but in fact Leonardo  who
we know is very very bright could  not
invent a single engine for
any of  the vehicles that he designed so he's  famous
for designing things that look  like planes and
things that maybe look  like helicopters and I'll
and they're  wonderful and he did a lot of wonderful  things but
he couldn't make a single  goddamn one of them work
that is and  that's because he
wasn't smart enough to  think himself out of the
era he had been  born into as
has the closest person who's ever  thought himself out
of the era he was  born into his Newton
you have this  odd paradox that whoops
sorry that
Ford who is not nearly as smart as  Leonardo just
happened to be born in the  right time and so
he did revolutionize  one of the areas
that Leonardo wanted to  revolutionize by
being able to do
adaptive engineering and a little bit of  invention
to the stuff that was already  around so
his knowledge was processed  knowledge
and this was very powerful and  what
was the difference between these  two these two guys
was this change
of  outlook that Newton
was one of the  promulgate errs of so
one of the ways I  when
I talked to grabs grad students or  children
I say well knowledge is silver
  but outlook is gold
our world is
built  on changes of outlook that was what the  Constitution
was that was what Tom Paine  did and that's what science
did and IQ
  is led
because there is no we know
of no  developed field knowledge in which you  can get
by with just talent there's
developed sport in which you can get by  with just talent
and some of the most
  difficult sports have been excelled
in  by people who are not as athletic
so for  instance Chris effort as
an example who  is not a particularly athletic tennis
  player but man that you know how to work  and
so she got very very good at it
and  most things have this
thing an Outlook  also
tells you what kind of knowledge to  go after
because of course every group  in history had
a zillion amount of not  you going to the Australian outback
  without a
native Australian there to  help
you you're going to die whereas for
  them is just a walk in the park because  everything
is food they know how to get  water and it's there
just they know  where the dangers are they avoid them  it's
no big deal  so every group has lots of
knowledge the  real thing to think about is what kind
  of knowledge is that what's the quality  level what's
the level of flexibility  what can you you
do with
outlook changes are more pine Steiners  another one so
about a hundred years ago
something that
Newton in a slightly
different Einstein was quite sure that  Newton if
he lived longer and had not
  been put in had a head of the Treasury  in
England that Newton would have  actually come up with
a theory of  relativity I don't know
whether he could  have could have actually done
that  because but Newton
didn't know that he
thought it was ridiculous that his  equations had action
at a distance so
he  said so in letters as just that nobody
  could measure well enough and what they
  did measure the
gravitational forces  seem to transmit
instantly but
from  Newton standpoint that was ridiculous
so that was the first section so
  the second section is to look at what  children can actually
do under ideal  conditions and
this is not easy to find  so a couple
of these things are results  of just
dealing with hundreds and  hundreds
of teachers over more than 40  years and
in this case this was an  accident because
we were working in the  fourth and
fifth grades in the school  and of course I started
the school and I happen to poke my nose  into
first grade and what
I saw was  quite shocking to me
i should mention I  have a degree
in mathematics and another  one in molecular biology as
well as the  computer science degrees so
walked into this math this first grade  classroom and SAT
minutes  I gradually
realize that this teacher
  was doing real math with first
graders  not school math but
real math the real  deal and as I got to know her
Julia  nishijima was her name
I found she was  that she have not
taken any math in  college but
she was like one of these  musician friends you might have who
was  just a natural musician she was a net
she just saw the world in terms of math  and her outlook
was in the world of the  kindergarten and
first grade child so  over
a couple of years I saw some of the  most amazing
things I've ever seen in  any classroom at any age this
done after the kids have been there for  about three months
and the school is a  busing
school in LA and what that means
  is that the children in order to induce  the
parents to
get on the that have  their children but
if you think about  bus driving
a car in LA as ridiculous so  let's
put our children on buses twice  twice
a day to try
and deal with some of  the racial imbalance
problems and but  they
did and there was some really  interesting
inducements to get the  parents to do that but the law was
that  for each of the busing schools had
to  have the same demographic as
the city as  a whole so
these busing schools were the  perfect
discovery learning both of this both  these are absolute vs