Alan Kay Talk at 40th Anniversary of Mother of All Demos (2008)

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introduction he's widely known as the  inventor of the small talk
so our last speaker today is Alan
who's president of viewpoints Research  Institute he
really needs no  introduction he's widely known as the
inventor of the small talk programming  language among many
other things like  Doug he was inspired to persuade
computers to become our assistance and  intelligent tasks
especially teaching  and learning his Holy
Grail was the  dynabook a portable personal computer  nestled
in the lap of a young student in  a park who is casually
pursuing her own  Learning Path Alan
has 30 minutes Alan
they asked me to speak last and
with  a lineup of people
that were on the  program I figure it would be suicide
to  try and prepare a talk ahead of time
  because why I
figured with great luck  all
the points I would have talked about  will they have been covered
already and  so the very
first thing I wrote in my  notebook here
was thank you all for  coming
but the idea
was to perhaps look  at
a couple of things from a slightly  different angle and
a little bit  about the significance of
this marvelous  work we're celebrating
today and these  marvelous people
who did it I like to
  think of things
in terms of threes and  we
are very rightly celebrating Doug  Engelbart but
it was fantastic to have  Bob Taylor
here who is the funder and
if  you think about the rewards and awards
  people get later in life doug has
gotten  all the ones you can get but
there's  nothing like a funder because a funder
is giving you that gold medal ahead of  time on
and moreover they
know that two-thirds  of those gold
medals if they're lucky  are going to turn to lead before
the end  of the work and so
it's the faith of the  second group of people
who bob was
  characteristically subtle
about  expressing his
opinion about how funding  is today I
remember him once I
guess 15  or 20 years ago giving
a talk about
the  60s in the in the 70s
and somebody in  the audience accused him of being an
old  fogey again because old fogies
always  are referring back to a golden
age and  today is never as good as
it wasn't  Taylor thought for a few minutes and he
  looked up and he said damn it it was a  golden
thorough I
have a hard time  pronouncing it the way you're supposed
to be out in the world because I come  from Massachusetts
and Thoreau was  pronounced thorough there
so my my  tongue is wagging
back and forth here's  an interesting guy and
very late in his  life
in 1865
when the first  transatlantic cable
went in between our  country and England
he was asked what he  thought of it and
he said he was afraid  he would find
out that a European  princess had just gotten a
nd I
believe that is the one of the  earliest
examples of completely nailing
  the two sides of
Technology here's one  of the most difficult feats they
fail  this of course could be used
for  expressing really important
information  back and forth but throw understood
  exactly who human beings are and
what  they're likely to do with any good
idea  another
great line of his Express a  little earlier was
that we become the  tools of our tools and
McLuhan used this  idea many
years later when he said we  first
shaped tools and then they turn  around and reshape us
and all
of these  ideas are basically double-edged swords
  so that every technology
is usually done  to amplify something in
every amplifier  we make and also act as a
prosthetic if  you put a prosthetic on
a healthy limb  it starts to wither and so
there's this  interesting problem of when
I make  something that is supposed to augment
us  how can I help people avoid
using it to  replace something
that we already have  and we wind up with less I believe
this  is the fundamental problem of the
20th  century and especially of our age
now  one of ways I think
of it is that when  ever
a new idea an idea comes along
  there's news and there's new
so news is
  stuff that's incremental on what we  already know
news can be told in just a  couple
of minutes it's the kind of thing  that people are always
exchanging with  each other and they often mistake
news  for ideas but
in fact news is so simple  that it
leverages almost everything we  know and it's just pushing things
one  way or another and so when Gutenberg
did  his Bible
was treated enthusiastically as
news  and in fact
they made the bible's to  look as much like handwritten
  manuscripts as possible i'm sure many  people
here have seen a Gutenberg Bible  but they were illuminated
by hand after  they were printed
and the fonts the  Gutenberg used
were had
I think 100 250  three separate characters
because every  ligature every
abbreviation that people  are used
to reading from them from the  scribes Gutenberg
copied and used
the  best ink in the best paper and
of these Gutenberg Bibles look like they  were printed yesterday
and they were  treated as a
really great idea and also
  unremarkable and so in fact
the Catholic  Church which was
in power at that time  thought
the printing press was a good  idea also
also when an idea comes  along if the
idea is a good one there's  also new and
new is something
that  doesn't isn't explainable in what
you  already know and so it's
something that  people very often
find a way of
ignoring  in favor of the news part of
things what  was knew about the printing press we saw  in
the 17th century when our entire
  conception of thought changed
with the  invention of science and our entire
  conception of government changed
with  the invention of representative  democracies
of various kinds and this is  the
two paired together or not and what  not an accident
a favorite
phrase of  mine from Tom Paine's Common Sense
which  is written in
January 1776 and
before  the
Declaration of Independence was  pinned
and put out in July in
those six  months or so somewhere
hundred thousand and nine hundred  thousand
copies of common sense were  printed and distributed
throughout the  thirteen colonies and
to give you an  idea of the scale of that there
are 1.5  million people in the 13
colonies at  that side so you can imagine the
medium that you could have today that  could have that level
of coverage for an  idea would be the internet
today if you  could get a significant
number of people  to read one thing on
the internet and in  that
argument that pain
wrote there's a  important
line that's relevant to today  where pain
was basically the title of it
  was a joke because he was actually
expressing something it wasn't kind was  common sense to
have a king and this  pamphlet was an argument
against the  monarchy and in the middle of it he says
  well instead of
having the king be the  law why we
can have the law be the king  in other words we can
invent a new way  of governing ourselves and
organizing  ourselves and we can write this into law  and
that is how we can invert everything
that people thought to be true if we  have the courage to
do it and as McLuhan
pointed out you can argue with a lot  about a lot of things with
stained glass  windows but democracy is not one
of them  so the point here is that
democracy and  what it actually meant
particularly in  our country was not possible
without a  new medium of expression
for arguing in  a very special way the
old oral ways and  the old pictorial ways
were not  sufficient and
so one of the
dilemmas I  think we've had in the 20th century is
the electronic technologies
even  the ones that are not programmable
have  this double edged sword this amplifier
  and prosthetic aspect and I think many  people
in this crowd will have noticed  how many of
the new communications  technologies of the last
hundred years  or so have actually been used by
people  as a way of getting back into the oral  modes
of thought that would be  completely familiar to
cave people a  hundred thousand years ago and
in fact  many of the games we make electronically
  we would be completely familiar to cave  people
a hundred thousand years ago so
  these electronic devices are
being used  partially as prosthetics as a way of  avoiding
the modes of thought associated  with reading
so one of the ways we can  think about is when something that
can  imitate anything comes along like
a  computer that well
we could use it to go  back to oral modes of thought
we could  use it to imitate the
technologies that  we're familiar with like printing
and  movies and recordings or
we could do  something almost unthinkable which
is to  try and ask the same question that  people a
few people started asking the  printing press which is let's
not worry  about the news about computers we
understand the news about computers they  can be programmed to do things
they can  be programmed to imitate things what's  new
about computers and I think the  significance of
Doug Engelbart's work is  that he
is one of the very few people  very
very early on who are able to  understand
that as Taylor pointed
out  that computers could
do a lot of things  that were quite familiar
but there was  something new about computers that
allow us to think in a very different  way and likely
in a stronger way than  the printing press brought us
and I  believe the significance of
this demo  that we're celebrating I was sitting
right over there right where that blonde  headed
woman was shivering like mad  because I had
104 temperature doing this  but I was determined
to see this demo  that
the significance of the demo was  that it actually
took something that was  merely
an opinion  and opinions are cheap
and easy and even  good ideas are cheap and easy
but  because of the third component
between  visionary and funder we
also had Bill  English and his team of
doers who are  able to
take this set of ideas and reify
  it into something that was much much  more
understandable to everybody who's  sitting there experiencing
it we could  actually see that
ideas can be organized  in a different
way they could be  filtered in a different way that what we  were
looking at was not something that  was trying to imitate printing
and what  we were hearing about was not
something  that was trying to automate
current  modes of thought but there was
a strong  set of ideas as christina
has just  talked about that
we should be able to  improve our process and there
is should  be an amplification
relationship between  us and this new technology
rather than  one that is a prosthetic
and a sapping  one so i think i
think the the jury is  still out
on whether in how long
it's  going to take for people to understand
  this when i got
interested in this and  in
no small part from from seeing doug
  Engelbart's nls system and from seeing
  ivan sutherland sketch pad system in
  from reading McLuhan my thought
was well  thank goodness we understand
how the  printing press transformed human thought
  and will never wait a hundred and fifty
  years again and
in fact so
that was my  thought back then of course I was just a  28
year old graduate student with stars
  in his eyes about what this stuff
could  actually actually mean but
in fact I  believe news  particularly
for Americans is incredibly  powerful compared
to new I think
of the  strong
nations in the world we are  possibly the least well educated
and  because we're the lease well-educated we
lack the perspective even of  understanding
what the printing press  did do and even
understanding how our  country
was set up because of this and  how we were
able to argue ourself into
a  better state of living so I think this
  is the this is the key and I think
that  the the questions about
voting machines  which I think
are important questions  but I believe
that they are much less  interesting than the humans
who come to  the machines and that
democracy cannot  survive without taking
much more heed of  all the
stuff besides the mouse that  Doug Engelbart understood
we should work  on and
the thing that's interesting  about
this is that no invented system
of  thought has been more successful in
  science it's probably
the greatest  single invention of the human race and  the
invention as we know it in its most  effective
form is only about four  hundred years old and
interesting  to me about science is
how poorly it's  taught in
most countries in the world  especially ours
and what this means is  that this
most successful thing that
has  changed our lives tremendously not
because it was able to hook up with  engineering
in a powerful way but it  changed our way of looking
at things are  very pissed
Emma logical stances that we  took towards knowledge
in spite of all  this success
it's actually a backwater  for the
vast majority of people and this  is dangerous
in a democracy where  majorities count so
if you think about  where we're actually going
  we are actually in this very
dangerous  area now where
the power of our tools
  has completely outstripped the
pace at  which education can absorb the ideas
and  to teach in the mass so
we haven't  probably the widest
sparus thinnest
  distribution of understanding of the  various powers
that have been created  over the last several
hundred years or  certainly
the ratio between power and  understanding i think
is at its worst  right now this shouldn't
be because of  course we have the internet
and there's
  a least a billion nodes on the internet  and everybody
has personal computers  that was the dream of ARPA
ARPA didn't  care whether it was done
on a  time-sharing system in a cloud or
on  networked computers the whole idea
somehow it had to be connected and  somehow everybody had
to have their own  personal access
to this stuff whenever  they wanted and
yet the commercial
  explosion of what
bunch of very good inventions that were  done in the 60s
and 70s has completely  trumped
almost all of the powerful ideas
  that that fostered these inventions back
  in the 60s and 70s and
when i get called  on to give a talk i
spent a fair amount  of my time in the beginning
of the talk  explaining what Doug Engelbart
and his  group we're trying to do because the  ideas
are not only
as good as they were  back then in many ways they're better  now
than they were back then because now
e don't have to worry about naysayers  about whether you can do the technology
  or not now it is clear what the problem
  is and the problem is us that we
actually have gotten interested in  whether the European princess
is going  to get a new hat and
we put that kind of  interest on every
invented  in the 20th and
now the 21st century so
  if we want to make these
ideas as  significant as
I think they are we have  to do
much more than celebrate a 40th
  anniversary we actually have to
be much  more proactive and I
believe that
the  one of the biggest problems
in this area  even more generally than what computers
  are all about is if you go to almost any
  elementary school anywhere in the  country the
chances that you'll find an  adult mathematician
scientist or  computer scientist in
there helping a  teacher help the kids understand
something that the teachers don't  understand and the kids need
to the  chances of that are vanishingly small
so  the hell of it is
that though we have  resources
in our professions
somehow we  find a way of not going into the schools
and then we complain the hell out of  what the schools are actually
doing and  yet if you think about the lag of
doing  official training the only way we can
  possibly make a difference is by taking  our knowledge
into the schools now we  cannot
wait for the education system to  try
and figure out what it was that we  were doing 20 years ago we
have to go in  and volunteer to help and I
don't  believe that any
officially sanctioned
  large-scale attempt at reforming at  American
education which has been tried  any number of times
in my life time  since Sputnik
all of those have failed  miserably because
in the end it has
treated more like a dirty task in the  end and the
scientists and  mathematicians and computer scientists
tay out of the classrooms and somehow  expect the teachers
to learn things are  almost impossible to
learn in the  position that they're in
the last idea
  here is
kind of an idea from McLuhan
but it's  also something that we can notice about  ourselves if
we go to a foreign country  and stay for more than a
week and that  is that after
about a week we actually  find ourselves acting
like we live in  this country because we're
fitting into  the rhythms and our brains are naturally  set up
to normalize to any environment  if
you think about what normalizing to  an environment actually is
it is
  somewhat like learning to
drive a car  when you start off driving a
car the  there's
a lot of stuff going on and it's  very chaotic and what
gear you in and  how fast you're going where's the stop  sign and
what's your parents saying to  you and where's the kid
ball on the road it's all completely  chaotic and
six or eight weeks later
there are little experts inside of our  head they're automatically
paying  attention to these and that's good  that's
what happens when we normalize we
normalize to the things that are  expected in the environment by
building  little experts but the other
edge of the  sword is that normalization
disappears  what we just became in
order to get  skilled and
McLuhan pointed out it  doesn't matter really what you
print in  a book what matters is whether
you have  become a reader or not because that
has  changed your whole approach to how
you're getting information doesn't  really matter that much what is put
on  television in the first
matters is that you're watching it at  all if
you're watching it enough for it  to become an environment
then it's  what's on television that starts  creating
what's normal for you it's a  scary
thought if you think about it that  way and you should and
on the positive  vein if you create
an nls and get
at it and that was part of the idea in  this system wasn't a
system for  beginners there's a system for experts  people
were going to spend hours at a  computer now some
people poo-pooed dug
in his group because they said well  nobody's going to spend  hours sitting
in front of it a screen
but they knew differently
they knew if  you're going to spend hours sitting in
the front in front of a screen you might  as well get expert at it you
noticed that their systems response time  is just a little
bit faster than you're  used to today
a picture on your  screen just this size is 192
k which is  exactly the
size of the memory on the
  sts 9 40 and it
was about a half MIT  computer
so you can multiply that out by
  factors of millions and so
fact it doesn't matter because a bad  design is a bad
design and if you run a  sufficiently bad design
sufficiently fast computer it's still  going to be bad and slow
that's what  we've got
so the flip side of this is if  you get
expert in something that is good  this is the
whole aim and significance  of
the augmentation of human
intellect  Center that
then that normalization is  going to turn you
into a different kind  of thinker than you were before
going to turn you into a different kind  of thinker than
people were in the 18th  century and that's it will
different kind of thinker than people  were in the middle ages and
different  kind of thinker than they were 100,000  years
ago that's the whole idea that in  order for these
huge reforms in our
  process of getting at the world
we have  to get fluent in them and so no
f not getting fluent in science is  going to help you
because it is actually  a way of thinking
and so all of these  things have to get beyond
the air guitar  stage or guitar hero
stage in our  culture and get into something
that is  much more like expert playing of a  musical
instrument and that is what nls  felt to me
when I first learned how
to  use it that here was  the
phrase I made up was the computers  and
is an instrument whose music is  ideas this
is the first embodiment of of
  what this incredible
new idea became
and  I I never thought
that I would actually  live to this age and not
see these ideas  adopted and
now I can see maybe another  hundred
years might be required in and
  here's the interesting thing it could be
  because of the computers ability to
  imitate television and things
like  television that it could be
that the  current media miliar
that we have today  could successfully
hold off all  competitors that have to do with deep
  ideas we could have made
the pop most  powerful medium ever for
distracting  ourselves to death and
the shame of it
is that people understood all of this  while this was going on
and even a bunch  of us who are doing it understood
while it was going on yet the general  knowledge of this was
not present in the  environment when it burst on the scene
last idea I think this is the
real  tribute to today is reality is kind
of a  low-pass filter
so the average good idea  gets
low pass down into a dial tone
and  as forgotten
but we haven't forgotten  nls
after 40 years we haven't forgotten  it
and it's as vivid to us today
as it  was when we first saw we
forgotten the ideas behind it and  perhaps
the real significance of nls is  that
it put an idea into the world
that  is a difficult one but it put it into  the world
so well that it's an idea none  of us can
forget and every one of us  after
this meeting will go out and try  to get other people
to  understand that idea thank