An Interview with Dr. Alan Kay (1991)

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in the factory approach to learning
amidst of our schools and is like how dumb can people be and the fears and the
self-confidence creativity and motivation are very high in the open
school yes a lot of computers make it make the difference or is it the
teachers and the computers or what what is what is the difference I don't think the difference has anything to do with
the computers at all because the the open school is a great school before we
ever showed up that's why we picked it when I walked in through the door I was
only there for a couple of minutes when I thought oh boy we could really do this great experiment there and the principal
was all for it and our main job of
putting the computers in was that line in the Hippocratic oath that says above
all do no harm I mean this was a great school we just wanted to slide the
computers in so that they were just another Crayola so there's no big deal
about you about using them and we learned how over a couple of years to do
that and no I don't think the I think the computer computers are just another
rich medium in this school of full of
different kinds of media that the children have to work with and that's the way it should be
there's there's just no question about the extraordinary advantages helps gains
that the computers offer when used correctly mm-hmm are there any losses we
mentioned harm what what oh yeah well I
think one of the ones is to assign it a significance it doesn't have like this
is going to save us from our problems or we can delegate things to it that we
don't have to do I mean there's a million things like that of thinking of the computer is some sort of magic
ointment that we can put on super aiding wounds and that doesn't work at all I
think another one is that the the kinds
of ways computers can be used because it can take on so many forms you can easily
pick one that will actually atrophy
something that was growing in the students that's true you can do that with
anything but the computer is particularly complex that way and the problem with putting a prosthetic limb
on a healthy limb is the healthy limb atrophies right because the prosthetic
is there and you can do it with instruments like the piano as well piano
removes you from the necessity from wearing about pitch and so your if you
assign all the responsibilities of pitch to the piano and the student doesn't
sing inside then they can play notes but they won't be playing music and the same
thing is true the with the computer you and I believe that you have to have a
fairly well fleshed out psychological model admittedly
there aren't any really great ones the one I've used for many years as Bruner's
and it still works well and and his ideas is was derived from Piaget but a
different way of looking at it that we have different ways in our mind of
dealing with the world we have in an active way that's kinesthetic
proprioceptive we have a visual iconic
way of dealing with the world we have a symbolic way of dealing with the world
and the reason McDonald's doesn't run a print ad saying if you eat McDonald's
hamburgers you'll become a better looking person is that the part of our
mind that deals with language we'll find that to be absurd but the part of our
mind that deals with images will perfectly accept really good-looking
people eating McDonald's hamburgers and one of the things you can do with
computers it's very popular is making images appear on the screen and the
thing that you have to be careful with about images is because they're so appealing because you don't have to
learn how to see them in the way that you have to learn to deal with symbols
you can try and load too much of the the
idea structures that you're trying to get across to the kids onto images where the images can't hold them images are
concrete and ideas are abstract whereas a friend of mine once said images beg to
be recognized and words beg to be understood and if you understand that
distinction between the two of them then you can use the computer wisely but if
you don't then the tendency is to make it into a kind of an interactive television which i think is
quite quite possibly the worst thing we could ever do in this century I
mentioned Piaget mmm-hmm there's no doubt about the ability of the new
technology to help an increase cognitive thinking what about emotional
development yeah well I think the way we
do emotional development in the open school and in fact one of the things
that we helped with when we went into the school is to restore all of the arts curriculum that proposition 13 took away
and this is because even though we are one of the kids to do things that were
like science most legislators don't
understand that science is an art in
other words most scientists do what they do because they have an aesthetic involvement in the stuff that they're
dealing with if you don't have an aesthetic involvement with the stuff you're not in the space that the
scientist is in and so removing all aesthetic things as a way of saving
money and saying we're the reason we're doing this we're going to emphasize technology and the science is throwing
out the baby with the bathwater the aesthetics of doing things on computers
are pretty rudimentary and so we prepare
in this in art school one of the things we did is we set up a very strong music program where there's a long-standing
aesthetic foundation things that everybody is familiar with that the kids
can get rich on and one of the things that we've discovered over the years is
that there's a very strong correlation between music and computers most
computer scientists are musicians of one kind or another antal musicians tend to
make awfully good computer people when they get interested in it and the reason
is is that a lot of the thought processes that you do in one are similar in the other and we computer scientists
find that the aesthetics of music good to a try and apply across to what it is
that we're doing on the computer when we ask are we doing anything beautiful here
one of your goals is to use the new technology to amplify aesthetic
sensibility mm-hmm you just talk about that alone well I think all technology
is a kind of an ample as I said like the piano you have to
have a musical impulse inside of the human to amplify or nothing happens and
I think that the other side of the amplifier is the prosthetic where are
you costs things that and again by realizing the distinction like the
distinction between the image and the word and what each is good for you can
get the aesthetics magnified so again the musical analogy is I happen to play
keyboards among other things and I happen to like playing Bach fugues stuff
like that like I play pipe organ so I like I play with my feet as well as my hands and one of the things that any
organist will tell you is the organ is one of the least expressive of all musical instruments
you can't modulate the tone in any way
once you've pressed the key down okay on the other hand it has a space that you
can't do with a human voice which is multi Tom Braille it's big polyphonic it
has all of these other dimensions and if you can sing inside while you're doing
it you can sometimes fake the audience into thinking that the organ is a musical instrument
so if you do both of those things then you get something for it if you don't do
both of those things then the organ actually is deader than listening to aquire and I think that's the that's the
distinction of when you when you want to use technology to amplify something that
we can perfectly well do ourselves help me understand a student a seven
years old eight years old is drawing a
three-dimensional blue house he struggles he doesn't get the dimension
quite right the Blues a little off student B has a computer keyboard it's
working with the computer draws the basic structure of the house can maybe
push something and suddenly there's the three dimensions perfectly done pushes another thing on it's blue mm-hmm
to me there's a loss maybe or something or well I think what about the learning
yep I mean once it has this to invent the first painting systems at Xerox PARC
was wanting people to sketch on a computer not just to draw a crisp drawings because the one of the
complaints we had is that people did all of their design on the backs of envelopes and use the computers for
rendering and so we put a lot of effort and the display is today are still not
you know go item to workstation to the
kinds of post-production like the paint box we I think any artists would agree
box is in mansions as physical pain but
yeah in order to get to the you like
you're moving stuff around and there's a clothes augment with a material to place
the computer you can think of as more of a rendering engine for various kinds of
things and allows you to explore a different set of dimensions my belief is
on all of these things again like a musical instrument which can't do all the things the human voice can do what
you want to do is understand what it can do and what it can't do try and get the value of what it what it can do and try
and minimize the tendency of assuming that it's the whole world
now we're going to the generic okay this
is very helpful thank you what are the
obstacles to the new technology and how can they be overcome well I think
they're not mean there are lots of obstacles to the new technology there
are the fact that the technology isn't quite there yet
I think it's going to happen before the end of the decade but right now what you
buy is basically an approximation to what you really want the price is too
high even for the approximation they're
not easy enough to use commensurate with what they give back to you and people
are tend to be afraid of them even if they were good just because they're new
so those are four obstacles and each one has a different pathway and I think that
in a sense the approach that Martin Luther took is the is the right one
where he wanted people have a personal relationship with God believe that meant
that they should read the Bible and he had a choice should he teach everybody in German to read Latin or should he try
and invent a German that the Bible could be translated into because German the
German was 20 or so regional dialects that did not have the philosophical
strength to carry what the Bible had and Martin Luther sat down and designed a
new language the language of the German speak today called Hoch Deutsch and
translated the Bible into it and it worked and to you know among many things
you could consider him one of the world's first user interface designers because he did that thing that all
interface designers have to do which is to take something in terms that are
already familiar to people renders something more profound in those terms
with the result that the person comes out of the experience living in a bigger
world and they were when they went in that's what we tried to do with the Macintosh and many more essays like that
are going to have to be done in the next 10 years in order to bring the revolution to drop the other shoe
what are the best features of the new technologies and one of the worst I
think they're the best well I think of the new to me new technology is the
stuff that's going to happen so the best features of the stuff that's going to
happen is that it's going to be portable it's going to be connected in a variety
of different ways it's going to be something in in which the user gets to
define a lot of the connections rather than having somebody else do the
definition for them and I think the one
of the basic drawbacks of a technology is the thing we always have a technology
is the tendency to try and assign it the responsibility for saving us from things
we don't want to do ourselves how do you
see the classroom of the future what would you like to see it well I don't
see classrooms going away just because I
believe there's a lot of use in fact you could make the you could say that the
most important thing about classrooms right now is the socialization stuff
because there's not a lot of learning that goes on in most classrooms and I
think the socialization parts of the classroom stuff are going to be as
important as we go into the future but I
think that to me a good classroom is one that's right okay if you think of it the
state that the kids are in there like graduate student studying for PhDs
they're trying to work on things that they don't know about they're trying to
find them out using they're using sources of knowledge that have been
around they're trying to invent things they're doing all the things that people do after they've gone through 16 years
of standard schooling so you know to put
it in a nutshell why not cut out to 16 years of standard schooling and get on to the good stuff just view the kids as
little researchers try and help them do the research and realize that knowledge
isn't a fluid that you can transfer from full teacher vessels to empty student
vessels what you have instead is a process called learning and that you
can't teach but you can facilitate the learning of somebody else so when you go
from a teacher model to a coach model to a facilitator model
to one where you realize that the process in the the learner is the one
that's important to fan then you start winning big that's something you do not need any technology at all to do it is
really a shift in attitude it's a paradigm shift in what you think
learning is about and what it's for how
essential to the well-being of a child is an education in the arts well I don't
know what education in the arts means but I think for a child to be creative
to feel that they are a mover in a shaper I think that's one of the most
important things in the life of a child cause it doesn't matter what they want
to do later on they need to feel that they're not just a passive receiver of
somebody else's information they have to move in shape and that's what art is
right art is putting your your mark on some medium that can convey a message
and usually in a way that's as beautiful or as practical as possible you know the
Bell Labs motto that they had up for many years was either do something very
useful or very beautiful the idea is that anything in between was not that
worthwhile and I think that's an also a definition of art years ago the poet
Muriel Rukeyser we were talking about art and children she said in school and
education she said one of the worst things are the shoulds and the should
nots yeah yeah well I think the and that the
trick in our civilization is one that is founded on technique that was the big
change as we as we went went from the the dark ages you know into the Middle
Ages and started building cathedrals and then gradually got so we could step back
enough from our common sense view of the world to do science and we we suddenly
realized that we at there was actually a science of developing technique and it
spread into the arts as well it became the ability to learn how to paint I
think one of the biggest hits I ever had
was the first time I went to the fec gallery in Florence and we
that they're in an awful lot of really bad paintings done in the Renaissance
but that almost anybody who could hold a brush back then had learned how to paint
drapes you know it was just something you learned they learned how to decorate
space and you only see the really good ones in the art books but in you go to a
place like that it has ten thousand twenty thousand paintings you see these incredible drawings of drapes and stuff
it was a technique and the biggest problem is the technique should be the
servant of the art and not the master that's what everybody in our
civilization who does anything remotely artistic has to battle with over and
over again every musician if you want to play the great music you have to have a
ton of technique takes years to do it and you can easily get what is called
conservatory disease where your goal now becomes playing Chopin's minor third
etudes faster than the guy down the hall all of a sudden where's the music go all
right and so that is that to me is the big thing on the other hand I don't want
to go back from the twentieth century and so I believe that people have to
develop technique but they have to develop in some sort of context where we
understand what it's doing what we are doing when we're developing technique
we're not doing art when we're doing the technique we're developing a set of
tools for expressing ourselves and we don't want to get submerged by it do any
of the computers synthesizers all of the
electronic tools that are command now short-circuit some of that just what
you're talking about that struggle to get the technique well again it's yeah
you that's I mean you can go out and buy
a gadget that purports to be a musical instrument and makes something that
sounds like music but in fact there isn't enough involvement of you in it
for it to be called a musical instrument it's more like a musical robot okay and
I'm basically against those because I think that they they do the worst thing
they give you the form but not the content of doing something neat as I one
of the first scientific American articles I wrote we're talking about value systems and
that with the first children we worked with they even worried about this this
is in the 70s and we finally decided that the the ethic was you should
automate the fringes of what you're interested in so if you're a player you
shouldn't automate playing what you should do is automate the instruments
the that you you can't get it you know like when I play chamber music and so I
use a synthesizer so I can have the string parts playing at any speed while
I'm learning the piano part and to me that's not a prosthetic because I can't
get those players every day to come and often I don't get to see him except once
a year that I'm going to going to play with and on the other hand if I oughta
mated to playing the piano stuff that would where would I be the synthesizer
stuff is wonderful if you go straight it's terrible if you want to learn about playing unless you're doing it so again
it's to me it's it all comes down that you have to have a value system that
allows you to use this stuff without losing your own soul you know the
existentialist philosophers say our biggest problem is our civilization got
control over the world by alienating ourselves from it that's what you have
to do in order to do science and technology and it's our lack of groundedness that has caused us to 20th
century man to feel that he's lost his soul and the way you get away from that
is not getting rid of the technology not by becoming a Luddite but saying we
among all the things that we are as human beings we are also mammals we have
to contact the earth it's not we have to do things with our body or else we're
not real we don't feel like we're real anymore and just by sticking with that
that tells you what you can do with the technology that's going to make you feel good and amplify what you're trying to
do we kill it one last thing okay you've really you've really covered everything
I want one I think that's it just occurred to me yesterday's New York
Times reports the tremendous concern of children in the war yeah so of that did
you read that thing and certain people came out and children's television workshop said no they're not going to do
anything because the parent is much better to talk to a child about this have some do you just want to address it
because I also heard the Israeli ambassador this morning saying for the first time we're having a war in real
time yeah well again it's the I was
thinking about it I grew up in World War two and I lived in Australia and we the
Japanese actually came in and bombed the Harbour Bridge once with a suicide
submarine while we were living there and we had air raids and stuff like that you
know and I hardly remember I have vivid memories of living in Australia but I
hardly remember the war and the reason is my parents didn't talk to me that
much about it and they listen to the radio after I went to bed and they very
correctly realized that that I didn't
have the scope to deal with what was actually happening and so what they told
me about it was just about exactly what I needed to know at that time as my
friend Neil postman likes to say on television there are no secrets he wrote
a book called the disappearance of childhood which is all about what
happens when you can't separate the adult world from the child world and television just absolutely devastates
the gap between the two I think it's one of the most harmful and then you know
Here I am sitting on television but as Neil likes to say television is at its
worst when it's trying to do good because when it's trying to do good it
tries to cover important like you're doing right now right but the the
problem is that this isn't the right medium talking-head isn't even close to
what I could do with an essay right and that is the thing it's not you can't
make television better it's what it is it's all about people and people are
watching my haircut as I speak here and
they're learning something about me but if they want to learn about my ideas they should read something because
that's where the ideas are best thought about they can go back over them they
can think about then they can argue with them they can do all of these things but
they can't do it while they're watching my haircut and I feel exactly the same
way about the the way the children are being affected
there is the children's television workshop does not i think standing what
it does even when it's trying to do good with Sesame Street which i think is not
good and they have no understanding whatsoever as to the particular way
television is treated by parents with regard to their children yeah it's it's
really a question of turning the thing off then the parents trying to repair
something that has been presented to the child with the full fitness and
production value that television has I don't think it's a match and that's the
big one of the biggest problems in schooling today if people turned off the
damn tube that I mean really turned it off and confined it to something like
seeing a movie once a week or something that would do more America than almost
anything else if people would have each
other turn off the television you wouldn't necessarily have them go over
to the computer not monitor no I hope not at all of course was very well
illustrate in the research after the Jack Ruby shooting of Oswald and the kid
there are surveys ose bolts don't really
in a strong way associate playing the
Royal Television that that I mean there there's several surveys that I've seen
that have to do with we verse and about things that they see on television
they're deeply disturbing if the percentages are anywhere I don't know
whether they're true but there's
oh yes I'm sorry freeze-frame zooms back
and forth okay and some close-ups from
the camera decide to be a good one for a
burp right
okay just terrific just a tiny bit of
room tone
a long time