Black and White Program

Alan Kay’s Viewpoints

February 14th, 2008 by John Eastman

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Alan Kay is skilled and talented in a multiple range of genres ranging from the graphic, musical, and theatrical arts to math, science, programming and engineering. Kay has had notable positions at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in California (PARC), Apple Computer, Atari, MIT’s Media Research Lab, and Hewlett Packard. He has been at the helm of Viewpoints Research Institute since 2001. Past notable work includes: Guided User Interfaces, object-oriented programming, and educational learning and development programs for children.

In the 1970’s while working at PARC on the Smalltalk programming language, Kay and others analyzed children’s interactions. They concluded that children learned best through a progression from kinesthetic involvement to images and configurations to the use of symbolic and abstract representations. The work on Smalltalk led to the development of object-oriented programming languages. The influence of those years at PARC on Alan Kay is undeniable.

“The goal-orientated approach that the management books advocate is to find a need and fill it. We don’t get many new ideas out of that because if you ask most people what they want, they want just what they have now, 10 percent faster, 10 percent cheaper, with 10 percent more features. It’s kind of a boring way to predict the future. But if we look at the big hitters in the 20th century, like the Xerox machine, like the personal computer, like the pocket calculator, all of these things did something else. They weren’t contaminations of existing things. They weren’t finding a need and filling it. They created a need that only they could fill.”

 

Alan Kay in Predicting The Future, Stanford Engineering, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 1989

Kay often references the rich environment at Xerox’s PARC and a research environment that “funded people not projects”, and “visions rather than goals”, and additionally funded different and sometimes opposing points of view.

Kay also contributed to the development of Ethernet, laser printing, and the client-server network model. He worked on creating a laptop computer, dubbed the Dynabook. While the Dynabook laptop was not developed at the time due to a lack of technology that wasn’t invented yet, the Alto personal computer was, and is known as the first modern networked PC.

In the 1990’s, Kay expressed concerns about the direction that the personal computer industry was headed. In an article Alan Kay by Scott Gasch, Kay was described as concerned that the personal computer would become a “mass opiate” not unlike that of a television. He wanted applications and interfaces to provide a far more educational and beneficial effect on society. Central to his beliefs is that information retrieval should include access to multiple points of view, not just facts from a sole source.

His latest involvement in the design of the OLPC XO machine is an indication of his vision for the future direction of the computer industry in hardware, software, operating systems, and interfaces. There is much to be learned here by analyzing the design, the principles, and the thinking behind the OLPC XO.

The OLPC XO machine’s unique display, low power consumption, ability to use alternate power-charging sources, and communications router raises the bar of the future generation of laptop systems. Key is the software interface, based on the 40 year old theory of constructionism developed at MIT Media Lab by Dr. Seymour Papert. Kay elaborated on Papert’s concepts of the active learning process. The interface is highly programmable and designed to encourage children and teachers to reshape, reinvent, and reapply their software, hardware, and content. SUGAR, a “zoom” interface, displays a graphical representation of what other learners and teachers are doing which allows users to collaborate with those around them.

“Once you have something that grows faster than education grows, you’re always going to get a pop culture.”

 

Alan Kay in A Conversation with Alan Kay by Stuart Feldman, ACM Queue, Vol. 2, No. 9 – Dec/Jan 2004-2005

The OLPC website describes this as a means of forming “connections within the community, among people, and their activities.” This is only a small element of the VRI agenda.

Quietly and behind the scenes, Kay has worked on interface enhancements, object oriented programming, and communication breakthroughs that have shifted the paradigm of how the world views and uses computers. The industry followed with the design of the first Apple Macintosh, and subsequent adaptations of the Windows operating system. Essentially he has changed the way we work with computers.

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