Saturday, March 07, 2009

kay and van dam discuss engelbart's ideas

Program for the Future (video, about 80 minutes) where Alan Kay and Andy van Dam discuss Doug Engelbart's ideas in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the mother of all demos

(I picked this up from mark miller's site: Tales of inventing the future)

This video is very good, hard hitting analysis about how great visions can be spoiled, that we could have done better. Everyone knows that Engelbart invented the mouse but his broader vision has been largely forgotten. Engelbart is present and is treated with great respect and affection by both speakers.

Some of the ideas mentioned here, briefly. Try to make time to view the whole thing for some high level, stimulating discussion. I'd like to transcribe some sections but am too pushed for time at the moment.

The need to remain focused on the high level goals: augmentation of human intellect (Engelbart) and human-computer symbiosis (Licklider)

It's difficult to capture and summarise group wisdom, more needs to be done. Google searches are crude.

Putting training wheels on bikes diminishes the efficiency of a bike. Computer systems are like that today, keeping users at a baby level (at 32 minutes)

We are wedged today in the way computers are designed both conceptually and technically. We might as well burn the whole thing and start again.

Pop culture is to be incurious about the past and the future

A big problem with the web is that the browser removed WYSIWIG functionality. Hardly anyone complained.


Anonymous said...

A point that Kay has made repeatedly in a few venues, including the one you reference, is that there's a real need to inculcate the kind of discussion that science promotes, which is a) bring in all ideas, but then b) (and this is the difficult part) apply criticism to those ideas to winnow out the weak ones from the better ones, and to keep discussing the better ideas to make them better still. He said the internet has grown up around this idea (perhaps in just the last 14 years. I don't know the time scale for this comment) that mass participation will generate good ideas, which he said is BS. He's said that the current culture advocates the idea that all ideas have equal value.

I've heard some say that the open source movement has managed to use a process similar to what Kay describes as "scientific discussion" pretty well. I'd say in some cases yes, but in many cases no. I've looked at what's gained the most traction in the open source realm in terms of adoption and attracting contributors, and I see a relative few things to admire, but many more things that are marginally better than what an unquestioning mass culture has already adopted.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I would agree with your rendition in your first paragraph, but not with the second. So there's some misunderstanding there.

"Open source" is very large and hard to generalize about (the Internet was "open source" in the original non-capitalized best sense), but I don't have warm feelings about most designs and realizations and processes in computing from any "source". Of course that is just my opinion, though I think much of it can be supported by hard evidence.

The unbroken line of continuity for the Internet reaches back to the first tests of the ARPAnet in Sept-Oct 1969 (a long time ago), but there were several plateaus in between, which included the PUP internetworking at PARC in the 70s, the various stages of TCP/IP, also in the 70s and done by some of the same people, the funding of better backbones, and making the technologies easier to hook up with (which extended into the 1980s).

The Web and browsers were the manifestations which most people thought of as the Internet, but unfortunately these were much less well designed -- the little bit of ease they provided also brought on really terrible default standards and a wave of non-critical users and hackers. It will take many years to dig out of this, if ever.


Alan (Kay)

Anonymous said...

Hi Alan.

Perhaps I did not make myself clear. The second paragraph was a tangent referring to discussions outside of Program for the Future, only referring to what you said in my use of the phrase "scientific discussion". I was introducing and then criticizing the notion that the open source software community (perhaps this is specific enough?) winnows out weak ideas and develops strong ones. This is a claim I've often heard from open source adherents, though I think they mainly refer to the correcting of bugs, and implementing efficient algorithms. What I meant was that from what I can surmise, looking at and reading about many open source artifacts, I think there are a few gems (when I wrote this I included the early development of the internet in my own mind) where the winnowing of ideas likely occurred, but I've observed that most of the energy in the open source realm is currently devoted to ideas that are "marginally better than what an unquestioning mass culture has already adopted." I must admit I made a purely aesthetic judgement ("I know it when I see it") about the ideas and I have no objective basis to say whether a scientific process was applied to them.

Buddy Smith said...

The new book "The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart" by Valerie Landau and Eileen Clegg, clarifies Engelbart's framework for augmenting human intellect. It is worth reading.

Bill Kerr said...

thanks Buddy,

I notice that much of this book is online at the engelbartbookdialogues blog

It's temporarily unavailable at amazon, where I normally obtain my books