What happened to my dreams?
I was working for a company as a contractor a few years ago, and the job was turning sour. I quit the job several months later. While I was working I started to wonder why I had gotten into this field. I didn’t ask this question in a cynical way. I mean, I wondered why I was so passionate about it in the first place. I knew there was a good reason. I wanted that back. I clearly remembered a time when I was excited about working with computers, but why? What did I imagine it would be like down the road? Maybe it was just a foolish dream, and what I had experienced was the reality.
I started reviewing stuff I had looked at when I was a teen, and reminiscing some (this is before I started this blog). I was trying to put myself back in that place where I felt like computing had an exciting, promising future.
Coming full circle
One day while reading a blog I frequented, I stumbled upon a line of inquiry that grabbed my interest. I pursued it on the internet, and got more and more engrossed. I was delving back into computer science, and realizing that it really was interesting to me.
When I first entered college I wasn’t sure that CS was for me, but I found it interesting enough to continue with it. For the most part I felt like I got through it, rather than engrossing myself in it by choice, though it had a few really interesting moments.
The first article I came upon that really captured my imagination was Paul Graham’s essay, “Beating The Averages”. I had never seen anyone talk about programming this way before. The essay was about a company he and a business partner developed and sold to Yahoo!, called ViaWeb, how they wrote the web application for it in Lisp, and how that was their competitive advantage over their rivals. It convinced me to give Lisp a second chance.
I decided to start this blog. I came up with the name “Tekkie” by thinking of two words: techie and trekkie. A desire had been building in me to write my thoughts somewhere about technology issues, particularly around .Net development and Windows technical issues. That was my original intent when I started it, but I was going through a transformative time. My new interest was too nascent for me to see it for what it was.
I dug out my old Lisp assignments from college. I still had them. I also pulled out my old Smalltalk assignments. They were in the same batch. Over the course of a few weeks I committed myself to learning a little Common Lisp and solving one of the Lisp problems that once gave me fits. I succeeded! For some reason it felt good, like I had conquered an old demon.
Next, I came upon Ruby via. a podcast. A guest the host had on referenced an online Ruby tutorial. I gave it a try and thoroughly enjoyed it. I had had a taste of programming with dynamic languages (when I actually had some good material with which to learn), and I liked it. I wondered if I could find work developing web apps. with one. I watched an impressive podcast on Rails, and so decided to learn the language and try my hand at it.
I had a conversation with an old college friend about Lisp and Ruby. He had been trying to convince me for a few years to give Ruby a try. I told him that Ruby reminded me of Smalltalk, and I was interested in seeing what the full Smalltalk system looked like, since I had never seen it. He told me that Squeak was the modern version, and it was free and openly available.
As I was going along, continuing to learn about Ruby and Rails, I was discovering online video services, which were a new thing, YouTube and Google Video. I had always wanted to see the event where Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh, in full. I had seen a bit of it in Triumph of The Nerds. I found it on Google Video. Great! I think one of the “related” videos it showed me was on the Smalltalk system at Xerox PARC. I watched that with excitement. Finally I was going to see this thing! I think one of the “related” videos there was a presentation by Alan Kay. The name sounded familiar. I watched that, and then a few more of his presentations. It gradually dawned on me that this was the “mystery man” I had seen on that local cable channel back in 1997!
I had heard of Kay years ago when I was a teenager. His name would pop up from time to time in computer magazine articles (no pictures though), but nothing he said then made an impression on me. I remember using a piece of software he had written for the Macintosh classic, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.
I had heard about the Dynabook within a few years of when I started programming, but the concept of it was very elusive to me. It was always described as “the predecessor to the personal computer” or something like that. For years I thought it had been a real product. I wondered, “Where are these Dynabooks?” Back in the 1980s I remember watching an episode of The Computer Chronicles and some inventor came on with an early portable Mac clone he called the “Dynamac”. I thought maybe that had something to do with it…
“What have I been doing with my life?”
So I watched a few of Kay’s presentations. Most of them were titled The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet. I guess he was on a speaking tour with this subject. He had given them all between 2003 and 2005. And then I came upon the one he did for ETech 2003:
This blew me away. By the end of it I felt devastated. There was a subtle, electric feeling running through me, and at the same time a feeling of my own insignificance. I just sat in stunned silence for a moment. What I had seen and heard was so beautiful. In a way it was like my fondest hopes that I used to dare not hope had come true. I saw Kay demonstrate Squeak, and I saw the meaning of what he was doing with it. I saw him demonstrate Croquet, and it reminded me of a prediction I made about 11 years ago about 3D user interfaces being created. It was so gratifying to see a prototype of that in the works. What amazed me is it was all written in Squeak (Smalltalk).
I remembered that when I was a teenager I wished that software development would work like what I saw with Squeak (EToys), that I could imagine what I wanted and make it come to life in front of me quickly. I did this through my programming efforts back then, but it was a hard, laborious process. Kay’s phrase rang in my mind: “Why isn’t all programming like this?”
I also realized that nothing I had done in the past could hold a candle to what I had just seen, and for some reason I really cared about that. I had seen other amazing feats of software done in the past, but I used to just move on, feeling it was out of my realm. I couldn’t shake this demo. About a week later I was talking with a friend about it and the words for that feeling from that moment came out: “What have I been doing with my life?” The next thing I felt was, “I’ve got to find out what this is!”
Alan Kay captured the experience well in “The Early History of Smalltalk”:
A twentieth century problem is that technology has become too “easy”. When it was hard to do anything whether good or bad, enough time was taken so that the result was usually good. Now we can make things almost trivially, especially in software, but most of the designs are trivial as well. This is inverse vandalism: the making of things because you can. Couple this to even less sophisticated buyers and you have generated an exploitation marketplace similar to that set up for teenagers. A counter to this is to generate enormous dissatisfaction with one’s designs using the entire history of human art as a standard and goal. Then the trick is to decouple the dissatisfaction from self worth–otherwise it is either too depressing or one stops too soon with trivial results. [my emphasis in bold]
Kay’s presentation of the ideas in Sketchpad, and the work by Engelbart was also enlightening. Sketchpad was covered briefly in the textbook for a computer graphics course I took in college. It didn’t say much, just that it was the first interactive graphical environment that allowed the user to draw shapes with a light pen, and that it was the predecessor to CAD systems. Kay helped me realize through this presentation, and other materials he’s produced, that the meaning of Sketchpad was deeper than that. It was the first object-oriented system, and it had a profound influence on the design of the Smalltalk system.
I didn’t understand very much of what Kay said on the first viewing. I revisited it several times after having time to think about what I had seen, read some more, and discuss these ideas with other people. Each time I came back to it I understood what he meant a little more. Even today I get a little more out of it.
After having the experience of watching it the first time, I reflected on the fact that Kay had shown a clip of the very same “mouse demo” with Douglas Engelbart that I remembered seeing in The Machine That Changed The World. I thought, “I wonder if I can find the whole thing.” I did. I was seeing a wonderful post on modern computer history come together, and so I wrote one called, “Great moments in modern computer history”.
Reacquiring the dream
So with this blog I have documented my journey of discovery. The line of inquiry I followed has brought me what I sought earlier: to get back what made me excited to get into this field in the first place. It feels different though. It’s not the same kind of adolescent excitement I used to have. Through this study I remembered my young, naive fantasies about positive societal change via. computer technology, and I’ve been gratified that Alan Kay wants something similar. I still like the idea that we can change, and realize the computer’s full potential, and that those benefits I imagined earlier might still be possible. I have a little better sense now (emphasis on “little”) of the kind of work that will be required to bring that about.
Having experienced what I have in the business world, I now know that technology itself will not bring about that change. Reading Lewis Mumford helped me realize that. I found out about him thanks to Alan Kay’s reading list, and his admonition that technologists should read. The culture is shaping the computer, and in turn it is shaping us, and at least in the business world we think of computers like our forebearers thought of machinery in factories. Looking back on my experience in the work world that was one of my disappointments.
About “The Machine That Changed The World”
The series I mentioned earlier, “The Machine That Changed The World”, showed that this transformation has happened in some ways, but I contend that it’s spotty. Alan Kay has pointed to two areas where promising progress has been made. The first is in the scientific community. He said several years ago that the computer revolution is happening in science today. He’s said that the computer has “revolutionized” science. The next place is in video games, though he hasn’t been that pleased with the content. What they have right is they create interactive worlds, and the designers are very cognizant of the players’ “flow”, making interaction with the simulated environment easy and as natural as is possible, considering current controller technology.
Looking back on this TV series now I can see its significance. It tried to blend a presentation of the important ideas that were discovered about computing with the reality of how computers were perceived and used. It showed the impact they had on our society, and how perceptions of them changed over time.
5,000 years ago mankind invented writing, a way to record and communicate ideas. These simple marks on clay and paper changed the world, becoming the cornerstone of our intellectual and commercial lives. Today we may be witnessing the emergence of a new medium whose influence may one day rival that of writing.
A modern computer fits on a desk, is affordable and simple enough for a child to play on. But what to the child is a computer game, is to the computer just patterns of voltages. Today we take it for granted that such patterns can help architects to draw, scientists to model complex phenomena, musicians to compose, and even aid scholars to search the literature of the past. Yet a machine with such powers of transformation is unlike any machine in history.
Computers don’t just do things, like other machines. They manipulate ideas. Computers conjure up artificial universes, and even allow people to experience them from the inside, exploring a new molecule, or walking through an unbuilt building.
Doron Swade of the London Science Museum adds (the first part of this quote was unintelligible. I’m making a guess that I think makes sense here):
[Computers offer] a level of abstraction that makes them very much like minds, or rather makes them mind-like. And that is to say computers manipulate not reality, but representations of reality. And it seems that that has a close affinity with the way minds and consciousness work. The mind manipulates processes, images, ideas, notions. Exactly how it does that is of course not yet known. But there seems to be a strong kindred relationship between the manner in which computers process information and the analogy that that has with the way minds, and thinking, and consciousness seem to work. So they have a very special place, because they’re the closest we have to a mind-like machine that we have yet had.
The final episode, “The World At Your Fingertips”, ends by bringing the series full circle, back to the idea that the computer is a new medium, in a way that I think is beautiful:
The computer is not a machine in the traditional sense. It is a new medium. Perhaps predicting the future of computers is as hard as it would have been to predict the consequences of the marks Sumerians made on clay 4,000 years ago.
Paul Ceruzzi, a computer historian says:
It’s ironic when you look at the history of writing, to find that it began as a utilitarian method of helping people remember how much grain they had. From those very humble, utilitarian beginnings came poetry, and literature, and all the kinds of wonderful things that we associate with writing today. Now we bring ourselves up to the invention of the computer. The very same thing is happening. It was invented for a very utilitarian, prozaic purpose of doing calculations, relieving the tedium and drudgery of cranking out numbers for insurance companies, or something like that. And now we begin to see this huge culture that’s grown up of people who are discovering all the things you can do by playing with the computer. We may see a time in the not too distant future when people will look at the computer’s impact on society, and they’ll totally forget its humble beginnings as a calculating device, but rather as something that enriches their culture in undreamed of ways just as literature and art is perceived today in this world.
This TV series was made at a time before the internet became popular. The focus was on desktop computers and multimedia. As you can see there was a positive outlook towards what the computer could become. Since then I’m sad to say the computer has faded into the background in favor of a terminal metaphor, one that is not particularly good at being an authoring platform, though there are a few good efforts being made at changing that. What this TV series brought out for me is that we have actually taken some steps backwards with the form that the internet has taken.
Perhaps I am closing a chapter with this series of posts. I’ve been meaning to move on from just talking about the ideas I’ve been thinking about, to something more concrete. What form that will take I’m not sure yet. I’ll keep writing here about it.