The Father Of Mobile Computing Is Not Impressed: The Weight of Redefining the Normal

September 22, 2017 at 7:00 am 3 comments

I have been fortunate to have heard Alan Kay talk on the themes in this interview many times, but either he’s getting better at it or I’m learning enough to understand him better, because this was one of my favorites. (Thanks to Ben Shapiro for sending it to me.)  He ties together Steve Jobs, Neal Postman, and Maria Montessori to explain what we should be doing with education and technology, and critiques the existing technology as so much less than what we ought to be doing.  In the quote below, he critiques Tim Berners-Lee for giving us a World Wide Web which was less than what we already knew how to do.  The last paragraph quoted below is poignant: It’s so hard to fix the technology once it’s established because of “the weight of this redefining of the normal.”

What I understood this time, which I hadn’t heard before, was the trade-off between making technology easier and making people better.  I’ve heard Alan talk about using technology to improve people, to help them learn, to challenge their thinking.  But Alan led the team that invented the desktop user interface — he made computing easier.  Can we have both?  What’s the balance that we need? That’s where Neal Postman and Bertrand Russel come in, as gifted writers who drew us in and then changed our minds. That’s why we need adults who know things to create a culture where children learn 21st century thinking and not oral culture (that’s the Maria Montessori part), and why the goal should be about doing what’s hard — not doing what’s universal, not doing what pre-literate societies were doing.  Alan critiques the iPhone as not much better than the television for learning, when the technology in the iPhone could have made it so much more.

He tosses out another great line near the end of the interview, “How stupid is it, versus how accepted is it?”  How do we get unstuck?  The iPhone was amazing, but how do we roll back the last ten years to say, “Why didn’t we demand better? How do we shuck off the ‘the weight of this redefining of the normal’ in order to move to technology that helps us learn and grow?”

And so, his conception of the World Wide Web was infinitely tinier and weaker and terrible. His thing was simple enough with other unsophisticated people to wind up becoming a de facto standard, which we’re still suffering from. You know, [HTML is] terrible and most people can’t see it.

FC: It was standardized so long ago.

AK: Well, it’s not really standardized because they’re up to HTML 5, and if you’ve done a good thing, you don’t keep on revving it and adding more epicycles onto a bad idea. We call this reinventing the flat tire. In the old days, you would chastise people for reinventing the wheel. Now we beg, “Oh, please, please reinvent the wheel.”At least give us what Engelbart did, for Christ’s sake.

But that’s the world we’re in. We’re in that world, and the more stuff like that world that is in that world, the more the world wants to be that way, because that is the weight of this redefining of the normal.

Source: The Father Of Mobile Computing Is Not Impressed

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rademi  |  September 22, 2017 at 7:53 am

    I have also noticed this trend.

    Technology acceptance seems to be driven by:

    (1) it seems to work
    (2) the people I associate with seem happy with it

    This has all sorts of implications when you start tying in to existing social structures and laws.

    At one end of the spectrum you have war and the tendency of killers to show up in human populations and most everyone’s distaste for being killed. The despair this generates has – historically speaking – been one of the drivers of technology.

    At the other end of the spectrum you have entertainment media and various forms of pleasure seeking (which also can spill over into despair and suicide when handled foolishly).

    And then we have legal structures which have been set up at times to try and make society behave “sensibly”. Copyrights, patents, trademarks, finance law, etc. etc. … and all the attendant forms of competition and failures which arise.

    And, for now (in the USA), child labor laws [among other things] favor a childhood focused on entertainment media. So that is what many people grow up doing and, in turn, drives a bulk of technology…

    Technology is a reflection of the drives of the people who support it. And the educational community’s drives and needs (which Alan Kay’s stated goals are an example of) are just one aspect of that.

    The scope and vision of any one person is [necessarily] limited, and anything worthwhile takes time and effort (and often: some form of teamwork). But, also, robustness requires that people repeat the efforts of others while innovation and improvement has nearly opposite requirements.

    The consequences are often messy…

    • 2. alanone1  |  September 22, 2017 at 11:58 am

      Writing is a technology (not often thought of that way), and reading is one of the skills learned to be able to use it. Studies have shown that for many it is difficult and onerous to learn.

      But because it is powerful in so many ways — including that the learning of it changes the -quality- of thinking in a society, our society (and many others) have decided that it should be learned by all children — and whether or not they want to learn it.

      This provides a third line for your “acceptance” paragraph:

      (3) the society makes it happen by setting up schools to teach it with mandatory attendance.

      This is a tricky idea in these days of “make your own choices” (still a good idea a lot of the time, but especially when young, or when ignorant, we don’t know enough to make good choices). This is what real parenting is supposed to be about, and ideas like this figure into the designs and needs of civilized societies.

      This also raises questions about what to do when a variety of forces in the environment (and internally) have the effect to undermine the growth of civilized thinking and actions.

  • 3. diego  |  September 28, 2017 at 2:21 am

    Alan Kay also answered questions related to the article here:


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