Preventing the Future, $100 Laptops, and Powerful Ideas

Last week I attended a couple of lectures that Alan Kay gave at the University of Utah.  Kay's first talk was on some of the ways we're "inventing and preventing the future.
Written by Phil Windley, Contributor
Last week I attended a couple of lectures that Alan Kay gave at the University of Utah.  Kay's first talk was on some of the ways we're "inventing and preventing the future."  Kay, who received the ACM's Turing Award in 2003, invented, or participated in the invention, of many of the technologies we take for granted in the digital age including the personal computer, object-oriented programming, overlapping windows, the mouse, and even Ethernet.  Frankly Kay sees that as a problem.  Much of what is wrong about Computer Science is that many of the ideas that happened before 1975 are still the current paradigm. He has a strong feeling that our field has been mired for some time, but we're getting away with it because of Moore’s law. The commercialization of personal computing was a tremendous distraction to our field and we haven’t, and may not, recover from it.

One theme that ran through the talk was that there's too little of engineering and architecture in what passes for software development today.  At one point his showed a picture of a pyramid, which he labeled as a garbage dump with a big fancy cover on top of it and then a cathedral. Cathedrals have 1 millionth the mass of pyramids. The difference was the arch. Architecture demands arches.  He pointed out that  Windows XP has 70 million lines of code. It’s impossible for Kay to believe that it has 70 million lines of content. Microsoft engineers don’t dare prune it because they don’t know what it all does.

The evening talk, for a more general audience, was about the 100 Dollar Laptop and Powerful Ideas.  Kay is on the board of the no-profit producing the $100 laptop, but it's not the technology that's important. He used an analogy to the illustrate the point. Before Gutenberg, handwritten books were prohibitively expensive. Gutenberg’s books only cost “2 to 3 times a clerks yearly wage.” Later, Aldus Manutius created cheap, portable books. To be portable, they had to be cheap enough so that loosing them wasn’t a tragedy. But it wasn't the technology of the printing press or portability that made books important. The big change was that people discovered you could argue effectively with books and this took centuries. Imitating paper on digital media isn’t the real computer revolution. 

Introducing millions of cheap laptops to developing countries won't result in the countries culture and laptops.  When you add a new way of talking about ideas, you’re adding them to an existing ecology. You change what “normal” is. Kay believe that the legacy of the $100 laptop is it's potential to chance cultures in significant ways. The impact will be different in China than it is in Brazil.

There are hundreds of things that every culture anthropologists have ever studied have in common.  But what they don't all have in common are the ideas most of us consider to be the most important: reading and writing, equal rights, abstract math, perspective drawing, theory of harmony, agriculture, legal systems, and science are some examples. These are powerful ideas ant they're rare. Formal education isn’t needed to teach the universals. Formal education is needed to teach the non-universals.

When all is said and done, the technology of the $100 laptop, while interesting, isn't important; what's important is the content of the $100 laptop and programs set up to mentor with it that have the real power to change the world.  

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