Catching up with Alan Kay

Alan Kay is someone who’s opinion I value. He has had many great ideas. I’m still playing catchup with ideas he had decades ago.

As a computer programmer I tend to view computers as, well, compute-rs. I think of them doing computer stuff. With the internet, I think of them as endpoints for moving data around – music, information, instant messaging. I live in a world of protocols, tools and document formats.

I recently dived into the blogging world, and that was a huge new internet-time flow of information. But at the end of the day, networks just let people communicate. It’s still just a network of people. All the clever network magic doesn’t create anything new. The blog world isn’t very exciting if people are just recycling links to the latest cool web page. It’s only exciting when people are writing original content.

So my epiphany is that, in the Alan Kay world, you don’t look at computers as compute-rs. You look at them as pencil and paper on steroids. You don’t use them to write yet another naff utility. You don’t do computers – you explore the world and you use the computer as your scratch pad, your laboratory, your experiments, your classroom. Imagine if Newton had Mathematica! Imagine if Leonardo had a laptop. Maybe they’d waste their time surfing the latest cool website, or maybe they would have used to do even more real stuff.

I do a lot of music recording and editing on my computer. So, I do use it as a tool. But I don’t think of it as an instrument. I’ve heard less geeky people describe their iMac as an instrument, but I can’t stop myself hearing the bytes flying around.

I think I’ve been programming too long. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

So now I understand why Alan Kay wrote Squeak. It’s not about teaching kids how to become programmers. It’s about letting them explore the world using something hugely more powerful than pencil and paper. You’re not giving them a fish – you’re teaching them how to fish.

Now, maybe twenty-five years from now I’ll have a similar epiphany about what the hell Alan’s latest venture, Croquet is all about. The tagline is obviously a good idea – “if we were to create a new operating system and user interface knowing what we know today, how far could we go”. But how far is Alan Kay going to go?