Alan Kay and the state of computing

There is an interesting column in Fortune about Alan Kay and how he decries the state of computing (via Slashdot).
I have only met Alan Kay once, in 1989, when he gave a talk at the Norwegian School of Management showing videos of a virtual seabed (with self-guided fish swimming about) and a truly impressive video of his little daughter (still in her diapers) using an Apple Macintosh. She was so small that she had to hold the mouse upside down and use the mouse ball as a trackball.
The opinions of Alan Kay (and I must caution that they are filtered through the columnist, David Kirkpatrick, here) on the state of computing makes me think of a number of things:

  • Every media technology (just remember radio and TV) is seen as a vehicle for education, creativity and human development, and then ends up, at least for a while, as a fairly mundane and seemingly mindless extension for what one did before. For instance, desktop publishing, word processing and email are automations of existing technologies – blogging and wikis are truly new ways of communicating and creating, which take advantage of new attributes of the technology
  • In computers, we have been hampered with the vendors seeming inability to transfer the infrastructurial aspects of one technology generation to another – when the PC came, it didn’t include the good things of the mainframe, when new, user friendly applications come along, they lack the depth and technical strength of prior applications – I just wish the computer science field was better at putting words to its principles, making them simpler to understand and to automatically implement. However, we are getting there – and much of the lack of creativity is really the lack of deep tools
  • When Alan Kay says that companies should be simulating their corporations with computers (or, as my friend Richard Pawson likes to say, every business simulation should have a “Make It So” button), I actually think at least some corporations are doing that. Wal-Mart’s RetailLink, UPS’ and Fedex’s direct interactions with customers, and of course Dell’s pull-based configuration system can be seen as early implementations of this. So can come of the more advanced ERP systems, such as I2. Perhaps. At least they are moving in the right direction.
Things are happening, but too slowly, and Alan Kay, of all people, is certainly the person who has the right to say it.
Time to go and get creative…..

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