How to Invent the Future I - Alan Kay

When did Alan Kay first meet Douglas Engelbart? Was Alan Kay present at the mother of all demos?

Alan Kay, I am the Alan Kay in question. Upvoted by Tom Peracchio and Mark Miller

I first met Doug when he gave a talk at Utah in early 1967. As I’ve said, he was like a “Moses opening the Red Sea”. I then visited the ARC research project at SRI in Menlo Park and met many of the principal characters in the revolution they were fomenting: especially Bill English, Jeff Rulifson, Bill Paxton, etc. I got to use the system, and also observe some of the prep for the “mother of all demos”. So I knew what was going to be shown, and I absolutely wanted to see the actual gig. I had the flu at the time but went anyway. It is hard to convey to people the actual scope of the demo: it was done in a very large auditorium, and it used one of the few kinds of video projectors available (borrowed from NASA) — that could do very large situation displays with high resolution video. It was great! The video of the presentation doesn’t provide the sense of “large” that was one of the most striking things about this presentation.

Why haven't we been able to recreate Bell Labs or Xerox PARC today?

Alan Kay, worked at Xerox PARC

The computer parts of Parc are best thought of as parts of the ARPA-IPTO research community, were stocked with researchers who carried the ARPA vision, and who learned their stuff and process in the ARPA community. Looking back on that experience, and at other research setups over the last 50+ years or so, I think that “the goodness of the results correlates most strongly with the goodness of the funders”.

For ARPA, it was a combination of a great, good, compelling, and romantic vision of a “destiny”, combined with a number of principles (I’ve written about these on Quora before), and especially the idea of finding the best people to try to find ways to realize the vision.

Bell Labs was a different setup and process, but a good overlap was indicated in a sign that used to be in many places in Murray Hill: “Either do something very useful or very beautiful”.

I think the chances of a few top researchers being around in any era are good, but it has certainly been the case that “great funders” are -not- around in every era.

Much of “management” is (a) about dealing with people who are not self-driven to -find-out- and (b) to strive to carry out plans successfully and on deadline.

On the other hand, it’s the nature of “invention level research” that only some of the process can be planned. In my experience great researchers are quite self-driven to -find-out- (they don’t need much management), but they do need open-ended time (and a little space and resources).

Good funding for research is rather like “MacArthur grants for groups” — researchers are a kind of artist — and what doesn’t work out is not failure, but overhead for what does. If the visions were lofty, then everything is lifted by orders of magnitude by what does work out.

This very different process makes most “command and control” management systems in business and government today quite nervous and anxious. I think they would much rather feel completely in control of mediocre processes than feel out of control with truly great processes.

  • alan_kay.txt
  • Last modified: 2019/07/28 16:39
  • (external edit)