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Aug 7 2008   6:32PM GMT

Tag: You’re IT — Meet Alan Kay

Margaret Rouse Margaret Rouse Profile: Margaret Rouse

alan_kay_kyoto.jpg Today, we tagged Dr. Alan Kay

1. Dr. Kay, when did you first discover your love for technology?
I can’t remember when I wasn’t fascinated by “the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone”, i.e. all kinds of causality in all kinds of systems. The non-specific children’s building toys of the 40s (like TinkerToy and Erector and Meccano) plus growing up on a “farm with books” put me in contact with a lot of real examples of causal systems and lots of ways (adults, reading, building, taking apart, etc.) to get more savvy about them.

2. How do you earn a living?
For a few years, I earned a living and college expenses playing jazz guitar, then gradually the majority income came from computer programming. In 1966 I went to grad school and started to earn my living by being sponsored to do research. This was easier in the late sixties and through the seventies when research funders understood the game, and has been more difficult since with funders who by in large do not understand how to fund research (and do not really understand how “research” differs from other technological pastimes).

3. What do you love most about your work?
It’s similar to other forms of art in which I’ve participated. The “stuff” (materials) and flow of ideas one encounters in a civilization create “itches that must be scratched” and “smells that must be followed”. The compulsive nature of this is one of its main properties, and it has nothing at all to do with any kind of compensation or reward, but the need to “scratch” and “sniff”. There is a tension that new ideas relieve.

However, nothing about the process guarantees that success will produce anything cosmically good or useful (think of a huge flea market as evidence for compulsions that produced enormous numbers of items of little artistic or pragmatic value). A tricky part of dealing with the compulsions is to also somehow set thresholds for “goodness” that are more than subjective. This results in a super-tension. The complex part of dealing with this is how to be super-critical about one’s ideas without sliding into immobilizing depression.

The “love” is quite like and is as intense as one’s feelings for one’s beloved, which in part is to want to merge with one’s love. I have a friend who is a glassblower and who once said that he would take a bite out of a glob of molten glass if he could. That is, he wants to become one with the glass. I understand what he means quite deeply.

4. What keeps you up at night?
Human beings stubbornly staying unaware, becoming ever more dangerous, and doing ever more dangerous things to themselves and their surrounds.

5. What do you do when you’re not working?
“Working” for me is fund raising for our research, and to a lesser extent dealing with the human factors associated with the group nature of computing research. Everything else has been and is real play, both in computing, music and my other interests. The key is to spend more time playing than working….

6. Youʼve looked in your crystal ball and have seen the future of enterprise IT. What does it look like?
Enterprise IT has changed very slowly over the years (and in some senses has not changed at all except for size). For a large variety of reasons it has always been disinclined to learn important things about computing and has eschewed the idea of taking control of its own destiny despite the enormous backing and resources available.

Contrast this with Xerox PARC in which the major technologies of today were invented in a few years by about two dozen researchers total, including designing and building all the hardware and software. This was relatively easy, very inexpensive, and produced a revolution in how computing can be done. It also earned Xerox about a factor of 100 in profit over its costs for PARC (10,000% ROI, which my business friends say is good).

Nonetheless I’m not aware of any company that is funding processes like those of PARC today. As Pogo said in a cartoon “We have met the enemy and they are us”. This is not likely to change anytime soon, since how businesses are trying to cope with situations that actually need new inventions, is making the situations worse, to which they respond with more coping instead of sponsoring much better ways to do things.

Bonus Question: If Stephen Spielberg was going to make a movie about your life, what would it be called?
Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

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