Alan Kay on tablets

In this interview, he alludes to the original intent of universal and portable computing (tablet-like computers) as “symmetric authoring and consuming”. Where is the symmetry now? He regrets the idea that these have simply become media consumption devices.

I think it is arguable that this is simply the least-effort mode of use. These are general purpose computers, and most people, most of the time, will use them for the most human things – communication and entertainment. It raises a few questions for me, too.

Question One – “What constitutes Authoring?”

Is a tweet a creation by those metrics? Or a doodle? or an email, or a post, or playing Minecraft?

When you do any of these, you create and leave an artefact of your design. Not everyone can write a good tune, or a story, or draw. But they can do the down-to-earth things like chat, or participate.

The symmetry that Alan Kay wants may not be possible, but what these devices do provide are a wealth of new canvases for creation – ones which are more accessible, though perhaps less expressive.

How is a tweet any different than a haiku, looking over the span of centuries, if both were equally eloquent? Or a finger painting on a tablet different than a impressionist piece done quickly on a 8×8 inch canvas?

I understand the frustration at seeing the Universal Computer into glorified TV’s (the wasteland of prime time TV was lamented even as early as the 1950’s). But on the other hand, no one programs in binary (except engineers in school on Motorolla 68000s) –  we have tools that layer stacks of meaning and context onto one another, and link our voices, and lower the barriers of creativity and public broadcast and participation.

Even by our aggregated Google searches, we are creating a collective database mind that ‘knows’ us better than any one of us really can, because it can listen to a  billion voices at once.

Question Two – Is creativity destroyed by the Walled Garden?

Tablets and the like get partially locked down for the sake of monetization. Walled gardens impose access control for the sake of profit.

I agree that walled gardens can betray creativity via sharing – that censorship is typically a friction added to get control or profit. But these are to a degree self regulating – too much control drives away the variety that attracts users and profits, and too little control takes away the margins needed to support the gardens in the first place.  The same iPad can be used to arrange a symphony, or have 100 people contribute to the same piece of music. Or you can just drop $1.29 on a track. The tablet that allows most accessible choice will get the market share.

And being able to simply buy a movie to watch does not keep someone from editing their own movie on the same device. These tools do not hold back the geniuses that emerge from time to time, so in a way the original vision is still valid, but extended to the smaller creations we make everyday, and our little pushes of creativity and contribution have a place to add up and gain momentum, even if no single one of us is a genius.

The vision is not in the technology, but the culture.

I see this most in the fight over intellectual property – most people will end up on both sides of this at one point or another, and the freedom to create can be at odds with the freedom to share or extend. Alan Kay’s vision sits not in the hardware but in the ethics and laws surrounding creation and sharing – those things that enable it and promote it are as much about legalities as they are about technology.

What that means is that we have to come to terms with what ownership and sharing of ideas and their products will really mean, when everything can be perfectly duplicated and extended upon, and incremental additions are as much a part of the creativity as the initial concept.


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