Future of Coding

Lunch with Alan Kay: how to become educated enough to invent the future


Someone (I forget who) mentioned to me at the Dynamicland meetup last month that Alan Kay lives in London. So I dropped him an email. I had sent him a few cold emails in the past, one of which sparked a lively conversation. (I asked him which term he used to describe himself. He landed on “media imaginer” and “communications designer”, because terms like “computer scientist” have been opted to mean other things now.)

To my surprise, I got a quick reply and had lunch scheduled for the next week, which was this past Monday, April 15th, 2019 at 11:30am. To my delight and utter exhaustion, we spoke for just over five hours. When my mom saw me later that night, she remarked that I looked “wrung out.” It felt like every neuron in my head was firing at full capacity just to try to keep up. I left our meeting out of breath.

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Alan and I after our five hour lunch at the Ivy Cafe in London. Referring to my request for a photo, he said, “It’s like game hunting. To show your friends you shot the elephant.”

Before the meeting, I asked a few mutual friends for advice on the meeting. Universally, I was warned that he would do a lot of the talking. This proved to be the case. I later joked to my parents that I got to ask four questions, and each one took him an hour to answer.

It was five hours ranging from electrical engineering, to architecture, to the meaning of the word science, to theater, to jazz, to visual art, to education, to researcher gossip, to why to go to grad school, and so, so much computer history. I was doing my best to jot down all interesting key words, even if just to remind myself of the flow of the conversation.

At no point in our conversation did Alan explicitly explain what his agenda was, or why he even took the time to meet with me. It seemed like he knew almost nothing about me, and wasn’t particularly curious to learn. However, from bits and pieces he dropped about his mentors, I think I am able to piece together what our lunch was about for him.

Alan admires his former professor Bob Barton. Despite not liking students or teaching, Bob spent the time to do it “for the field.” I think that’s ultimately Alan’s aim in meeting with people like me. Maybe there’s a fraction of a percent chance that I have the potential to help the field and so Alan was there to nurture that chance. In other words, he was getting lunch with me in for pure benevolence. He wants there to be good people in his field (don’t ask him what it should be called unless you have all afternoon), ultimately to further humanity.

Also like Bob Barton, Alan spent most of the lunch very kindly intellectually destroying me, smacking me around, and pointing out how much more I have to learn in order to do good work. I have met only a handful of people in my life who can give me such brutal criticism but in a way that feels supremely constructive.

Paraphrasing here to the best of my memory, Alan said, “Reading a couple hundred books a year is the bare minimum. It’s just the baseline. You also need to be embedded in a community of others who have diverse perspectives to bounce these ideas off of.” Alan argued passionately in favor of college and grad school. While he is well aware of its imperfections, he believes it’s still better than an “oral culture” or being an autodidact (just following your nose where your curiosity leads you).

But “in the end, we’re all autodidatic in having to find the motivation to do the learning ourselves. The key for autodidact-types is to set up ways to avoid insularity.” He recommends that autodidacts institute a “learning tax” on themselves: a decent percentage of one’s learning should be in areas other than the ones you are most interested in. But ultimately a university context can be very helpful to force you to learn what you didn’t even realize was worthwhile, and to supply “serendipitous other perspectives”. As for what to study, the key is that it needs to be difficult in ways that reshape your perspectives, like math, physics, or molecular biology.

What it comes down to is: are you trying to do science? Are you trying to invent a good future for humanity? Alan’s definition of science is still too large to fit into my head, but I can see his reverence for it and the pioneering scientists of our past. If science is what you’re trying to do, you have to be fully committed to walking that road: using as many methods as possible to help us get around what is wrong with our thinking (our genetic brains, culture, and languages).

It’s only once you give up on absolute truth and certainty that you can make progress. Once you fully recognize your limited and faulty senses, you build tools to get around those limitations. You build models, maps of reality, and then test those models against reality to see how close they come. If you built a good model, and you understand it well in its abstract sense, you can manipulate it and come to understand things about the world. We don’t even get a glimpse of reality, “but what we do glimpse is, for many things, far superior to made up stories and fondly held beliefs.” And that’s all we ever get. And it’s the best thing in the world. It gives us the polio vaccine and spaceships.

For me this lunch felt like a reckoning. It was as if [to be clear: this didn’t really happen], Alan clapped his hands loudly in my face, shouting “Wake up! Wake up!”, and then turned me away from the flame everyone else was transfixed by and onto a helicopter ride to give me a glimpse of all the other perspectives that I should consider.

Before this lunch, I thought I was noble in forsaking Silicon Valley riches to achieve non-profit dominance akin to Jimmy Wales’s Wikipedia, Mitch Resnick’s Scratch, Guido’s Python, or Linus Torvald’s Linux and git. But Alan showed me how I simply replaced one form of vapid success for another. My admiration of those non-profit tools is “misplaced Darwinism” (a.k.a. “worse-is-better-ism”), equating popularity with goodness.

Alan disabused me of this dream by tearing down each of my heroes in turn: Wikipedia is much less than it needs to be, Scratch is less than Etoys, and the web was created by unsophisticated perspectives (Tim Burners-Lee has apologized for missing Engelbart).

That’s not to say that it’s not worthwhile to try to be altruistic and help the world. Alan says, “The trick is to get ‘help the world’ above a real threshold (which is usually above the threshold of mere popularity).”

The one technology that Alan has respect for is the Internet, a technology that works so well that’s it’s not even treated as a technology. It’s just a part of our natural world now. It’s gone through eleven orders of magnitude expansions without a hitch. Yet nobody knows the names of its creators. That’s the sign of technology well built.

Alan helped show me that I am professing to be benevolent when I really just wanted to get all the credit for “democratizing programming.” It’s not so dissimilar from wanting to be rich and famous. It’s particularly pernicious if you profess to improve programming in superficial ways. Alan points out that “the current ‘code for all’ approach is that it is dangerously close to the game ‘Guitar Hero’. I.e. ‘coding’ is not close enough to what’s important and enlightening about computing to be learned on its own. To do this gives the false impression of ‘touching the real thing’ (like ‘Guitar Hero’ and other games) whereas it could hardly be more of a miss.” In other words: am I looking to elevate kids’ thinking or am I trying to cash in on the simulacra of education?

It seemed like Alan was asking me to pick: how benevolent do you actually want to be? Or are you just looking to seem benevolent? What’s your time horizon? Are you looking to make a small incremental improvement? Or are you looking 10 years out to build a better future for your children? Or are you looking to the 22nd century to ensure that our grandkids’ kids will be better than we are? Or are you thinking about the far future of not just humanity but all conscious beings, and how to build a thriving multi-planetary society for millions of years to come?

And it’s not even about the time horizon. What the world needs now is so much grander than what so-called-problem-solvers propose. What we need today (or yesterday) is “real education as though we are in a war, to deal with the climate problem as though we are in a war, world health, human rights, etc. as though we are in a war.” Our culture now celebrates little wins and small hacks. We don’t have the patience, vision, or incentives to undertake the necessary solutions to our biggest problems.

We so-called computer scientists live in a pop culture. We aren’t doing science and we can’t tell you a single thing about our history. As a field, we are suffering from a “resource curse”: there’s too much money in computing and it “dilutes our field with carpetbaggers.”” Alan worries that the Silicon Valley mentality of VCs and startups is “soul stealing.” Those people may be “lost forever” in an “anti-richness” culture.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to “move fast and break things.” We can move slowly and build good things to last. We can return to the traditions of architects that built cathedrals to last hundreds of years, mathematicians who have collaborated on imaginary structures for thousands of years, and scientists who have pulled back the curtain on reality since people began to doubt their senses.

For the few computer idealists among us, we are so lucky to have the legacy left to us by Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Alan Perlis, John McCarthy, Edsger Dijkstra, John Backus, Ivan Sutherland, and Alan Kay. And those are just some of the names I personally know – I am now ashamed I don’t know more of our history. It’s hard to imagine now because they were so effective, but so much of our world’s computing prosperity today is due to these people. They imagined the computer as a personal device, a communications device, a device to lift off the burden of tedious mental tabulations. Douglas Engelbart imagined a tool that would aid humanity in dealing with the increasingly-complex problems it faces around the world. We’ve only seem a glimpse of that vision, but we need it now more than ever.

So practically, what does this mean for me? Alan also said at lunch that one problem young people make is “having goals.” It’s too early to have goals that “consume one’s horizons,” because young people don’t even know what they don’t know. I think this kind of epistemic modesty is a great idea. I can probably benefit from shifting the focus from my overly-specific goals to “more meta” goals, such as becoming “educated” in a broader sense than I previously thought was possible. The more perspectives I can acquire, the better I’ll be at not fooling myself, and the more I’ll be able to appreciate the richness of the world.

I also want to think a bit more critically about my “theory of change.” I’ve been operating under the lone-programming-language-developer-open-source theory of change that worked for Linus, Guido, Matz, Burners-Lee, etc. Alan pointed out that most technologies created in this way are “worse is better” ones. It’s dangerously easy to commit what Alan calls “inverse vandalism.” Both individuals and groups are extremely susceptible to it. His slogan for this “bug” is: “Better and Perfect are the Enemies of What Is Actually Needed (WIAN).” But it’s really hard to determine WIAN. It was the skill Paul MacCready exemplified in achieving the first man-powered flight. As he said, “The problem is we don’t understand the problem.” If you don’t understand the problem or WIAN, you’re setting yourself up to create more problem than you solve.

The best technological innovations happened in in-person teams lead by extraordinary people, such as Ivan Sutherland, Doug Engelbart, or Bret Victor. Maybe the Internet will allow these groups to be physically distributed, but Alan, for one, is very skeptical of our “universal publishing medium for bad ideas.” At the very least, I am now way more curious about what made ARPA, Bell Labs, and Xerox Parc succeed. I’m also going to more closely follow what Juan Benet is up to, because he’s been talking in this Alan-Kay-style for years now.

What surprised me most about the meeting was how compelling Alan was. Before this meeting, I saw him as a researcher or engineer, in many ways similar to myself. I didn’t realize that his main role has been recognizing, collecting, nurturing, leading and inspiring researchers. He played my emotions like a fiddle. He weaved a web of tales of the greatest story of humanity – our struggle to elevate ourselves – and implied that I could play a part in that story, too, but only if I get serious about my education.

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Corrections 4/28/19: Upon Alan’s request I have removed a photograph and transcription of the actual notes I took. I have also rephrased sections that mischaracterized Alan’s opinions.