Alan Kay - History and Revolution in I.T.

Alan Kay invented Object Oriented Programming around 40 years ago with Smalltalk.
Kay not only has a lot to say, his accomplishments lend him credibility. In 2003 he said:
"our field is a field that's the next great 500-year idea after the printing press"
The ACM awarded him its highest honour, The Turing Award, in 2003. The short Citation:
For pioneering many of the ideas at the root of contemporary object-oriented programming languages, leading the team that developed Smalltalk, and for fundamental contributions to personal computing.
Video of his 60min talk on the ACM site, and elsewhere, a transcript. The slides & demo used are not available.

This 1982 talk for "Creative Think" brought this reporter reaction (the link is worth reading for the list of line-liners alone):
Alan's speech was revelatory and was perhaps the most inspiring talk that I ever attended.
This is my current favourite quote of Alan Kay's from Wikiquote:
"Point of view is worth 80 IQ point"
A 2004 conversation with Kay on the (deep) History of Computing Languages is well worth reading. Here are two interesting remarks:
One could actually argue—as I sometimes do—that the success of commercial personal computing and operating systems has actually led to a considerable retrogression in many, many respects. (starting circa 1984)
Just as an aside, to give you an interesting benchmark—on roughly the same system, roughly optimized the same way, a benchmark from 1979 at Xerox PARC runs only 50 times faster today.
Moore’s law has given us somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 times improvement in that time.
So there’s approximately a factor of 1,000 in efficiency that has been lost by bad CPU architectures.
Kay, in this piece, also mentions a theme - the central problem of writing large systems is Scaling - the Design & Architecture of systems. Anybody can take lumber, hammer, saw, nails and produce some version of a dog-house. To scale up to something very large requires skill, discipline and insight - Architecture is literally "the science of arches", the difference between Chartres Cathedral and the Parthenon. Both contain around the same amount of material, the cathedral encloses ~20 times the volume and towers are 10+ times higher.
AK Most software today is very much like an Egyptian pyramid with millions of bricks piled on top of each other, with no structural integrity, but just done by brute force and thousands of slaves.

SF The analogy is even better because there are the hidden chambers that nobody can understand.

AK I would compare the Smalltalk stuff that we did in the ’70s with something like a Gothic cathedral. We had two ideas, really. One of them we got from Lisp: late binding. The other one was the idea of objects. Those gave us something a little bit like the arch, so we were able to make complex, seemingly large structures out of very little material, but I wouldn’t put us much past the engineering of 1,000 years ago.

If you look at [Doug] Engelbart’s demo (wikipedia) [a live online hypermedia demonstration of the pioneering work that Engelbart’s group had been doing at Stanford Research Institute, presented at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference], then you see many more ideas about how to boost the collective IQ of groups and help them to work together than you see in the commercial systems today.

Other interesting pages on Alan Kay talks:

Relevance to Open Source and Paradigm shifts

Kay claims that 95% of people are 'instrumental reasoners' and the remaining 5% 'are interested in ideas'.
an instrumental reasoner is a person who judges any new tool or idea by how well that tool or idea contributes to his or her current goal.
He goes onto talk about reward/motivation and says that 85% of people are 'outer motivated' versus 15% 'inner motivated'.

Most people (~80%) fall into the 'outer motivated instrumental reasoners' group.
These people won't pick up an idea if other people aren't doing it. Which seems like a very wise evolutionary group tactic - if a little safe.

Kay, in his ACM talk, uses a contagion or forest fire model to demonstrate/claim that around 66% of a population is needed to achieve 'ignition'. To hit the tipping point where 'everyone is doing it' and the new idea takes over.

Kay also makes the observation that Big Ideas (he cites Unix) often take around 30 years to hit the streets - to become normally used.
And also wondered why after ~40 years Ivan Sutherland's ideas from his 'sketch' program from his ~1961 thesis haven't broken through.

Applying to Open Source Propagation

Putting this idea, if correct, of 'tipping point' to work in spreading FOSS :
  • find/choose communities who are high in 'interested in ideas' (artists & creatives?)
  • find a small community and intensively sell/lobby/influence it to get to the tipping point.
  • leverage these communities or even artificial environments by introducing 'outsiders' (high schoolers?) to a converted environment.
But what Kay doesn't go near is that even the best marketers, PR and media people can't predict the next fad/craze/mene - they happen because they happen.

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