I’m finally getting my health and schedule back into the readings for Gardner Campbell’s Networked Seminar, where this week the reading (or maybe it was last week) was Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg’s Personal Dynamic Media (it is available as a free chapter download from the Nee Media Reader).

It’s easy to focus on the technology described so visionary like in the late 1960s, especially holding something like an iPad (or a notebook, maybe, or an ereader) in your hands. And people often then go on to describe why or why not the iPad is like a Dynabook. It’s very tempting, but its not really important to say how they are different- they are certainly part of an evolutionary arc of technologies, and one does not need to be sitting in Steve Job’s shoulder to guess that he was influenced by this seemingly work (“stealing” is a bit extreme IMHO).

To me what is so similar is the form factor. Both are page like in side. But it was more key when Kay first say the iPhone at the announcement, saw the touch interface that had been worked on in prototypes in labs in the early 1970s, he said,

Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you’ll rule the world.

This is the key IMHO- it was part of that early vision that made the dominant part of the interface the screen — that is was most important that people would need a good (paper size) canvas to work on. The iPad went farther by moving the keyboard into the screen, so that almost the whole front of it is screen.

Like others, I was amazed on first reading this essay last Spring at the timing. Engelbart does the Mother of All Demos in 1968, Kay sketches out the concepts of the Dynabook, others at MIT in the early 1970s are dabbling in touch interfaces… and when I take my first programming course in high school, in 1979– we are writing code by lines on punch cards, driving 30 minutes once a week to a main frame on the other side of Baltimore, to program. When I entered college in 1981 as a computer science undergrad, the computer lab is all line printers; the rolled in the first CRTs late in my first semester, but we are still doing time sharing. Why did it take so long for Personal Dynamic Media to get personal? Or in play?

I’d hate to say, but it sounds like it was because there was not the consumer demand we have now. Scientists, bankers, people using computer systems in the 1970s and early 1980s- they were in the engineering mindset of the 1960s.

And to me, this is what this essay is about. It’s not about the Dynabook- that is the entry. It’s the title- Personal Dynamic Media. What was revolutionary here was ripping the CPUs from the timeshare mainframes, and putting it in people’s hands. It was the idea that the media we could then interact/create with was dynamic:

Although digital computers were originally designed to do arithmetic computation, the ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided. Moreoever, this new “metamedium” is active— it can respond to queries and experiments — so that the messages involve the learner in a two-way conversation. This property has never been available before except through the medium of an individual teacher. We think the implications are vast and compelling.

This is why the computer was revolutionary. Not because of its screen or buttons, but of its ability to be dynamic with the individual user.

The other key in this essay was the vignettes of cases describing how people make their own tools, as needed- “An animation system programmed by animators”, “A drawing and painting system programmed by a child”, “A hospital simulation programmed by a decision-theorist”. This is the vision not really achieved- the tools for creation, the ones where children build fantastic things out of ideas, has not fully happened (Squeak is much closer).

So yes, the iPad haters can point to the infernal device as “something you cannot create on”- but even the laptop,s desktops we have now, while they have the capability for people with C++ and other programming skills can builf their own tools, is notin the reach of most ordinary people. And thus we have the culture of becoming more and more consumers of content, than creators of tools. See Dougglas Ruskoff’s HuffPo piece Why Johnny Can’t Program: A New Medium Requires A New Literacy

For me, however, our inability and refusal to contend with the underlying biases of the programs and networks we all use is less a threat to our military or economic superiority than to our experience and autonomy as people. I can’t think of a time when we seemed so ready to accept such a passive relationship to a medium or technology.

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.

Digital tools are not like rakes, steam engines, or even automobiles that we can drive with little understanding of how they work. Digital technology doesn’t merely convey our bodies, but ourselves. Our screens are the windows through which we are experiencing, organizing, and interpreting the world in which we live. We are doing more than extending human agency through a new linguistic or communications system. We are replicating the very function of cognition with external, extra-human mechanisms. These tools are not mere extensions of the will of some individual or group, but entities that have the ability to think and operate other components in the neural network–namely, us.

I for one don’t care if an iPad is or isn’t the manifestation of the Dynabook. The whole networked and collaboration piece was not really there in this essay. There are things we have now that were nto quite imagined (accelerometers for making the entire device an interface, gps, augmented reality, etc.

But yes, to me, the key was the notion of making this dynamic computing experience personal, something we carried with us, and that has or is happening given how much time in public people are face deep in their devices (which has its downsides as well).

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. One should never claim too much, but ….

    Your pretty good blog piece would be even better if you used the Internet to check your conclusions. (We made personal computing and the Internet for just this purpose, and it really bugs me when people don’t use it to check.)

    For example, in the 1972 paper “A personal computer for children of all ages” you will find a little paragraph that points out that the display could be made touch (not just stylus) sensitive and the keyboard could then be displayed.

    And the multi-touch display was first done and demonstrated by Negroponte’s MIT research group in the 70s.

    And, both virtual and augmented reality were not just imagined “back then” but already built. Check out Ivan Sutherlands’s first head mounted display and system done at Harvard and Utah in the 60s.

    And “the collaboration piece” had already been done in a much stronger fashion by Engelbart in the 60s (this was really what the 1968 “mother of all demos” was all about.

    I think you did pick up on some of what the Dynabook was supposed to be about.

    But it was not lack of consumer demand that was the key. (Consumer demand for all this stuff was created, it was not originally there.)

    The big problem was that there was an enormous “imagination gap” between the inventors of personal computing and Internet, and those businesses and entrepreneurs who wanted to exploit the inventions.

    This got the commercialization started in a bad way, and it is still in a bad way (maybe worse).

    Best wishes,


    1. Alan (we need a club for people who spell our name the “right” way)

      I’m quite honored to be corrected by you! Thanks for pointing out that much this had be done earlier, and I do check a lot of things, I did miss these.

      For augmented reality, I ought to have emphasized the ability to have this in your hand, not with the larger head mounted devices the pioneers used in the 1960s. I have seen the Mother of All Demos many times, and yes it did feature collaborative working, but did you back thin envision the degree to which human networking, for things beyond sharing documents and video, have manifested itself today? Vannevar Bush talked about sharing “:trails” but it just seemed the focus was on computing as a solitary activity. I likely am wrong there, it’s just how it looks now when we are immersed in interpersonal connectivity.

      But thanks most of all for citing the “imagination gap” as the problem, and one that kept computing from becoming personal and dynamic for a long time.



      1. Hi Alan

        I don’t recall anybody pointing out augmented reality in one’s hand — though it was quite part of the implication of Ivan’s HMD (which in our imaginings was not large, but “just glasses”. This is because all other things being equal, it is easier to make a small high res display than a large one. So this was thought from the beginning to be part of the implications of the work being done at Illinois, Westinghouse and RCA (and even Xerox, which held several of the main liquid crystal display patents in the 60s). One could argue that glasses are a better idea than hand — because you want to use the hand to do things in both worlds (as was indeed the case with Sutherland’s first system – there was a “wand” that would manipulate stuff in the virtual world. (There are papers and pictures online).

        But Engelbart’s vision was the whole thing. His proposal to ARPA in 1962 (yes!) was precisely about “Augmenting the Collective IQ of Groups”. And this is sill some of the best stuff ever done, and conceived.

        The real question is why does no one realize this given that all this stuff is online? I think the reason is that most people have not really learned to think but are still doing the caveman thing of coming up with an internal deduction, liking it, and then trying to claim it and rationalize it. But not to test it, not to see what else has been done. This aspect of things is very disappointing.

        Similarly, the use of these wonders for trivia was anticipated. Even by Thoreau, who when asked what he thought about the transatlantic cable, said that he was afraid be might find out that a European princess had just got a new hat!. These are entirely predictable because they draw from the Anthropological universals which make up all human beings.

        What we were hoping for is the other rarer phenomenon, and that is the process of real education making us less like traditional humans and more like civilized humans. This can happen, and has happened in isolated cases, but as with TV the commercial forces are dominating — and they want cave people to sell to!

        Best wishes,


  2. CogDog,

    I was doing some research and I found a dissertation that sounds like it might be of interest to you:

    Tracing the dynabook: A study of technocultural transformations.
    Maxwell, John W.
    U British Columbia, Canada

      1. Hi, Alan, thanks for the mention—and hi to Alan too, who is quite right to point you straight to his Early History of Smalltalk paper; my dissertation in some ways is nothing but a set of glosses on that single article.

        The thing about making sense of the Dynabook today is this. In the early 1970s, it was a bold move to create a whole new culture of computing, a whole new way of thinking about what computers could be as “personal” “dynamic” “media” — to see them as the means of individual thinking and expression. That idea got introduced, really powerfully, and it’s partially stuck with us (and kinda tragically hasn’t, at the same time).

        But today, we’re on the cusp of another possible change in the culture(s) of computing: away from an individual/personal mode and to a kind of ‘hive mind’ paradigm. This new thing isn’t the product of anyone’s particular vision, so we don’t have the benefit of the Kays and Engelbarts and Sutherlands shining big lights on/for us. Instead we have an emergent reality driven by Google and social media and a lot of collective behaviour we really don’t understand very well yet — beyond any one thinker’s framing.

        What’s interesting here is to try to see what parts of the Dynabook vision—especially the yet-unrealized potentials—will come forward in this new collective world, versus being pushed aside (as simply not resonant with the new more collective ways of seeing computing). Case in point: is P2P the future of the Internet, or the past?


        1. Hi John,

          Because of the ARPA context those of us back then came from, the “ARPA Dream” was always about the empowerment of both individuals and groups (Engelbart’s ideas were cotemporal with the start of ARPA-IPTO) via interactive computing networked to everyone worldwide.

          This is why I showed in my very first cartoon about the Dynabook two children who have made a video game together and are playing it together using wireless networking. Many people have missed this.

          There are many big lights to shine on the “hive-mind” process. The main one (which is woefully lacking in most commentators) is “Anthropology 101”. Part of Anthro is to try to understand what human beings are like from genetics alone, and then understand how various kinds of learning (cultural and artificial) can modify our basic machinery.

          Two of the sub-areas here are “Neuroethology” and “Human universals”.

          A much wiser man than most, who was not an anthropologist, but was not led astray by appearances, was McLuhan (and his influences Innis, Ong, Havelock, Mumford, etc.).

          His thoughts about a “Global Village” (which he did not want to have happen) were very right, very early.

          This “emergent reality” is actually driven by deep human behavioral impulses not modified by education, and this reversion started with television, not with computers.

          Because some of us had learned Anthro (it was one of my minors in college), and had read McLuhan (in 1967 for me), we understood the possibilities both positive and negative.

          The positive possibilities were large drivers for our inventions (and these are mentioned in the “Early History” document.

          We found it hard to believe that the general population would completely fail to understand television, and continue into even more dangerously compelling houses of mirrors that interactive computing can give rise to.

          We basically have a “disaster of the return of traditional magical thinking” and this is quite incompatible with actual democracy.

          As McLuhan once said “You can argue a lot of things with stained glass windows, but Democracy is not one of them”

          Best wishes,


          1. Well said, Alan… and I apologize for the shorthand of “hive mind.” It’s a careless phrase. What I’m reaching for is the changing relationship of the individual to society, which we are witnessing in a big way today.

            You’re entirely right that this began with TV (at least), and that McLuhan was right on the money — not with his insights into television, but in what he pointed out about print literacy and alphabetic culture.

            So the point I was trying to get to with the hive mind comment was that the ARPA and Dynabook research, while consciously making enormous strides to think beyond print literacy — and you’ve written more eloquently than any on this topic — seems to me still based on a print-era model of the individual agent. Hence “personal” dynamic media. Engelbart’s augmentation of the group intelligence is still a group made up of such individuals. The ARPAnet a peer-to-peer architecture made up of “peers.” So these visions of collective intelligence are still rooted in an individualistic model — as is liberal democracy, seen as a process for making sense of a collective of individual agents.

            McLuhan’s contribution was to show that this conception of the individual is part of print culture, and that new media would re-consititute the foundational model of the human being (anthropology also swims in the same print-based ocean).

            We begin to see mass collective agency, both corporate-sponsored and more truly emergent, on a scale that is/was pretty hard to predict, and even understand in the moment. Wikipedia is the crude example. But the hive mind I see operating on Twitter every day is a subtler version. It isn’t the return of “traditional magical thinking,” though… it’s something newer, and valuable, too. But we have only the tools we came in with…

          2. Thanks for bringing up Human Universals, just recently discovered (via Pinker) Donald Brown’s inventory http://bit.ly/9U6znW.

            BTW, Alan (K) we are doing a recap of many of these topics with John Markoff at our upcoming think tank on The New ‘New Age’ — would love to have you on board.

  3. Replying to John Maxwell says:
    October 20, 2010 at 9:52 am
    (The tyranny of blog software that doesn’t like extended interchanges ….)

    Hi John,

    You make an interesting point. I don’t quite look at it this way.

    I think that the central idea in “Licklider’s Dream” was adapted from the way science and many other knowledge processes work, including what is required for democracy (especially a democratic republic).

    The basic process here has several levels or layers. One is to eschew dogma to allow any and all ideas to be considered (including seemingly crazy ones that violate experience and commonsense). But this then requires the best system of criticism and vetting that has ever been devised. It’s worth noting that both science and the US Constitution are set up this way. Both are essentially error correcting and noise removal processes from quite general communications channels.

    Even though “The Dream Machine” is the best book about ARPA-IPTO and PARC, it (like all the others) misses how collaboration and cooperation were done and set up. This was the key.

    So it’s not so much your “individuals grouped” that was the basic idea here, but that the group had to be above threshold in order to make progress. (The architecture of the Internet has this same structure. This is the beauty of TCP/IP.)

    This is obviously not completely disagreeing with your point of view.

    As to the “new kind of mass collective agency”, I think this just requires another several trips to Anthropology and perhaps McLuhan to understand.

    Just one of many points to to consider is McLuhan’s observation that a “Global Village” would remove sense of identity and that people would put a lot of effort into trying to regain it, including violence. And that an intense desire for “participation” would also be a by-product (and “participation” does not at all imply “cooperation”).

    Also that the Greek root of “narcosis” and “narcissus” is the same, and that the mirror effect numbs.

    One way to look at what we were doing is that we were trying to make new kinds of books, and telescopes and microscopes, etc., to advance “seeing and thinking”, but if you give a microscope to a monkey they only will hold it up to admire their reflection in the shiny brass barrel.

    And I think this is what happened. Education never got on the bus and the “augmentation of human intellect” (which is right there) got completely overwhelmed by the mirror effect and people demanding routes for identity and participation regardless of content.

    Partly still Anthro 101, but also 202 (“Ethnology”) because there have been and are many cultures like this. It’s just a shock to see one that thought itself out of traditional genetically based thinking revert back to what Ed Wilson likes to call “Pleistocene Thinking”.



  4. Replying to mark plakias says:
    October 20, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Hi Mark,

    John Markoff is a good guy. What are you planning?



    1. John’s “What the Dormouse Said” is the basis for the entire 3-day Institute session Nov 15-17, in which we plumb what we frame as Then/Now commitments about communications, culture, and computation. John would like to do a conversation about the parallel evolution of augemented vs automated AI visions (ARC and SAIL respectively) but we need a cohort to have that convo with. Deets avail from me at mark dot plakias at orange-ftgroup dot com.

      1. Hi Mark,

        I will be traveling (DC and NY) when this is scheduled so will have to miss it.

        Sounds interesting (and with lots of debatable points).



    2. Thanks for writing the best content that has ever appeared on my blog ;-)

      It’s interesting, Alan K, that all this great work of the ARPA era happened when there was not nearly the availability of the communication tools we have now (as you were building them). So now we have the TCP/IP enabled world platform to augment our intellect, yet that seems to be not what we are mostly augmenting?

      1. I think the point of most of these comments is that “you have to understand what a microscope is for, or you will be tempted to use it as a mirror”. Similarly, if you had never seen a knife before you might pick it up by the shiny blade and cut yourself. This is essentially what is happening.

        The ARPA research community already had learned “how to do science”, and they (a) wanted to make all of this much more powerful, and (b) wanted to help everyone learn how to think this way.

        I once pointed out to educators who wanted to “use technology” but who didn’t understand it that “the music is not in the piano”. The piano can greatly amplify the music you have and help you develop this, or it can also act as a prosthetic that atrophies your ability to hear pitch relationships and subtle phrasings.

        When you make a general purpose amplifier you have to take care what gets fed into it.

        This is what drove Nobel almost insane.

        None of this is new, but if you are generally uneducated (as most Americans are) then “everything is new” (and “new” very often means “invisible”).

        Best wishes,


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