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).