Alan Kay on creativity, and the ebb and flow of programming languages

Sun, Jun 6, 2010


Alan Kay, by all accounts, is a Computer Science legend, and you can even count the notoriously hard to please Steve Jobs as one of his biggest fans. Kay’s resume speaks for itself, but some of his more notable achievements include helping drive the development of object oriented programming and the graphical user interfaces, along with co-founding the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Below, Kay has an interesting take on the rise and fall of programming languages from a 2004 interview with the Association for Computing Machinery.

Like I said, it’s a pop culture. A commercial hit record for teenagers doesn’t have to have any particular musical merits. I think a lot of the success of various programming languages is expeditious gap-filling. Perl is another example of filling a tiny, short-term need, and then being a real problem in the longer term. Basically, a lot of the problems that computing has had in the last 25 years comes from systems where the designers were trying to fix some short-term thing and didn’t think about whether the idea would scale if it were adopted. There should be a half-life on software so old software just melts away over 10 or 15 years.

It was a different culture in the ’60s and ’70s; the ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) and PARC culture was basically a mathematical/scientific kind of culture and was interested in scaling, and of course, the Internet was an exercise in scaling. There are just two different worlds, and I don’t think it’s even that helpful for people from one world to complain about the other world—like people from a literary culture complaining about the majority of the world that doesn’t read for ideas. It’s futile.

And on a tangential note, Kay’s thoughts on creativity are particularly fascinating.

It’s known that our basic language mechanism for both reading and hearing has a fast and a slow process. The fast process has basically a surface phrasal-size nature, and then there’s a slower one. This is why jokes require pauses; the joke is actually a jump from one context to another, and the slower guy, who is dealing with the real meanings, has to catch up to it.

… All creativity is an extended form of a joke. Most creativity is a transition from one context into another where things are more surprising. There’s an element of surprise, and especially in science, there is often laughter that goes along with the “Aha.” Art also has this element. Our job is to remind us that there are more contexts than the one that we’re in—the one that we think is reality.

via ACM


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