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Steve Krouse
Steve Krouse committed Apr 28, 2019
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  1. +12 −8 notes/alan-kay-lunch.md
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title: Lunch with Alan Kay
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# Lunch with Alan Kay: How to become educated enough to invent the future
# Lunch with Alan Kay: how to become educated enough to invent the future

_4/17/19_

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.)

@@ -20,35 +22,35 @@ At no point in our conversation did Alan explicitly explain what his agenda was,

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 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. I could imagine him putting his hand at increasing levels of height, "Normal people are here. People who think of themselves as 'programmers' or 'computer scientists' are here. You probably think you are here, above your peers. But Bret Victor, Vi Hart, and a young me (Alan) are up here. And I (Alan) now am up here. You have a lot of work to do young man, if you want to make it into the big leagues."
Also like Bob Barton, Alan spent most of the lunch 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.

He also gave me a rough blueprint for what it takes to get to his level. "Reading a couple hundred books a year is the bare minimum. It's just the baseline. You also got 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). He recommends that autodidacts institute a "learning enjoyment tax" on themselves: 10% of your learning must not be enjoyable. But ultimately you need a university context to force you to learn what you didn't even realize was worthwhile. It doesn't even matter what you study at university, as long as it's hard, like math, physics, or molecular biology, and the people around you are spectacular.
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 got 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). 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 you need a university context to force you to learn what you didn't even realize was worthwhile. It doesn't even matter what you study at university, as long as it's hard, like math, physics, or molecular biology, and the people around you are spectacular.

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: constantly questioning yourself and everything, working hard to not fool yourself by learning as many different perspectives as possible.
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. In this way can we get a glimpse of reality, 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. 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.
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 empty, 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 factually incorrect more than it is correct, Scratch is Etoys but way worse, and the web was created by amateurs (Tim Burners-Lee was chagrined when Alan confronted him about how its design failed to live up to Engelbart's vision).
Alan disabused me of this dream by tearing down each of my heroes in turn: Wikipedia is factually incorrect more than it is correct, Scratch is Etoys but way worse, and the web was created by amateurs (Tim Burners-Lee has apologized for missing Engelbart).

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 seemed like Alan was asking me to pick: how benevolent do you actually want to be? What's your time horizon? Are you looking to make a small incremental improvement and cash in? 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?

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 sealing." Those people may be "lost forever" in an "anti-richness" culture.
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 because young people don't even know what they don't know. I think that kind of epistemic modesty is a great idea. In other words, I want to really take to heart Alan's suggestion to become "educated" in a much broader sense than I previously thought was even possible, let alone desirable. I see now that 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'm currently operating under the lone-programming-language-developer-open-source theory of change that worked for Linus, Guido, Matz, Burners-Lee, etc. However, Alan pointed out that most technologies created in this way are "worse is better" ones. The best technological innovations happened in in-person teams. Of course, maybe the internet will allow these innovations to happen physically distributed, but that remains to be seen. At the very least, I am now way more curious about what made ARPA, Bell Laps, 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.
I also want to think a bit more critically about my "theory of change." I'm currently 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 (unless, of course, the person is actually a rare true genius, like Ivan Sutherland.) The best technological innovations happened in in-person teams. Of course, maybe the internet will allow these innovations to happen physically distributed, but that remains to be seen. At the very least, I am now way more curious about what made ARPA, Bell Laps, 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.

@@ -71,3 +73,5 @@ What surprised me most about the meeting was how compelling Alan was. Before thi
* Read: The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler
* Watch Vi Hart (particularly the 12 Tones video)
* Read more early computer history, and stories about people who made the world better (Organizing Genius)

_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._

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