The Dynabook and the App Store

Yesterday I linked to J. Vincent Toups’ 2011 Duckspeak Vs Smalltalk, an essay about how far, or really how little, we’ve come since Alan Kay’s Dynabook concept, and a critique of the limitations inherent in today’s App Store style computing.

A frequent reaction to this line of thought is “we shouldn’t make everyone be a programmer just to use a computer.” In fact, after Loren Brichter shared the link on Twitter, there were many such reactions. While I absolutely agree abstractions are a good thing (e.g., you shouldn’t have to understand how electricity works in order to turn on a light), one of the problems with computers and App Stores today is we don’t even have the option of knowing how the software works even if we wanted.

But the bigger problem is what our conception of programming is today. When the Alto computer was being researched at Xerox, nobody was expecting people to program like we do today. Javascript, Objective C, and Swift (along with all the other “modern” languages today) are pitiful languages for thinking, and were designed instead for managing computer resources (Javascript, for example, was thoughtlessly cobbled together in just ten days). The reaction of “people shouldn’t have to program to use a computer” hinges on what it means to program, and what software developers think of programming is vastly different from what the researchers at Xerox had in mind.

Programming, according to Alan Kay and the gang, was a way for people to be empowered by computers. Alan correctly recognized the computer as a dynamic medium (the “dyna” in “Dynabook") and deemed it crucial people be literate with this medium. Literacy, you’ll recall, means being able to read and write in a medium, to be able to think critically and reason with a literature of great works (that’s the “book” in “Dynabook"). The App Store method of software essentially neuters the medium into a one-way consumption device. Yes, you can create on an iPad, but the system’s design language does not allow for creation of dynamic media.

Nobody is expecting people to have to program a computer in order to use it, but the PARC philosophy has at its core a symmetric concept of creation as well as consumption. Not only are all the parts of Smalltalk accessible to any person, but all the parts are live, responsive, active objects. When you need to send a live, interactive model to your colleague or your student, you sent the model, not an attachment, not a video or a picture, but the real live object. When you need to do an intricate task, you don’t use disparate “apps” and pray the developers have somehow enabled data sharing between, but you actually combine the parts yourself. That’s the inherent power in the PARC model that we’ve completely eschewed in modern operating systems.

Smalltalk and the Alto were far from perfect, and I’ll be the last to suggest we use them as is. But I will suggest we understand the philosophy and the desires to empower people with computers and use that understanding to build better systems. I’d highly recommend reading Alan’s Early History of Smalltalk and A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages to learn what the personal computer was really intended to be.

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