Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alan Kay: Luminary at a Grand Vortex of Culture, Technology and Theory


Throughout history, breakthroughs, advancements and achievements are typically a result of a constellation of people and influences. Computing is no exception. However, few have arrived at a vortex as rich with new ideas, advancing technology and emerging cultural change as Alan Kay. Fewer still have had the genius to be able to orchestrate and even proliferate a symphony of visions and products that would influence generations to come.

Kay illuminated the best of the concepts of several of his predecessors. To name a few, he pays great homage to Ivan Sutherland who invented the first GUI, the Sketchpad in which the system and the user actually interacted in the first visual language; Douglas Englebart who created the Human Augmented Human Intellect project, and promoted and demonstrated both human-computer collaboration and one of the first physiognomic hardware systems; (1) and Vandavar Bush, who developed the idea of the Memex and the first incarnation of hypertext/associative computing (2), which laid the foundation for now commonplace behavior in a browser.

The genius of Kay was that he was able to absorb a myriad of ideas, envision them in new ways using existing resources, and move the world of computing forward exponentially, creating and contributing to a multitude of hardware, tools and languages. "A true polymath, as well as inventor, he has combined engineering brilliance with knowledge of child development, epistemology, molecular biology and more" (3). Electronic Engineering Times in 1976 called Kay "one of the computer industry's most prolific inventors." Kay invented the Smalltalk programming language and considered one of the fathers of Object Oriented Programming. His Dynabook was the forerunner of the laptop and vision for Lisa and later the MAC.

Fortunately for HCI, in the course of developing computer languages and systems, this multi-faceted talent also seeded the roots of modern computer-human interaction design methodologies. Kay focused a great deal on how humans think, learn and interact. Again, Kay drew from and expanded upon a number of cognitive insights and sources, such the theories of Piaget and Bruner, Tim Galway’s ideas in his “Inner game of Tennis” and other methods of learning and teaching such as the Suzuki method for teaching, which he says were the “catalysis” for modern GUI designs. (4) Kay guided the next generation to approach human-computer interaction from the human point of view.

This resulted in a myriad of HCI ideas, methods and standards today. For example, he believed that interfaces are optimal when users can manipulate in the direct context of things, what he called “results mode interaction”, or when users, for example, can see “different views through filters” (born of Doug Englebart’s work (4).

Kay was one of the first to expound on computing as a medium to interact with, as opposed to a big tool. He brought into our sphere the first great metaphor for computing, pen and paper.

Kay also contributed to the greater good of society, believing that the use of the computer should help us extend and learn about differing points of view. Similar to the sensory apparati we have come to use, such as telescopes and other natural extensions of reasoning, to accelerate human understanding of the last 400 years (3), he believes computers can be used to help us see different points of view, healthy for a changing society.

Kay also cites the importance of arts, aesthetics and education in fostering new ideas, thought and points of view, necessary for advancement of humankind in general.

Kay: In the Midst of a Major Cultural Shift

Kay was brought up with the good fortune of parents who were involved in both the arts and sciences, who supported him to read, create and think (he was reading at 3 and had read over 200 books before he started first grade)(5). But he also grew up in the magical period of the late 50’s and 60’s when we believed as a nation that anything was possible, paralleling new thought in education and equal rights to achieve anything you wanted. Wiki says of this generation, the boomers, that they “were amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time... (6a) [boomers were] a shockwave … remodeled society as (they) passed through it.” (6b)

In this familial and cultural environment, Kay was always pushing the limits, expanding his views and letting the world know it. He protested from a young child the marked one-sidedness of school teachings, and also was kicked out of college for protesting the established policies. In short, Kay exemplified his generations’ key characteristics: experimental, individualism, free spirited, social cause oriented (6). The latter might actually prove be the driving force behind his greatest achievements – that of moving society along through use of computers to help us see different points of view, elaborated on further in this discussion.

HCI and Kay: Initiator of early participatory design

Kay embarked upon some of the most extensive user participation studies in all of history, applying and testing his designs with children in the Palo Alto classrooms. He began to realize that working with children was incredibly useful and changed his thought about computing. We are forever indebted to the extensive work accomplished in the area of observation and understanding what users need from an interface.

It should be noted that this work flourished in a rich context. At a time when the culture was promoting free spirit and individualism, essentially supporting the notion of participating in one’s own destiny, also emerged the “discretionary” user, who could choose to use computing, as opposed to being forced at work. S/he could be pickier and could reject interfaces that did not work. One of the hallmarks of modern design, user participation evolved and Alan Kay was in the thick of it.

HCI and Kay: Computer as ‘supermedium’

Seymour Papert at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory had a great influence on Kay’s entire concept of the role of computer in society. In Papert’s work with children and programming in LOGO, Kay noticed that children didn’t think about the technology – it was just another media to work with. Kay says, “In 1968 I saw Seymour Papert's first work with kids and LOGO, and I saw the first really great handwriting-character-recognition system at Rand. It's a fabulous system. And that had a huge influence on me because it had an intimate feel. When I combined that with the idea that kids had to use it, the concept of a computer because something much more like a supermedium. Something more like a superpaper” (7).

Kay made a significant contribution to how we now think about computers – not as something which just spits out text, but a medium that interacts with humans, as natural extensions of our beings as opposed to something outside of us that we merely use. This was a very different notion from the current thinking about what computing was about; at the time, Doug Engelbart's view was the accepted one, that the “mainframe was like a railroad, owned by an institution that decided what you could do and when you could do it.” (3) According to Kay, Engelbart was trying to be like Henry Ford. A personal computer as it was thought of in the sixties was like an automobile. It was a big thing you used to get you from one place to the next, a grandiose tool. Papert changed his thinking on the computer more as a medium with which we can interact.

From this was also born the first great metaphor for a computer – pen and paper. This metaphor manifested in windows that allowed children to control their movements with a mouse, and create graphical representations, playing to the child’s autonomic responses. This had tinges of throwbacks to Winograd/Heidegger in the sense that humans are most adept when they are not “thinking” but rather doing. (Heidegger says, “When a person is in the midst of hammering, they do not know the hammer.”)( 8). It is this invisible medium, in the metaphor of pen and paper, wherein the child does not know the pen nor the paper exists, only the thing which he is drawing. This is how an interface should be.

HCI and Kay: Design for our mental faculties!

Kay made a huge impact on how computers provide feedback and interaction that people can understand and use. One of his greatest achievements was in recognizing and applying breakthroughs in cognitive understanding, utilized and demonstrated through his work with children. Kay synthesized the best of Piaget and his American visionary/follower Jerome Bruner, whose discoveries were the tipping point for Kay. The idea was that we all possess and interact constantly using multiple mental faculties - namely the kinesthetic, visual and symbolic/language - and that a good interface should do the same.

Jean Piaget brought us the idea that humans learn and respond with these three faculties in stages, and that the adult mind is a unitary, unified way of thinking. Jerome Bruner carried Piaget’s ideas further. Bruner showed that not only do these faculties develop over time, but we ‘switch’ in and out of them depending on our perceptions and needs of the time (4). They are not forgotten and all are important to our thinking, depending on the context. He redirected Piaget’s experiment on 10 year olds (who are reaching mature visual orientation). When showing 10 year olds a tall glass of water compared to a smaller thicker glass with the same amount; to the child, the tall glass of water appears to hold more than a shorter one with the same amount. Bruner however, decided to cover up the glass, and when doing so, the child, said “No wait, it must have the same amount of water…” calling upon his newly-developing logic, which of course, realized the amounts were really the same, because “where would it go?” This experiment showed an example of how we call up different faculties depending on the context, here calling the logical faculty in the absence of the visual cue.

Kay said that we respond with different faculties or channels, at different times for different purposes. We may respond visually, viscerally and logically, presumably at times at lightning speed. Knowing this about our users helps us design a more powerful interface. Based on the context, we can present them with objects or text or need for physical movement based on the metaphor they are experiencing.

Especially poignant is that unlike the way we are often taught in school, through the logical/abstract/language talk-and-listen faculty, the other faculties are too often ignored (the visual and the kinesthetic). But he says all of these are important. He cites the survey results from Jacques Hadamard, a famous mathematician, who asked his famous colleagues which of their faculties they use when they came up with great new ideas. Surprisingly, only a few claimed to use the third logical faculty to think, i.e. mathematical symbology. Most of them said they did their most creative thinking in imagery or figurative terms, and an amazing 30% were done in the “mud pies” – in the early childhood dimension of the kinesthetic. In fact, it was Einstein who said he felt “sensations of a kinesthetic or muscular type … and that he could “feel the abstract spaces” in his muscles (4). Kay further asserts that “creative people are in contact with other mentalities” – suggesting as I have, that we could learn a lot from artists, as they actually welcome the opportunity to “break down” for example, in an improvisation, or as a painter, a change in light, where they actually have a disruptive opportunity to stretch their other faculties and innovate.

Kay’s point was that if can teach directly to a specific faculty or ‘channel’ we can produce a more natural learning environment, and this applies to the interface as well. This is one of the most important take-aways for me in this research. It is unfortunate, as Kay points out, that children are mostly taught in the logical language area, where one talks and converses, rather than through the other faculties (visual/kinesthetic) and so they miss out on the experiences the other ‘channels’ provide, found often through the arts.

So, how do you know what aspects to design to? Several key principles in UI design have evolved from this very question. In developing the early GUI’s, Kay incorporated the physical or kinesthetic required for our senses to ‘connect” through the mouse, to create a sense of place and space (the mouse is not just a pointer!), harnessed the power of visual recognition in icons/visual affordances and layouts for recall of actions, and last but not least, providing text and symbolic language for logic and inference to make sense of things when all else fails. In this way, we ‘feel’ intimate with the computer, as visual affordances are predictable, and our bodies can take action through the mouse. We can use our logic with wording to compare and contrast ideas and symbols. In the course of maximizing all our faculties, the optimum ‘invisibility’ of the interface is attained and is then said to be “intuitive” or easy to use.

HCI and Kay: Make the experience rewarding

Another key principle is to provide an experience in an interface that rewards, to motivate us to stick around. This is especially important to modern Web paradigms, the notion of being “sticky.”

In Licklider’s essay on Computers as communication devices, he says: “A communication system should make a positive contribution to the discovery and arousal of interests.” Kay again, ran with an idea and went a little deeper. As in Galway’s’ “The Inner Game of Tennis,” he inducted that the interface, like the teacher Galway, should be an intermediary to help the user to get beyond the beginner state quickly, and ‘get into’ the functions quickly. By analogy, in the same way that in the tennis experiment, the subject could have been running for balls as a beginner, rather than hitting them, a computer interface should not involve looking up a string of instructional text to know how to navigate, rather give users small successes first, perhaps through a wizard in a basic mode, achieving a small task early in the process and graduating early to an “intermediate” status so they feel confident and rewarded and will stick around. If the user feels good, they will explore the deeper functions that most applications or sites might provide.

HCI and Kay: Reduce the noise - “Don’t make me think!”

Kay asserted that we could facilitate better use of our faculties by helping an individual focus on the right things – and sometimes through simply reducing interference from the things we don’t want them to think about. For example, in the Galway tennis example, the subject was encouraged by the teacher to focus on anything but hitting the ball, to watch the ball, to hum or other methods that would help her “get out of her own way” and facilitate the use of the body’s natural response to hitting a ball. In other words, diverting attention from the “I” focus – to not talk or think much with the logic part of the brain that doesn’t know how to hit a ball.

I am reminded of how Kay has influenced our UI design pundits such as Jared Spool and Steve Krug. By helping users engage in their own natural instincts to follow a trail (graphically and symbolically providing the scent of information, a la Jared Spool who penned Designing for the Scent of information where, in one example, he speaks about not “obscuring your content’s scent with links that are the wrong size” (9). In the book “Don’t Make me Think,” Steve Krug speaks about helping the user get grounded by providing navigational guideposts to help users feel ‘grounded’ in space and place. (10) Krug also states in his book not to give users “needless words” so we don’t distract them. All of this relates to facilitating the user’s automatic and natural reactions to objects, words and symbols.

In Closing on Kay: Renaissance man and humanitarian

Perhaps Kay’s greatest contribution was to his generation’s devotion to teaching, learning and social causes, specifically in how computers can provide multiple points of view to the picture to solve problems and evolve society. “Kay continues to grapple with the deeper purpose of computing, struggling to create the machine that won't only recapitulate patterns in the world as we know it but will teach both children and adults to think, to see what other points of view might be” (3). Kay says that "the [information] retrieval systems of the future are not going to retrieve facts but points of view. The weakness of databases is that they let you retrieve facts, while the strength of our culture over the past several hundred years has been our ability to take on multiple points of view. It should be possible for every kid everywhere to test what he or she is being told either against arguments of others or by appeal to computer simulation. The question is: will society nurture that potential or suppress it?"(5)
Kay is an inventor who has truly lived his own adage: “To predict the future is to invent the future.” If we want a better future, we learn how to grow and stretch our thinking. Beyond communicating through talking and words, we need to immerse ourselves in play, the arts and other exercises and interests where we ‘get out of our heads’ or as Kay reiterated, the “I” (me and myself) point of view, and become an open vessel to new ideas and exchanges. Note that this supports not only advancement in disciplines of all kinds, including HCI, but as human beings in general.

Finally, Kay suggests that we need to look to the arts and aesthetics to help us shift our thinking and come up with new ideas. For me, this was one of the most important things to learn about this Renaissance man. As a musician, scientist and inventor, he is the example of the importance of arts in education – not just for artists themselves, but for the engineers and scientist of the future.

Chris Hawkins
Works cited:
1. Bush, V. (1945, July). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly. [pdf]
2. Engelbart, D. (1962, October). Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual
Framework. Report for Air Force Office of Scientific Research. [pdf]
3. TED.com, “Why you should listen to him” http://www.ted.com/speakers/alan_kay.html
4. Kay, Alan. (1987). Video, Doing with Images Makes Symbols. University Video Communications.
5. Kasch, Scott (1996), http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/GASCH.KAY.HTML#2#2 (Submitted in partial fulfillment of CS3604 course requirements, Fall 1996. Revised and updated, December 2005.
6.Wiki Editor, Baby boomer generation, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_Boomer
a. Wikipedia sources: Owram, Doug (1997), Born at the Right Time, Toronto: Univ
ofToronto Press, p. x, ISBN 0802080863
b. Wikipedia source: Jones, Landon (1980), Great Expectations: America and the
Baby Boom Generation, New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan
7. Ryan, Bob. "Dynabook Revisited with Alan Kay". Byte. vol 16, February 1991.Piaget (via Kasch)
8. Chapters 3 and 12 from: Winograd, T., & Flores, F. (1987). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Boston: Addison-Wesley. [pdf of Ch. 3][pdf of Ch. 12]
9. Krug, Steve (2005), Don’t Make me Think Macmillan, ISBN-13: 9780321344755.
10. Jared Spool (2004), The Scent of Information, http://www.uie.com/reports/scent_of_information/.

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