Alan Kay’s cartoon journey to the laptop

Joseph Lambert has created, for Business Week, a marvelous cartoon, following Steve Hamm’s new book, charting Alan Kay’s significant role in the development of the personal computer and, in particular, the development path of the laptop. To quote John Markoff’s excellent book, What the Dormouse Said:

Kay’s ideas frequently brought him into conflict with Xerox’s management. He had little patience for the company’s top strategic planner, Don Pendery. To Kay, Pendery saw the world in terms of “trends” and thought defensively, asking, “What was the future going to be like and how can Xerox defend against it?” This drove Kay to distraction, until one day he got so angry he blurted out [the now infamous], “Look, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Kay-if you can get a large part of the utopian dream out there, you should be pleased.
Marvelous!

I guess there are two ways of looking at the form of invention Kay suggests. The first is cynical – futures can be controlled and explicitly directed for profit. The second, and I think Kay’s intended meaning, is that researchers have a responsibility to experiment with, and propose, what is not yet possible. As Ryan Aipperspach once insightfully said to me: “as a researcher or designer there is an interesting responsibility to design and propose things that aren’t completely possible.” This is perhaps exemplified by Lars Erik Holmquist’s ideas about prototyping, or Mike Kuniavsky and Liz Goodman’sSketching in Hardware” conference.

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