A great thinker in our field is Doug Engelbart, who is mostly remembered for inventing the computer mouse. If you search Google you will find Doug's Web page, where there are 75 essays about what personal computing should be about. And on one of the early hits you can watch the demo he gave in 1968 to 3,000 people in San Francisco, showing them what the world of the future would be like.
Engelbart, right from his very first proposal to ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency], said that when adults accomplish something that's important, they almost always do it through some sort of group activity. If computing was going to amount to anything, it should be an amplifier of the collective intelligence of groups. But Engelbart pointed out that most organizations don't really know what they know, and are poor at transmitting new ideas and new plans in a way that's understandable. Organizations are mostly organized around their current goals. Some organizations have a part that tries to improve the process for attaining current goals. But very few organizations improve the process of figuring out what the goals should be.
Most of the ideas in that sphere, good ideas that would apply to business, were written down 40 years ago by Engelbart. But in the last few years I've been asking computer scientists and programmers whether they've ever typed E-N-G-E-L-B-A-R-T into Google-and none of them have. I don't think you could find a physicist who has not gone back and tried to find out what Newton actually did. It's unimaginable. Yet the computing profession acts as if there isn't anything to learn from the past, so most people haven't gone back and referenced what Engelbart thought.
The things that are wrong with the Web today are due to this lack of curiosity in the computing profession. And it's very characteristic of a pop culture. Pop culture lives in the present; it doesn't really live in the future or want to know about great ideas from the past. I'm saying there's a lot of useful knowledge and wisdom out there for anybody who is curious, and who takes the time to do something other than just executing on some current plan. Cicero said, "Who knows only his own generation remains always a child." People who live in the present often wind up exploiting the present to an extent that it starts removing the possibility of having a future.
Lots more besides to enjoy: on the way operating systems have been written as 'layered architecture … even though layered systems don't scale very well' — 'This is an example of the invisibility of normality. We're not even aware that we're accepting most things we accept. Any creative person has to try and force their brain to reconsider things that are accepted so widely they seem like laws of the universe. Very often they aren't laws of the universe; they're just conventions'. On the Viewpoints Research Institute, of which he is President:
The Viewpoints Research Institute is actually involved in three new projects. One is the $100 laptop project that Nicholas Negroponte is doing. That is coming along very well. The first 1,000 factory-built machines were built in the last few weeks. The plan is to build 5 million to 8 million laptops this summer, and perhaps as many as 50 million in 2008. We're very involved in that. The other thing is a recently funded NSF project that will take a couple of giant steps, we hope, toward reinventing programming. The plan is to take the entire personal-computing experience from the end user down to the silicon and make a system from scratch that recapitulates everything people are used to—desktop publishing, Internet experiences, etc.—in less than 20,000 lines of code. It would be kind of like a Moore's Law step in software. It's going to be quite difficult to do this work in five years, but it will be exciting.
The third project we're just getting started on and don't have completely funded yet, is to make a new kind of user interface that can actually help people learn things, from very mundane things about how their computer system works to more interesting things like math, science, reading and writing. This project came about because of the $100 laptop. In order for the $100 laptop to be successful in the educational realm, it has to take on some mentoring processes itself. This is an old idea that goes all the way back to the sixties. Many people have worked on it. It just has never gotten above threshold.
On the possibilities for computers and computing experience in the future:
How much learning is a person willing to do to really learn how to use a computer? The answer, over the last 25 years of the commercialization of personal computing, is almost none. Nobody really wants to put in any amount of effort. The things that people have been willing to learn have tended to be like the media they grew up with, which have really simple user interfaces. (The big exception is video games.) You don't see Doug Engelbart's approach to user interface, which was an incredibly efficient, two-handed interface that required training to learn how to use.
One way of looking at personal computing is to focus on the kinds of things that computers can help people learn. There are a whole bunch of things that can be done if learning, rather than function, matters. If you were to change the approach to the user interface, as we thought we were doing at Xerox PARC, to a more learning-curve-oriented system, then you would be able to accelerate the acceptance of the newer ideas about what computers can do.
But perhaps most of all:
… the reason I work with children and not adults is because adults are famously difficult to change in any significant way. They've made a commitment to the norms of the world they live in. Children are born not knowing what culture they've been born into, how the culture thinks, and what that culture thinks is important. Yet they are born with some built-in patterns of thinking that are universal. Since the late sixties, I've been interested in the extent to which you could cultivate the kind of thinking skills that only a few people use in the world today, by getting children to learn much more widely and much more fluently than most adults have. If you want to make a change, get the children to think differently.