Alan Kay on software

From The Early History of Smalltalk:

I think the enormous commercialization of personal computering has smothered much of the kind of work that used to go on in universities and research labs, by sucking the talented kids towards practical applications. With companies so risk-adverse towards doing their own hardware, and the hardware companies betraying no real understanding of software, the result has been a great step backwards in most respects.

A twentieth century problem is that technology has become too “easy”. When it was hard to do anything whether good or bad, enough time was taken so that the result was usually good. Now we can make things almost trivially, especially in software, but most of the designs are trivial as well. This is inverse vandalism: the making of things because you can. Couple this to even less sophisticated buyers and you have generated an exploitation marketplace similar to that set up for teenagers. A counter to this is to generate enormous disatisfaction with one’s designs using the entire history of human art as a standard and goal. Then the trick is to decouple the disatisfaction from self worth–otherwise it is either too depressing or one stops too soon with trivial results.

I will leave the story of early Smalltalk in 1981 when an extensive series of articles on Smalltalk-80 was published in Byte magazine, [Byte 1981] followed by Adele’s and Dave Robsons books [Goldberg 1983] and the official release of the system in 1983. Now programmers could easily implement the virtual machine without having to reinvent it, and, in several cases, groups were able to roll their own image of basic classes. In spite of having to run almost everywhere on moribund HW architectures, Smalltalk has proliferated amazingly well (in part because of tremendous optimization efforts on these machines) [Deutsch 83]. As far as I can tell, it still seems to be the most widely used system that claims to be object-oriented. It is incredible to me that no one since has come up with a qualitatively better idea that is as simple, elegant, easy to program, practical, and comprehensive. (It’s a pity that we didn’t know about PROLOG then or vice versa, the combinations of the two languages done subsequently are quite intriguing).

While justly applauding Dan, Adele and the others that made Smalltalk possible, we must wonder at the same time: where are the Dans and the Adeles of the ’80s and ’90s that will take us to the next stage?

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