Alan Kay’s objects and arts

Sunday 6 August 2023

In 1993 (30 years ago!), Alan Kay wrote The early history of Smalltalk, explaining the origins of the language’s ideas, its development, and an assessment of its successes and failures. It’s a thought-provoking piece for a few reasons.

First, his description of the central idea of object-oriented programming:

Everything can be represented by the recursive composition of a single kind of behavioral building block that hides its combination of process and state inside itself.

(All his quotes here are slightly edited.)

He is of course describing objects. But notice his emphasis on the composition of objects. Many people these days offer the advice to favor composition over inheritance, which seems counter-intuitive to people raised on C++ or Java. Yet here is Kay, who coined the term “object-oriented,” literally using the word composition to describe the key idea.

He goes on to disparage object orientation being taught as a way to encapsulate data structures. He sees methods not as actions, but as goals, something I haven’t wrapped my head around. His original insight for objects was that each should be thought of as a complete computer, and complex systems could be recursively subdivided into smaller and smaller machines exchanging messages. It’s interesting to hear this idea in today’s world of networked micro-services.

Second, the piece is a real mix, moving from historical details about long-forgotten machines to philosophical asides (he references Plato, Leibniz, and Hobbes), to other computer luminaries of the time (Minksy, Papert, Perlis, Lamport, and so on).

Along the way are details about the difficulty of being advanced researchers inside a company like Xerox, finagling budgets and adjusting projects to get things done despite the environment.

Lastly, what motivated Kay was the idea that computing could become a personal activity. When he started, computers had rooms devoted to them. He struggled to build machines that could be carried. He wanted computing to be something that everyone could do, not just consuming content, but creating programs for computers to pursue individual ideas. In the ‘70s when the main work on Smalltalk was happening, computers weren’t used for content at all. When he said “computing” he meant programming and running programs. He saw computing as a liberal art: a way to see the world and a way to develop deeper understandings.

Because of this, his thinking about computing was intertwined with thinking about learning and teaching:

Knowledge is least interesting when it is first being learned. The representations—whether markings, allusions, or physical controls—get in the way and must be laboriously and painfully interpreted. From here there are two useful paths which are important and intertwined.

The first is fluency, which is building mental structures that disappear the interpretations of the representations. The letters and words of a sentence are experiences as meaning rather than markings.

The second is taking the knowledge as metaphor that can illuminate other areas.

The “trick”, and I think this is what liberal arts education is supposed to be about, is to get fluent and deep while building relationships with other fluent deep knowledge.

He calls this fluency with deep ideas “literacy,” and goes on to give a prescient example, including his dream of the ways people might use computers:

Another kind of 20th century literacy is being able to hear about a new fatal contagious incurable disease and instantly know that a disastrous exponential relationship holds and early action is of the highest priority. Another kind of literacy would take citizens to their personal computers where they can fluently and without pain build a systems simulation of the disease to use as a comparison against further information.

At the liberal arts level we would expect that connections between each of the fluencies would form truly powerful metaphors for considering ideas in the light of others.

The reason, therefore, that many of us want children to understand computing deeply and fluently is that like literature, mathematics, science, music, and art, it carries special ways of thinking about situations that in contrast with other knowledge and other ways of thinking critically boost our ability to understand the world.

Now 30 years later, we have not achieved Kay’s ideal. Everyone has a powerful computer, not just on their desk but in their pocket, but they are used for consumption and socialization, not computing. I won’t wring my hands about this: Kay’s ideal of liberal arts as a way to build deep fluency isn’t happening to the extent he would like outside of computing either.

I am interested in how to help more people learn computing in Kay’s sense. Highlighting fluency and metaphor is insightful. They are good north stars for education of all sorts.


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