Alan Kay: The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet

Watching this amazing video by Alan Kay, at OOPSLA 1998.

It starts off fairly normal, with some reminiscing about Smalltalk, but then slowly spirals onward and upward, generating one BIG insight after another. Here are just a few extracts — but think of this as a trailer, it’s no substitute for watching the talk itself.

The realization here—and it’s not possible to assign this realization to any particular person because it was in the seeds of Sketchpad, and in the seeds of [the] air training command file system, and in the seeds of Simula. That is, that once you have encapsulated, in such a way that there is an interface between the inside and the outside, it is possible to make an object act like anything.


The reason is simply this, that what you have encapsulated is a computer. You have done a powerful thing in computer science, which is to take the powerful thing you’re working on, and not lose it by partitioning up your design space. This is the bug in data and procedure languages. I think this is the most pernicious thing about languages a lot like C++ and Java, is that they think they’re helping the programmer by looking as much like the old thing as possible, but in fact they are hurting the programmer terribly by making it difficult for the programmer to understand what’s really powerful about this new metaphor. People who were doing time-sharing systems had already figured this out as well. Butler Lampson’s thesis in 1965 was about what you want to give a person on a time-sharing system, is something that is now called a virtual machine, which is not the same as what the Java VM is, but something that is as much like the physical computer as possible, but give one separately to everybody.


UNIX had that sense about it. The biggest problem with that scheme is that a UNIX process had an overhead of about two thousand bytes just to have a process, and so it was going to be very difficult in UNIX to let a UNIX process just be the number three. You would be going from three bits to a couple of thousand bytes, and you have this problem with scaling. A lot of the problem here is both deciding that the biological metaphor is the one that is going to win out over the next twenty-five years or so, and then committing to it enough to get it so it can be practical at all the levels of scale we actually need.


Here’s one we haven’t faced up to much yet, that, now we have to construct this stuff and soon we’ll be required to grow it. It’s very easy, for instance, to grow a baby six inches. They do it about ten times in their life and you never have to take it down for maintenance. But if you try and grow a 747, you are faced with an unbelievable problem, because it’s in this simple-minded mechanical world, in which the only object has been to make the artifact in the first place. Not to fix it. Not to change it. Not to let it live for a hundred years.


There is not one line of code in the Internet today that was in the original ARPANET. Of course, if we had IBM main frames in the original ARPANET, that wouldn’t have been true. This is a system that has expanded by a hundred million, has changed every atom and every bit, and has never had to stop. That is the metaphor we absolutely must apply to what we think are smaller things.


This notion of meta-programming. Lots of different ways of looking at it. One of them is that, any particular implementation is making pragmatic choices, and these pragmatic choices are likely not to be able to cover all of the cases, at the level of efficiency, and even at the level of richness required. Of course, this is standard OOP lore. This is why we encapsulate. We need to hide our messes. We need to have different ways of dealing with the same concepts in a way that does not distract the programmer. But in fact, it is also applicable, as the LISP people found, and we at Xerox PARC found; you can also apply it to the building of the language itself. The more the language can see its own structures, the more liberated you can be from the tyranny of a single implementation. I think this is one of the most critical things that very few people are worrying about in a practical form.


What they missed was, to me, the deepest thing I would like to communicate with you today, and that is we don’t know how to design systems yet. Let’s not make what we don’t know into a religion, for God’s sake. What we need to do is to constantly think and think and think about what’s important. We have to have our systems let us get to the next levels of abstraction as we come to them.

… and my favorite one:

When we think programming is small, that’s why your programs are so big. That’s why they become pyramids instead of gothic cathedrals.

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