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Interview with Alan Kay

In June of this year, the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) celebrated the centenary of Alan Turing's birth by holding a conference with presentations by more than 30 Turing Award winners. The conference was filled with unusual lectures and panels (videos are available here) both about Turing and present-day computing. During a break in the proceedings, I interviewed Alan Kay — a Turing Award recipient known for many innovations and his articulated belief that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

[A side note: Re-creating Kay's answers to interview questions was particularly difficult. Rather than the linear explanation in response to an interview question, his answers were more of a cavalcade of topics, tangents, and tales threaded together, sometimes quite loosely — always rich, and frequently punctuated by strong opinions. The text that follows attempts to create somewhat more linearity to the content. — ALB]

Childhood As A Prodigy

Binstock: Let me start by asking you about a famous story. It states that you'd read more than 100 books by the time you went to first grade. This reading enabled you to realize that your teachers were frequently lying to you.

Kay: Yes, that story came out in a commemorative essay I was asked to write.

Binstock: So you're sitting there in first grade, and you're realizing that teachers are lying to you. Was that transformative? Did you all of a sudden view the whole world as populated by people who were dishonest?

Kay: Unless you're completely, certifiably insane, or a special kind of narcissist, you regard yourself as normal. So I didn't really think that much of it. I was basically an introverted type, and I was already following my own nose, and it was too late. I was just stubborn when they made me go along.

Binstock: So you called them on the lying.

Kay: Yeah. But the thing that traumatized me occurred a couple years later, when I found an old copy of Life magazine that had the Margaret Bourke-White photos from Buchenwald. This was in the 1940s — no TV, living on a farm. That's when I realized that adults were dangerous. Like, really dangerous. I forgot about those pictures for a few years, but I had nightmares. But I had forgotten where the images came from. Seven or eight years later, I started getting memories back in snatches, and I went back and found the magazine. That probably was the turning point that changed my entire attitude toward life. It was responsible for getting me interested in education. My interest in education is unglamorous. I don't have an enormous desire to help children, but I have an enormous desire to create better adults.

The European Invasion In Computer Science

Kay: You should talk to William Newman, since he's here. He was part of the British brain-drain. There was also Christopher Strachey, whom I consider one of the top 10 computer scientists of all time. The British appreciate him. They also had Peter Landin. They had memory management and they had timesharing before we did. Then there was a crisis in the early 1960s. And suddenly the young Brits were coming to the United States.

William was one of the guys who literally wrote the book on computer graphics: Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics with Robert Sproull. William came to Harvard and was Ivan Sutherland's graduate student — got his Ph.D. in 1965 or 1966. William followed Ivan out to Utah; then when Xerox PARC was set up, William came to PARC.

A similar thing happened, but I think for different reasons, in France. So one of the things we benefited from is that we got these incredibly well-prepared Brits and French guys reacting to the kind of devil-may-care attitude, and funding like nobody had ever seen before. These guys were huge contributors. For example, the first outline fonts were done by Patrick Baudelaire at PARC, who got his Ph.D. at Utah. The shading on 3D is named Gouraud shading after Henri Gouraud, who was also at Utah — also under Ivan, when Ivan was there.

The Internet was done so well that most people think of it as a natural resource like the Pacific Ocean, rather than something that was man-made. When was the last time a technology with a scale like that was so error-free? The Web, in comparison, is a joke. The Web was done by amateurs.

Computing as Pop Culture

Binstock: You seem fastidious about always giving people credit for their work.

Kay: Well, I'm an old-fashioned guy. And I also happen to believe in history. The lack of interest, the disdain for history is what makes computing not-quite-a-field.

Binstock: You once referred to computing as pop culture.

Kay: It is. Complete pop culture. I'm not against pop culture. Developed music, for instance, needs a pop culture. There's a tendency to over-develop. Brahms and Dvorak needed gypsy music badly by the end of the 19th century. The big problem with our culture is that it's being dominated, because the electronic media we have is so much better suited for transmitting pop-culture content than it is for high-culture content. I consider jazz to be a developed part of high culture. Anything that's been worked on and developed and you [can] go to the next couple levels.

Binstock: One thing about jazz aficionados is that they take deep pleasure in knowing the history of jazz.

Kay: Yes! Classical music is like that, too. But pop culture holds a disdain for history. Pop culture is all about identity and feeling like you're participating. It has nothing to do with cooperation, the past or the future — it's living in the present. I think the same is true of most people who write code for money. They have no idea where [their culture came from] — and the Internet was done so well that most people think of it as a natural resource like the Pacific Ocean, rather than something that was man-made. When was the last time a technology with a scale like that was so error-free? The Web, in comparison, is a joke. The Web was done by amateurs.

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