Of all the dangers that presently confront us, what scares me far more than acetone peroxide or bird flu is a total loss of historical memory. I regularly meet young people who have no idea who Margaret Thatcher is, let alone Tom Paine or Julius Caesar. Our consumer-celebrity-gaming-video culture has become so intense and opaque that kids seem to live in a permanent present: one where artefacts and people of the past are visible (pyramids, dinosaurs, Trojans), but merely as sets and props, as freely selectable ‘plot’ and ‘content’ devices. What’s particularly galling is that this is happening just as technology finally becomes powerful enough to give us an unprecedented grasp of the past.
When I joined Byte magazine back in 1983, that journal (now history) was at the top of its game, the unrivalled mouthpiece of a thrilling new technology. And no issue of Byte better symbolised such optimism than the famous Smalltalk issue of August 1981. Between its covers, the movers and shakers of PARC, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, laid out their ideas for the future of media, as embodied in the Smalltalk programming language they’d created and the hardware they’d invented to run it on. Of course, Smalltalk itself faded into history, but its legacy is in front of you whenever you sit at your PC – there’d be no Macintosh, no Windows, no C++ or C#, no Word, no Java without the ideas of object orientation and visual user interfaces that it pioneered.
What far fewer people remember is that Smalltalk was actually only one component of a larger encompassing idea called the Dynabook, the brainchild of Alan Kay, who defined it as ‘a hand-held, high-performance computer with a high-resolution display, input and output devices supporting visual and audio communication paths, and network connections to shared information sources’. The Dynabook was intended to become universally available, to become everyone’s reference library, postman, teacher and entertainer.
Kay – whose most memorable dictum was ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it’ – was one of the founders of PARC and one of the 20th century’s great technical geniuses. He’s still active in his own research firm and via a Senior Fellowship at HP, and hasn’t exactly gone short of recognition. He was awarded the Turing Prize in 2003, but is more likely to be recognised by a member of the ACM than by a Sun reader, unlike Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who’ve both prospered off his ideas. I’ve met him a couple of times and seen him speak – both remarkable experiences.
When Kay conceived the Dynabook back in the mid-1970s, it couldn’t be made using the existing technology. Even making a desktop version of the visual user interface required highly expensive workstations built from discrete ECL logic and custom CRT tubes, so that Xerox never could sell enough to recoup its investment. Then Steve Jobs visited PARC, pinched the look (but not the substance) and Apple creamed all the rewards ten years later.
The Dynabook could be made now, but the inspiration that imagined it has evaporated, crushed by the relentless pursuit of profit and intellectual property protection among telecoms companies and content owners. Recent advances in PDA, mobile phone, MP3 player and mobile comms technologies have put in place all that’s needed to make a Dynabook. Somewhat bigger than an iPAQ but smaller than the smallest Sony VAIO, it would use a tablet form-factor and have a permanent Internet connection via GPRS or UMTS and WiMAX. Its search engine would let you browse huge online libraries of books, pictures, films, records, maps and scientific papers. CPU power, graphics ability, battery life and connectivity are all here, but at a price beyond the reach of most people.