Computing ideas retrospective

There are several fascinating talks and demos I watched or heard over the last year.

  • Doug Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos” from 1968:

Doug Engelbart was a person of amazing vision, and it's unfortunate that his major ideas remain unrealised to this day.

  • Alan Kay’s talk from ~1988 about things that were done 20-25 years before then:

  • Steve Jobs’ talk from 1983:

  • Bret Victor’s 2013 amusing and surprising talk about the unfulfilled ideas from the 1960s-1970s:

What strikes me about all these is how many things were already invented in the 2 decades starting from 1960. That’s 30-50 years ago! It’s also disappointing how many ideas still remain unrealised.

I guess the forward progress has been hindered in some aspects due to the massive cycles of reinventing the wheel we’ve gone through: the PC, the web, and now mobile devices. Instead of inventing new things, a huge number of developers have been busy porting things that have already been done to new platforms (sometimes with inferior results). It’s hard not to see all that brainpower as wasted.

There’s a (seriously flawed) book called The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. Still, I think it correctly proposes that innovation is often about making something that has (a) a new capability and (b) a lot of limitations compared to existing products. So it allows an industry to get onto a new trajectory that ultimately allows it to achieve new heights, with the downside that the start of a new trajectory is likely to be behind the current state of the art in some dimensions.

From that point of view, these wasteful cycles are a natural product of innovation. Perhaps this process is unavoidable in the context of commercially driven technology industry and the inertia of existing solutions and organisations.

But perhaps they are, at least in part, the product of general ignorance of history in the computer industry? Perhaps the people in this industry are too focused on their own narrow domains and the future to notice the already invented wheels lying around?