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The More Things Change…

April 30th, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Like any industry, ours likes to pretend that today’s problems are new and unique – it’s part of how we justify our salaries! And while the demands on what we are expected to do with technology continues to exceed the gains made with improved languages and hardware, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For example, take collaborative work environments. With today’s focus on outsourcing, far flung offices, and distributed supply chains, using technology to help distributed teams work together is a must. While some people might think this is a relatively new phenomena, in truth, Douglas Engelbart was working on this issue back in the early 60′s. A while back, I stumbled upon these two videos (part 1 and part 2 from here) of a presentation from Alan Kay circa 1987. About a third of the way through the first part, Kay shows a video of Engelbart demonstrating some really amazing stuff. In the presentation, Engelbart works with a colleague located about 30 miles away – along with sharing the desktop, they’ve got full audio and video connectivity. Needless to say, I was pretty wowed.

Further along, you see some amazing applications developed by school children! While some of this may seem trivial today, you have to consider when this was filmed. I’ve long been fascinated by novel ways technology is applied in the classroom – something beyond using a word processor or doing some research on the web. I have to wonder what has become of programs like those discussed in this talk…

These days you can’t swing a short iron without running into some discussion of patent law and how it applies to software (or more often doesn’t apply) but I was really surprised to hear it come up in the Q&A! To paraphrase Alan, while he feels that protecting inventions is good, he’s dead on when he says: “there is enormous confusion between what’s an idea and what’s an invention”. He argues that there should be some protection but that it can be (and is) abused.

A little later, he argues for a more than just a technical education and as a graduate of a small liberal arts college, I was very pleased to hear him urge computer scientists to get a liberal arts background. He argues that the challenge is to find the aesthetic. Frankly, I think my BA in computer science makes me a far more well rounded individual and has allowed me to perform a wider variety of duties. For instance, these days I spend a lot of my time moderating meetings and giving presentations – with a strictly technical background, I might not be quite as adept playing that role.

Anyway, a very fascinating presentation by a giant of computing. I highly recommend you take the time to watch these; despite their age, they are still quite timely.

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