Etech a Sketch, Part 3

by Daniel Smith

Alan Kay - "Daddy, Are We There Yet?"
(The Computer Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet)

UPDATE: Lisa Rein has posted her Photos and Videos of Alan Kay's Presentation - Thanks Lisa!

(I will pick a few highlights that appealed to me. For more
coverage on Alan Kay,
see Daniel Steinberg's "Discussion with Alan Kay", and
Cory Doctorow's notes.)

Alan Kay kicked off the keynotes last Thursday with the grumpy (but in a good-natured way) refrain:

"The last 20 years have been boring"

We've had 20+ years of "The PC and Business". As Alan sees it,
businesses tend to learn something, and then stick to it (to the point
where ongoing progress gets stifled) The thought that most things work
"pretty well" is an enemy of qualitative improvement.

Alan sees a real problem in the idea that most people are instrumental
reasoners. The judgement of a tool, or an idea, is done solely on
the current, short-term concerns of that person. Does the new thing
contribute to a current goal?

For me, I don't mind at all that Alan is grumpy. He has
contributed a lot of very real thinking and innovation to the field,
and with the Open Croquet demo,
showing a shared 3D collaborative space, continues to do so. In
contrast, thinking of another grumpy pioneer, I doubt if we will ever
see Ted Nelson's Xanadu. My personal opinion is that Ted was a
forward-thinker who was bypassed by the tech of the times (advent of
the web), and did not/would not adapt.

Alan showed a series of old, but still very relevant videos:

  • Ivan Sutherland demoing Sketchpad, in 1963. The amazing thing was
    that this program was object-oriented back then! Ivan was drawing a
    few simple parts, defining and resizing a rivet. The system showed constraints. Very

  • The first video game, Spacewar, on a PDP1, from MIT in 1963.

  • Douglas Engelbart, in 1968, with a mouse, interactively drawing
    on a time shared machine 40 miles away. The machine had 192k
    of RAM, .5 MIP. For those with RealVideo, you can see "THE DEMO" from a Stanford site

...and more. Alan hammered home the point that a lot was
being done in the 60's because they really wanted the programs,
and were willing to make the effort to get the most out of
the equipment they had. They used machine language. Alan
said that nobody is currently thinking of the stuff that
was being done back in the 60's. Nobody is reading the papers
that were published then. He mildly chided that nobody reads anymore,
and that all too little attention is being put into teaching kids
advanced concepts.

Some demos of kids using the Squeak environment were very impressive. I want
to skip to the Open Croquet demo. This is a Smalltalk-based 3D collaborative
space, running on top of Open GL. There were a variety of environments
such as underwater, and rolling hills. He showed how to interactively
draw new objects into the environment. The environment is scriptable.
He showed a web page in a window, in the 3d space. (I believe there
will be a video out there from this part of the talk.. I will attempt to track
down the link, and update this in the next day or so -- dls)

Clay Shirky - A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy:
Social Structure In Social Software

David Weinberger has href="">excellent
notes on this talk. As does
Cory Doctorow There is also a HydraText (new word I just
made up) at href="">Trevor
Smith's site. And don't forget
Clay's article

Clay has been watching groups for a long time. He sees
patterns in large and long-lived groups that succeed.

The last thing that was good for a group talk before the internet?

"The Table!"

The internet is great for ridiculously easy group forming.

Clay had three main themes: Why a group is its own
worst enemy, What is happening now, and What should we do?

Worst Enemy

Groups often have an undercurrent of sex talk.

Groups often identify, and vilify, real and perceived enemies (I think of Slashdot posters vs. Microsoft -- dls)

Groups follow a religious pattern: nominating something that is very protected, and jumping all over anyone that doesn't hold those same beliefs (example: wandering into a J.R.R Tolkien Usenet group,
and posting something that deviates from the group consensus)

A group structure is necessary, to defend the group against itself.
In the early 70's, a wide-open access BBS called Communitree got
started. The adults really liked it. Some high school students got
onto to it and started offending the adults. The BBS collapsed
because the adults felt it was being overrun by the students. There
was too much freedom.

Technical and social issues are deeply intertwined.

"Learning from experience is one up from remembering"

Clay feels that people who work on social software are closer to economists
and politicians than programmers. That constitutions are necessary
for a long-lived group. As a group commits to its existence, chances are
they will call to defend themselves.

What Is Happening Now

There is a revolution currently going on. There are lots of people
writing social software.

The downside of going for size and/or traffic on a site, is that you
can't support group interaction as well. (I've seen this time and time again with Usenet groups and large email lists. When enough people in the group want to focus on different areas, there is usually a split. -- dls)

Groups can form very rapidly now, via RSS feeds, IRC chats, IM's.
(my comment: I think that we will see a lot more in the way of
transient online groups, often focused on Location and/or Time. Etcon
showed a lot of Location + Time groups (the Hydra collaborations, for
one). I also think that we will start to see a lot of Time/Event
based groups, getting together online from all over the world at a
given time to share, collaborate, strategize, etc. Some threads of
this point into what Howard and Alan were saying in their talks.
-- dls)

Clay has no idea why it took so long for weblogs to come about. We
could have been doing this 8 years ago. We got GeoCities instead!
"Why was there an 8 year gap between having forms, and the href="">Diary of Samuel Pepys?"

It was the Pepys diary project which convinced Clay that weblogs were not
going to be a short-liven phenomenon. Someone was committing to
do a blog for 10 years.

We are starting to see software that assumes that every group will
have an online component.

What Should We Do?

What is it that makes a large, long lived group successful?

Clay's answer: "It Depends!"

Some things are universally true:

  • cannot separate technical and social patterns/concerns

  • conversation can't be forked

  • cannot completely program social issues in tech

  • the group will assert its rights somehow

  • members are different from end-users - there will always be some group of users that cares more than average about the success of the group.

  • there will be a core group which "gardens" the environment

Some more:

  • The core group has rights that trump the individual in some situations

  • The one-person, one-vote system does not always work (such as an example to create a controversial newsgroup on Usenet. The people voting against it weren't going to use it anyway)

  • The people that want to have the discussion are the ones that matter

The WikiPedia works because it
has a "volunteer fire department" that can roll back versions of pages that are attacks.

Groups need handles (not necessarily a full identity). You need to
be able to relate "who said what, and when". On this note, Clay
states that reputation is not portable from one context to another
(your standing in one group doesn't guarantee the same in another.
Reputation is earned -- dls)
Users have to be able to identify
themselves. and changing identity is considered to be really wierd -
it's considered a transgression.

Clay thinks that you have to design a way to have members in good
standing. You need barriers to participation. He thinks this killed
Usenet. There must be some sort of segmentation of ability. Social
software needs to have ease of use from the group point of view, as
opposed to the individual. Ways need to be found to spare the group from scaling. Two way conversations do not scale well.

I agree with just about everything that Clay said in his talk. To
get the full picture, you need to jump over to the complete notes (I
notice that the HydraText version, at has *15*

I personally think that Usenet can be saved. I wrote up
an idea back in 1993 for "Virtual Newsgroups", see my href="">personal
blog for more on that. The gist of it is that everyone can have
their own personal filter into Usenet. Groups form from users that have filters that coincide (looking for the same keywords in posts,
excluding certain posters, giving preference to others, and so on)

Clay's talk was especially interesting to me, because I think tech is
giving us the ability to create groups (whether that is our intent or
not - re: Howard R's billion mobile devices) faster than we come up with
rules/patterns to deal with the social side. Going back to Hydra for
a moment... 15 people were able to work on a document on Thursday.
Could they have done the same two days earlier (say, during the Amazon
tutorial?) Maybe. My observation is that a simple text template,
which came about during the course of the conference, became a sort of
structure so that the group of Hydra collaborators could succeed. --

Should we be farther along by now? Do Instant Online Groups create a need for new rules/patterns? (Hydra)