“TRON came true,” says one of my geek friends, referencing the early 1980s film about a gamer played by Jeff Bridges who gets zapped into a digital universe inside the memory of a computer network. What my friend means is that today, entire populations are getting zapped into that digital universe. Avatars, auctions, blogs, social networks, and databases storing information about everything from bank accounts to medical records comprise primitive alter-egos that project our personalities and do our bidding — and if we command them to, they’ll do it while we’re walking the dog or drinking a Schlitz at the corner bar.
Perhaps no one is more responsible for making ‘TRON come true’ than Alan Kay — who, no coincidence, is married to the original TRON screenwriter, Bonnie MacBird. Kay consulted at length with the TRON filmmakers and MacBird named the character of Alan in the film (whose alter-ego was the Tronster himself) after her husband.
A graduate student who studied and collaborated with computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland at the University of Utah, Kay was one of the legendary Xerox PARC geniuses who helped lay the foundation for the billions upon billions of dollars in new wealth spun out of Silicon Valley in the 1970s and -80s. His resume reads like a history of popular computing: PARC; Apple Fellow; Chief Scientist at Atari; Disney Imagineer; HP Fellow; created the Dynabook design that became the prototype for laptop computers and, years later, the model computer for Nicholas Negroponte’s One-Laptop-Per-Child project.
The way windows can overlap on your computer screen in what we call a Graphical User Interface (GUI)? That’s an Alan Kay trip.
The Object-Oriented Programming that underlies some of the most potent computing languages being used today, like Ruby, Python and Cold Fusion? Alan Kay and his collaborators at PARC and the Norwegian Computing Center created the language, gave it its name, and used it to build the operating system Smalltalk, which was then commercialized by Apple in its Mac computers. Good system.
Kay has won almost every major award given in the field of computer science, including the Kyoto Prize, the ACM Turing Award and the Charles Stark Draper Prize. He holds honorary doctorates from Georgia Tech, the Universita di Pisa in Italy, and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
He and his team wrote the open source language Squeak that became the basis for eToys.
Today, he teaches at universities all over the world and is founder and president of Viewpoint Research Institute, which got its start-up funding from the National Science Foundation. Viewpoint recently developed an open source 2D and 3D programming language called Croquet that is simple enough for children to use.
Kay has said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” That is a statement that can only have been made by a GameChanger.
So you’re saying, “Okay great for Alan Kay, but I’m no Alan Kay. He is inventing the future and most days I feel as if I’m a victim of it; most days I’m lucky to fight the future to a draw.”
Here’s the thing, though — Alan Kay has not cornered the market on inventing the future. Everyone has the potential to create his or her own future. To do it, you have to improvise.
Here are two significant ways in which Alan Kay improvised his way into the future:
1) He stayed with his themes. In the unmapped frontiers of the future, it is the exploration of a theme that guides a business improviser toward productive outcomes, and keeps one from losing one’s bearings and, if you’re in Silicon Valley, becoming just another VC whore. Two strong themes run through Kay’s work: ‘Learning’ and ‘Dawning of an Era’. His focus on the learning, especially learning by children, helped him stay emotionally engaged with his work. The ‘Learning’ theme gives Kay his mission, his sense of purpose. He’s not in the computer science business — that’s about cold circuitry. He’s in the learning business — that’s about human beings. You could say that TRON was one big fat learning project for the entire entertainment business. An industry (CG animation) that didn’t exist before TRON today stands on its back-lit shoulders. The second theme, ‘Dawning of an Era’ is what I call Kay’s perspective that we are in the primitive era of the networked world. This perspective gives him patience and tolerance for the painstaking process of invention, as well as an essential optimism that the best is yet to come.
2) He is an artist. It is not insignificant that Kay is an accomplished musician. Musicians (with the possible exception of lead singers in rock bands) understand the sharing of ideas, the give and take, the harmonics that create the distinctive sound. Business in the Networked World is the art of creating wealth. Of communicating with one’s audience. Collaborating with one’s peers. Expressing emotions that connect people to your brand, your song…your future.