Alan Kay and his wife Bonnie MacBird were at a dinner at Al Gore’s house, and Bonnie was talking to Al: “Most of the stuff that’s worthwhile knowing is still in books, and those books are in free public libraries, and the real haves and have nots are the people who have or have not the discernment to go in and use those libraries. The biggest problem is that there already is a universal access to the most important knowledge in our civilization and most people aren’t using it,” she said.
Many years later, Alan thinks Bonnie is still right. He writes to me: “I sometimes in talks tell about how few computerists know about Doug Engelbart despite what you can get in the first 10 hits by typing “engelbart” into Google. This means most computerists haven’t “had the discernment” to use what a bunch of us tried to make for the world. One way to think about elementary education today is that part of its job is to create that discernment in children.”
I reply: “The next story shall be about discernment in children!”
Before we can nurture discernment in children, though, we must nurture it in ourselves. While it may be difficult to quantify the knowledge –– as a percentage of all knowledge in history –– that the average adult has, it’s closer to 0% than 100%. We don’t know much about anything. “I know everything that’s going on in the world today!” you think, but that’s not saying much. We all know the present well, it’s the least interesting place to live in. Living in the past, and therefore living in the future, is the most interesting place to live in. Many of humanity’s greatest ideas, across many fields, were from the past, sometimes thousands of years ago. Most great ideas haven’t seen the light of day. The past is not a cruder version of a richer present, it’s often a richer version of a cruder present.
The way to create discernment is to study the history of a subject, and understand as many viewpoints as possible, so you get a 360 degree point of view. You don’t want to be the teacher in class who proclaims that the book they are teaching their students is the ultimate source of truth on a subject. It may be the ultimate source of truth for the author, but even then, the author’s views may have changed after writing the book.
There’s no complexity in thinking about how to create discernment in ourselves. Most of the knowledge on the Internet is free. Through the collective effort of a group of people’s technological will, they have brought this knowledge to billions of desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets, and for the most part, we’ve failed to discern that these devices are vessels of knowledge. If we had the technology to safely upload knowledge instantly to our brain through brain-connected chips, would we resort to binge uploading the present instead of binge uploading the past?
As Alan Kay said at the beginning of his “Education in the Digital Age” (1998) talk (the same talk where he describes the Al Gore story): “We’ve been fooled for a hundred thousand years into believing that our perceptions are correctly revealing what is going on in the world. It’s only been a few hundred years that people started waking up and realizing that by being more careful, more probing, giving up the idea of absolute truth, that all of a sudden there’s a whole other world revealed, and it’s a world that’s a lot more reliable and gives us much more power than the world we lived in for a hundred thousand years.”
As you start to create more discernment, you will be able to funnel that discernment into children, and into other adults. Perhaps the most discerning adults on Earth should be the teachers. They are the ones we’re trusting to nurture the minds of children who are, as Neil Postman said: “…the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”
Thank you to Alan Kay for inspiring this story, and Yoshiki Ohshima for being the vessel of knowledge through your curation of Alan Kay’s talks.
- Croquet Website
- The Croquet Project Wikipedia page
- Croquet — A Collaboration System Architecture (David A. Smith, Alan Kay, Andreas Raab, David P. Reed, 2003)
- Croquet — A Menagerie of New User Interfaces (David A. Smith, Andreas Raab, David P. Reed, Alan Kay, 2004)
- Why AR Will Win — And Why it Matters How it Will Win (David A. Smith, 2019)
History of Computing Ideas
- Man Computer Symbiosis (J. C. R. Licklider, 1960)
- Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (Doug Engelbart, 1962)
- The Computer as a Communication Device (J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor, 1968)
- Naming and Synchronization in a Decentralized Computer System (David P. Reed, 1979)
Stories I’ve Written
- Croquet: A 30-Year Old Cosmic Dream of Augmented Reality, Collaboration, and 5G.
- A Room Called Croquet.
- One Mind at a Time.
- A Few Grains of Sand.
- The Internet’s N² Problem.
- The Button on the Radio.
- Shhh…The Real Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet.
- Keeping Maria Montessori Alive.
- Keeping Doug Engelbart Alive.