We’ve been fooled. Fooled by others, and fooled by ourselves. We’ve stopped trying to invent the future, and have been fighting to reinvent the present. We’ve come to care about innovation. Because that’s the easy way, the comfortable way. It’s a language we understand: make something slightly better, sell it for slightly more. That’s been our idea of progress. We thought we were doing important work, we thought we were making a difference. But we weren’t. We were riding the hamster wheel of the present, trying to be relevant and popular, whatever that means. We didn’t want the present to end.
Or, as William McDonough would have said: “The Stone Age didn’t end because humans ran out of stones. It ended because it was time for a re-think about how we live.”*
The greatest minds in history have made our lives better, and this is how we’ve paid them back. By hitching a free ride on their ideas and inventions, instead of being inspired to think and invent in the same ways they have. We’ve become accepting of the world we were given.
“All understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears.” Susan Sontag once said. If we want to try to understand, maybe we need to stop being so sure about the way things ought to be, and instead we need think about what they could be.
Alan Kay is one of the fathers of the computer. He was the first technologist who pointed me in the right direction. When I asked him about the best computer scientists to work with, he sent me to David A. Smith and Bret Victor. More than anything, he rekindled in me a hope for technology and a future that I had began to feel was fading.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Alan was part of the Xerox PARC group of researchers. Here’s what the group looked like:
- 8.5 inventions
- 25 researchers working for 5 years
- Running the team cost $10-$12 million/year in today’s dollars
- They created a $30 trillion industry
And yet, 50 years later, we haven’t been able to replicate the kind of thinking that Alan and many others used, let alone properly implement their ideas of the future we now live in. We’ve come to care about short-term returns, and have lost our ability to think in spans of decades and centuries. We say yes to incremental thinking and we say no to leapfrog thinking. In Alan’s words: “The tyranny of the present is that it makes it very difficult to think of any change that’s not incremental to it.”
I’m sorry, Alan Kay. I’m sorry I fell victim to the pop-culture technology industry that deals with fads and doesn’t even know its own roots, as you once described. I’m sorry I wasted years of my life trying to convince all the wrong people that we had to think differently. I’m sorry I chose the wrong heroes. I was just trying to push forward an industry I loved.
I will make it one of my life’s missions to right these wrongs that humanity is enduring, in whatever small way I can. Much better a life spent blindly working on inventing the future, instead of clearly seeing the present.
*Quote suggested by Khalil Hijazin.