Does The Tech Industry Need A History Lesson?

from the looking-back-before-you-look-forward dept

Someone anonymously pointed us to a fascinating interview with Alan Kay, famed computer scientist who is partly responsible for an awful lot of the technology you use today. The interview touches on a variety of interesting subjects (including why he dislikes what computers have become), but perhaps the most interesting is his complaint that the tech industry always looks forward and never looks back. Specifically, he’s talking about how few people seem to recognize the ideas that Doug Englebart showed the world almost forty years ago. Basically, he’s upset that in always looking forward, we’re either recreating what was done before or completely missing out on some of the better ideas that came before. This is quite interesting, as we’ve said plenty of times, innovation is an ongoing process rather than brilliant ideas that come out of nowhere. And, part of that process is building on the ideas of those who came before you to make them better. There is something to be said for coming up with alternative routes — either to the same idea or to different ones — but it’s always helpful to look at what those who came before you have said, to see if there’s more that can be built on. So, while there are plenty of stories of history (unfortunately) repeating itself in Silicon Valley, is it time that folks who work in this industry started signing up for history lessons to help them better think about what the future could hold?

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Comments on “Does The Tech Industry Need A History Lesson?”

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_Jon says:

I think part of the problem is the “not invented here” syndrome that many industries have.

Another part is that most code (if you want to be that specific) is not generic enough to be used. Many applications that were designed to be “modular” and “re-usable” really aren’t. Look at how bloated Windows is, for example. And they haven’t reached a point in their life-cycle that modularity is paying off.

A third part is related to patents and trademarks – a topic you touch on frequently. Companies will try something new just to avoid being sued as a “that looks / feels / acts just like our product”, and a lawsuit ensues.

A fourth part is related to the need to be new and different. Any product that is built upon another product is going to be compared to the previous product. Not many starups / ventures are going to want to be saddled with being labeled a “clone” or having the “baggage” of a previous product. So they go their own way.

Martin Edic (user link) says:

Actually this brings up an interesting idea. Why not go back into the history of tech and look for ideas that were great ideas but could not be realized at the time becauses of technological constraints that no longer exist? You could build a business on this, of course you’d have to drop the concerns around being an imitator. As anyone who has started a business will tell you, imitating success is an excellent business strategy…

Corey Smith (user link) says:

Doomed to repeat history.

We have all heard the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

There is a train of thought required to create new ideas. Where ever you do you best thinking, you don’t come up with new ideas because it “just comes to you.” You come up with new ideas because you are thinking about ways to improve what you are already doing. If you don’t have any problems, you are not likely to think of new ways to do things better.

MyNameIsMatt (user link) says:

The sentiment is right, but...

The sentiment is right, but he is looking at the past. He’s looking back the his Xerox days when there were big corporate technology labs setup for studying these things. Today’s successes are now mavericks who work out of their garages.

He also falls into the too common techie belief that easy to use it stupid. Now that computers are about as common as cars, you can’t have a device that works for lots of people (we still have plenty of flaws), and expect them to go through some kind of extensive learning curve. Sure, there could be benefits as you learn something more sophisticated and more power once you know how to use it, but the computer wouldn’t be a ubiquitous today if it wasn’t so “easy to use” (again, it’s not really easy to use yet, but I digress).

I like the sentiment he throws out, and part of the problem that highlights correctly is because of the education we get in technology at school. Back in his day, the computer scientist was really an engineer. Today a computer scientist is a computer scientist and more often a coder than a traditional engineer. We aren’t looking to change the tools, but to use the tools to their optimum.

I could go on, but he’s right and he’s wrong. Although, when isn’t that true?

Tony Fu says:

Yep.. Great Idea like the Tri-nary computer was ig

Our computer is designed wrong from the ground up. It should not have been binary. It should have been Trinary. What’s the difference between that $1 million in your bank account and and 500K?? Just one bit. The obsession to create faster and faster computers is just like building faster trains that derail at the drop of one bit. Well.. Too late now.. 🙂

— Tony Fu

RatKilla says:

Die Rats...

Someone clever once said to never worry about someone stealing your “original” idea. If it is truly “original” you will have to ram it down their throat. Well that is true, but only until the rats figure out your making money. Imagine scraps of meat thrown in the middle of a room full of rats that have not eaten for weeks. I feel you might see the similarity in the way ideas are devoured today. If I ever invent anything oh let’s say “cold fusion”. I will keep it to myself and let it die with me. I would rather see the rats die then let them feed off my ideas.

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