Personal Dynamic Media

The 1977 article “Personal Dynamic Media” by Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg [pdf] lays out a clear vision of what we now are quite familiar with — the laptop/tablet computer. At the time of publication, Kay and Goldberg had positions at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) doing research on computing technology within the context of learning.

Mock-up of a 'Dynabook' as imagined in 1977 (left); Apple's iPad from 2011 (right)

This article is concise and not nearly as philosophical as the articles we’ve read to this point in the seminar. Kay and Goldberg get right to the point about what they are envisioning, which is that everyone should have their own ‘Dynabook’:

… we should either build a new resource several hundred times the capacity of current machines and share it (very difficult and expensive), or we should investigate the possibility of giving each person his own powerful machine. We chose the second approach.

After this brief rationale, Kay and Goldberg jump right into details about some experiments they had done at that point evaluating how the interface and concepts might work (or not work) with users even though they did not have a ‘completed’ device yet. And instead of using their peers or colleagues as test users they did something quite simple and brilliant: they had children use the devices:

Considering children as the users radiates a compelling excitement when viewed from a number of different perspectives. First, the children really can write programs that do serious things. Their programs use symbols to stand for objects, contain loops and recursions, require a fair amount of visualization of alternative strategies before a tactic is chosen, and involve interactive discovery and removal of “bugs” in their ideas.

Second, the kids love it! The interactive nature of the dialogue, the fact that they are in control, the feeling that they are doing real things rather than playing with toys or working out “assigned” problems, the pictorial and auditory nature of their results, all contribute to a tremendous sense of accomplishment to their experience.

I get the sense Kay and Goldberg were educators first and technologists second. They were doing this not for the means, but for the end — and their end was to enhance creativity and learning.

They lay out specifics related to many activities one might use the Dynabook fore: recalling information/references, reading, writing, editing, drawing/painting, animation, music, simulations and so on.

The aspect that Kay and Goldberg did not foresee (at least in this article) is how we use our modern Dynabooks as a way to connect to a network (this was also mentioned in the introduction to this article by the New Media Reader editors). That is, we are increasingly using our devices not as a way to store information, but as a tool to access information. Surely by 1977 the idea of networked computers must have been common knowledge to technologists like Kay and Goldberg. Why did they not discuss this aspect in this article? Was it simply a matter of focus and space devoted to discussing hardware and software of a personal computer? Interesting.

Another functionality they did not ever mention was using a Dynabook to view/manipulate photographs. They discussed sketches, animations, even 3-D simulations, but never mention photographs. Is this a function of the graphical limitations at the time? Perhaps they simply did not want to get too far ahead of what they thought was do-able?



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