The Case of the Provincial Nostalgic

Nostalgia is a peculiar filter designed for emotional gratification. It works by reinventing the past as a dreamworld unconsciously designed to fend off the present or to generate some sense of security in one’s own sensorium. The nineteenth century, particularly in its later decades, was notorious for its invention of culture worlds that were awesomely wonderful alternatives to the ruthless industrialization that fretted the age’s gentler thinkers.

Provincial is another filter, also gratifying, that represses the Other, variously conceived in terms of region, era, ethnicity, or sensibility. It allows someone to reorient the world and all of humanity around the self, as the self…

When you put the two together, it gets either scary or annoying, depending upon what’s at stake. All of which is an elaborate sigh of exasperation with our editors’ commentary upon a piece by Kay & Goldberg presenting their dynabook. Their breathless page is the case of the Provincial Nostalgic in my title: they admire these two for all the wrong reasons in a way that is offensive to others at the time and demeaning, really, of Kay & Goldberg.

Having whacked the hornet’s nest with my baseball bat, let me explain the offense(s) taken:

  1. O, please: does anyone really think that in 1977, date of original publication, no one had ever thought of a handheld device that would do everything and be connected to the mother ship of data? That is the least commendable achievement of the piece. Scifi is littered with versions of the iPad going back for decades. Star Trek televised in beginning in 1967. The next year, any American with a tomorrowland kind of pulse watched Dave and Frank use their 2001 Kubrick edition of the iPad. Stanislav Lem, Isaac Asimov, and many others did the imagineering for which the editors so awkwardly laud Kay & Goldberg. They started giving patents on tablet machines for pen input in 1888. So, really, to praise them for thinking of all the things a handheld computer could do is nonsensical. If they really did “conceive the computer from a radically different perspective,” the question might be different from whom? Certainly not from an enormous host of people who could imagine a computer doing such things. Which insight takes us to point number two, now that a vast swath of the past has been restored to visibility.
  2. Different from… What we ought to laud Kay & Goldberg for is figuring out how to make a functioning prototype. That, really, is harder than just imagining the device itself. How do you make parts small enough, capable enough, and fast enough? There wasn’t much on the shelf that you could use, though the idea of miniaturization had been around a while: transistor radios were demonstrated in 1954 and sold in the billions in the 1960s and 70s. The noteworthy factor here is that Kay and Goldberg presided over a team that figured out the software/hardware designs and the marriage of the two. That takes some doing. Their designer-selves drove part of the process in terms of ease and speed of use, their engineer-selves drove the concern with capacities and procedures, their entrepreneur-selves drove imagining it from the point of view of mass users wanting a “multimodal” device and children being able to use it.

It takes engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs to make real things that real people can use, Apple Computing being a case in point. All three do imagineering, each contributing a key piece of the vision, and if you lack any one of the three, you don’t get there (see android tablet culture and Surface un-design for useful warnings). What’s remarkable is that the Xerox team had a synergy going among the three legs of the technology stool.

Not that they conceived the idea of a handheld, not after all the reruns of tricorders and communicators and universal translators. But that they made a functioning device out of stuff that could barely do it, and that they won the battle that Microsoft’s Courier team lost to the spreadsheet and floppy drive guys. No doubt the editors want to imagine Kay and Goldberg as versions of their artistic digitalizing creative selves. But, really, the Xerox team was knee-deep in wires, busted circuit boards, and usability testers going wild with Smalltalk.

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