Becky’s Work in Progress

Ideas Without Research Questions

I’m in the process of making and remaking my way through a good amount of content trying to pinpoint a specific research question and focus.

I took Alan Kay’s early ideas about interface design and using personal computers as collaborative learning tools as my starting point. And I began with a general question about what the legacy of this approach is. So much of development has been driven by technological advancements and the market, but was the more utopian learning component completely overlooked or does it exist in any form? Are there any areas into which it could be incorporated now? What were/are the obstacles?

After collecting what I thought were relevant readings we’ve already covered, I moved into new territory. When rereading Manovich, I noticed that he cites Kay’s article “User Interface: A Personal View.” That piece has been particularly illuminating when it comes to the theory behind GUI development. The GUI itself was based on child development theory and built as a learning tool. His “doing with images makes symbols” slogan caught my attention in particular (see image).


Kay also did an AMA over the summer in which he commented on current programming languages, simulations, education, and more. And he put out a recent memo on the subject of education. He’s shifted approach a bit and lays out a plan for creating “automated ‘intelligent’ tutor systems” using developing tech. The memo includes a number of applications to potentially explore.

I’ve started on McLuhan (I’d never heard the phrase “the medium is the message” before this class, so I feel like have to read it) and Wegner’s work, trying to learn a bit more about one of the theories that inspired Kay’s model and about more recent work on interactive computing models as extensions of Kay’s work.

And underlying Kay’s theories is a lot of child development research, specifically by Seymour Papert, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner. I’ve read some Piaget. And I’d like to read more of this if I have the time before the semester’s over. But I don’t think I will.

One other thing I have not been able to wrap my head around is the role of language and reading and writing in all this. Kay stresses these things often, in a number of ways. They seem integral to his theories. He doesn’t seem happy about some of the impact computers have had on those skills: “it is not a huge exaggeration to point out that electronic media over the last 100+ years have actually removed some of day to day needs for reading and writing, and have allowed much of the civilized world to lapse back into oral societal forms (and this is not a good thing at all for systems that require most of the citizenry to think in modern forms)” (Time article, my emphasis). But he also makes sure to clarify that some things can’t be taught in stories. Additionally, the way he describes computers-as-a-medium in the context of McLuhan’s medium-is-the-message thesis sounds a lot like the way language has been described as unlocking a vast new world.

So that’s a lot. Based on all of it, I’ve come up with a few potential paths:

  • trying to map Kay’s ideas for the learning interface onto Peirce’s models, and comparing that to Murray’s take on design and Manovich’s take on software
  • something with Wegner, which I haven’t figured out yet because I haven’t finished those readings as of the time I posted this
  • looking at specific applications of tech today that seems in line with Kay’s vision and trying to determine to what degree it traces back to/is in line with that

Some thoughts about potential cases for that last idea:

Working Bibliography

Class Readings

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Deacon, Terrence W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Donald, Merlin. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain.” In Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, edited by Oscar Vilarroya and Francesc Forn i Argimon, 215-222. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.

Engelbart, Douglas. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” In The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Greelish, David. “An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay.” Time. Accessed December 5, 2016.

Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces: The Semiotic Foundations of Meanings and Actions with Cognitive Artefacts.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed November 2, 2016. Google Docs file.

Kay, Alan C. “A Personal Computer for Children of all Ages.” Palo Alto, CA: Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, 1972.

Kay, Alan C. “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer.” Scientific American 237, no. 3 (September 1977): 230-44.

Kay, Alan, and Adele Goldberg. “Personal Dynamic Media.” In The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 393–404. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Murray, Janet H. 2011. Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Sutherland, Ivan. “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System.” In The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 109–126. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Wegner, Peter. “Why Interaction Is More Powerful Than Algorithms.” Communications of the ACM 40, no. 5 (May 1, 1997): 80–91.

Wing, Jeannette. “Computational Thinking.” Communications of the ACM 49, no. 3 (March 2006): 33–35.

———.  “Jeannette M. Wing – Computational Thinking and Thinking About Computing.” YouTube video, 1:04:58. Posted by ThelHMC. October 30, 2009.

New Readings

“Alan Kay Has Agreed to Do an AMA Today.” Hacker News. Accessed December 7, 2016.

Goldin, Dina, Scott A. Smolka, and Peter Wegner, eds. Interactive Computation: The New Paradigm. New York: Springer, 2006.

Kay, Alan. A Powerful Idea about Ideas. Accessed December 7, 2016.

Kay, Alan. “User Interface: A Personal View.” In Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, 121–131. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Available at

Maxwell, John W. “Tracing the Dynabook: A Study of Technocultural Transformations.” PhD diss., University of British Columbia, 2006.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium Is the Message.” In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 7–21. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994. Available at

Oshima, Yoshiki, Alessandro Wart, Bert Freudenber, Aran Lunzer, and Alan Kay. “Towards Making a Computer Tutor for Children of All Ages: A Memo.” In Proceedings of the Programming Experience Workshop (PX) 2016, 2125. New York: ACM, 2016.

For Reference/If I Have Time

Selected works of Seymour Papert, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner

Selected works of Nicholas Negroponte