Computers as “Personal Dynamic Media”

Mary Margaret Herring

While doing this week’s reading, I was fascinated by Kay’s idea of computers as a “metamedium.” Kay envisioned computers as a medium for displaying other forms of media in a number of different formats. Based on this idea of computers as a metamedium, I would like to think about any unfulfilled or uncompleted design ideas today that Kay and others may have had in that first wave of design concepts.

To answer this question, I would like to start by reflecting on the notion of transparency in interfaces. When completing a task like writing an email, users are typically focused on the action of composing the message rather than navigating through the interface of their computer and email program. In this way, the interface should be transparent in allowing the user to focus on the task at hand. To encourage this transparency, many GUIs are designed to simulate other instances of completing the task in a way that users are already familiar with. To apply this to the email example, an email interface will likely try to have many other elements of word processors that the user is already familiar with to appeal to their past experience and make it easier for them to use. Manovich summarizes the importance of simulation in Kay and Goldberg’s design of the Dynabook by stating, “[i]n short, when we use computers as a general-purpose medium for simulation, we want this medium to be completely ‘transparent’” (2013, p.70). While Manovich was discussing a transparent interface for modeling data, it still seems clear that users will want interfaces to be relatively transparent when they are engaging in any sort of goal oriented behavior.

But, in Manovich’s book, it becomes clear that Kay recognized that computers as a metamedium can afford many things that the original medium could not. Take for example a PDF. When designing an interface for a PDF viewer, it is important to replicate the experience of reading a book or a printed sheet of paper. The experience of reading a book is achieved by allowing the user to highlight or annotate PDFs or jump to a page in the document. However, there are also certain functions that computers can perform that are not possible in books or printed sheets. For instance, users can search PDFs for certain words or phrases. PDFs can also contain hyperlinks that make it easier for users to find related information. Because computers as an interactive medium afford these actions, it would be a shame not to take advantage of these functions. For this reason, the computer as a metamedium should enable users to utilize these functions as much as possible.

In his history of modern computing, Irvine writes that “[m]any design innovators like Kay and Nelson continue to say that the computer revolution hasn’t yet begun” (2018, p. 12). I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Kay envisioned the computer as “a ‘personal dynamic media’ which could be used for learning, discovery, and artistic creation” (Manovich, 2013, p. 61). Yet, somewhere along the line, it seems that the user became viewed as a passive consumer rather than an active agent. While simulating the design of technologies that users are familiar with in technology is a great way to get users to feel more comfortable using that device it also limits the number of things that users can do with that technology. It seems that there is a delicate balance between acquainting users with their digital environment and allowing them to see and use the additional functions that the technology affords as a metamedium.

A brief personal note on how this reading applies to my research interests:

I’m interested in addressing the problem of disinformation from a user interface standpoint. My main quandary is how we can redesign the way that social media displays news to prompt users to think critically about the source and content before hitting the like or share button. Nine times out of ten when I mention my research interests to someone, they say “well users are lazy and don’t want to think critically” or “social media encourages passive scrolling.” While there is merit to this view, I also think that there are dozens of opportunities to take advantage of the affordances of social media and redesign it in a way that makes users more critical while preserving the good qualities (e.g. interactivity, community building) functions of social media.

As of yet, I’m not sure what these design changes might be. But reading about Kay’s original vision of computers as ‘personal dynamic media’ was extremely exciting for me and made me hopeful that some of these solutions might exist.


Irvine, M. (2018). Computing with symbolic-cognitive interfaces for all media systems: Design concepts that enabled modern “interactive” “metamedia” computers. Unpublished Manuscript. 

Manovich, L. (2013). Software takes command. Bloomsbury.