The Two-Eyed Man
An edited transcript of a video created for the Intertwingled conference.
KeywordsInformation Processing Technique Personal Computing Gesture Recognition System Creative Computing Virtual Hardware
This is how Ted Nelson spawned the movie Tron and a marriage that’s lasted more than thirty years. The year was 1979. I’d just left Universal Studios to write a movie about a video game warrior inside of a computer. There were no personal computers at that time [beyond] these. In L.A., there were many video arcades, but only one computer store for Home Brew-types only. I went there and found this book: Computer Lib/Dream Machines by Ted Nelson (Fig. 3.1).I read it cover to cover. Well, cover to middle, then upside down, and other cover to middle. There was an article about Alan Kay, so I went up to Xerox PARC and met the guy. A half hour meeting stretched into hours and Alan Kay became the technical consultant on the movie Tron.
We spent many happy hours in conversation along Venice and Santa Monica beaches. I wrote a script filled with “cool” science. There was a bit who wanted to be a program, and there was a video game warrior who wanted to be a human. The script was uploaded to PARC, and then I went up there and edited the script on the Alto computer, making Tron the first movie script ever to be edited using a Word Processing program. It sold to Disney and after eight new writers and considerable meddling it became the movie Tron. Groundbreaking, yes, but Alan and I think the marriage turned out better than the movie! We thank you, Ted Nelson.
As Thorton Wilder’s old fortune-teller says, “It is easy to tell the future,” but asks “who can tell the past?” It’s not just a memory problem, but one of too much complicated detail without enough perspective. It would be great if we could go back and look at the world Bonnie talks about, and, to some extent, we can.
Some years ago, Xerox decided to clean its warehouse and throw out most of the PARC data disks.
This work was part of the “elephant of personal computing,” which, as in the fable of the blind philosophers, is interpreted in different ways by different researchers.
The ARPA IPTO (Advanced Projects Research Agency Information Processing Techniques Office) community had lots of different views. The basic idea of ARPA was to avoid the disputes over different points of view that were part of the blind philosopher’s fable and try to do what scientists have done to figure out a universe that we can only approach piecemeal. PARC was an offshoot and microcosm of this community starting in the 1970s, and individual researchers were often part of more than one research area. I was part of the Learning Research Group.
Another group was the Computer Systems Lab, which did much of the hardware heavy-lifting and day-to-day tools. One group that is less well-known is the POLOS Group (PARC OnLine Office Systems), which was made from some of people who came over to PARC in the early 1970s from Doug Engelbart’s group.
In the early 1960s, there was an enormous wealth of ways to think about personal computing and networks, including Sketchpad, the very image of personal computing. Some of the personal computing explorers included Douglas Engelbart, of course, and Ted Nelson and Andy van Dam. The Grail Gesture Recognition System on a tablet that was invented the same year as the mouse—1964—and the conventions of making arrows, windows, and so on, including moving and resizing them. All of this was happening at that time: Seymour Papert with his Logo programming language and Turtle graphics; Simula; and some of our own stuff as well, such as the Arpanet, the Flex Machine and its first object-oriented operating system, the idea of Dynabook, and much, much more. It was an exciting time.
The Whole Earth Catalog and its folks were nearby in Menlo Park thinking big thoughts about universal access to tools. Not just physical, but especially mental. This was the first book in the PARC library, and it had a big influence on how we thought things should be. We loved the idea of lots of different tools being available with explanations and comments, and we could see that it would be just wonderful if such media could be brought to life as one found and made it. This thinking led to ideas of how to explain and explore by actually making things from computer stuff in the kind of general literacy we have for reading and writing. Now, we could include the reading and writing of dynamic models. This kind of literacy is best learned by children, so we started to work with them.
In the middle of the essay is a simulation of the Alto screen so one can see what things looked like in her projects and do the same things that she did. She started off by making a box object called Joe that can be sent messages to get it to behave. Programming in Smalltalk is more like training intelligent agents than it is like the more standard metaphor of a cook making something from inert ingredients.
I showed a demo we used to do that combined animation and painting tools. The animation effect depends on what the brain does when it sees two different images, one right after the other. Animators like to say that animation takes place in between the frames. This means that we’d really like to do the redrawing of the bottom frame while the animation is running. But these are different tools. In the demo, the animation tool is animating the bouncing ball, and you can see that it’s a bit weak. We’d expect that the ball would deform when it hits the ground.
If there were apps in a commercial version of personal computing, we’d most likely expect that they don’t talk to each other and it would be difficult to get them to talk to each other. This is a pet peeve of Ted’s. But in this animation, they are just objects, and any object can talk to any object.
All the demos and forms I used in my talk were derived from old examples shown and published in the 1970s and made without changing Smalltalk’s graphic system. The beautiful one-bit pictures use the Floyd-Steinberg technique, which was worked out at Stanford and PARC at the same time our system was built. But back then, we hardly used pictures like these, or many bit-map paintings because there simply wasn’t enough storage to hold them. It’s nice to take advantage of the larger storage capacities today. An iPhone’s storage, for example, is many tens of thousands times larger and faster than the PARC machines.
An ancient proverb says that, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Robert Heinlein’s version of this proverb is that, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is in for one hell of a rough time! My version is that, in the country of blind, the one-eyed people run things and the two-eyed people are in for one hell of a rough time. That said, we owe much of civilization to the insights and suffering of the tiny number of two-eyed people. Ted Nelson was one of those few two-eyed people. We owe much to him, and this is being celebrated in this collection of essays.
A two-eyed person—Ted Nelson—comes up with a glorious symphony of how life will be so much deeper and richer if we just did X, but the regular world acts as a low-pass filter on the ideas. In the end, he is lucky to get a dial tone. The blind won’t see it, and the one-eyed people will only catch a glimpse, but all of them think their sense or glimpse of the elephant is the whole thing. In our day and age, if they think money can be made from their glimpse, something will happen. They want to sell to the mass market of the blind so they will narrow the glimpse down even more. They could be educators and help the blind learn how to see; this is what science has done for the entire human race. But learning to see is a chore, so most, especially marketing people, are not interested. This is too bad, especially when we consider the efforts the two-eyed people like Ted have to go through to even have a glimpse happen. One of the keys is for the two-eyed people to turn into evangelists. Both Ted and our mutual hero, Douglas Engelbart, worked tirelessly over their lifetimes to point out that, in this dial-tone world, the emperor not only has no clothes but his cell phone can’t transmit real music. Yes, I’ve mixed a metaphor or two.
Another key is to make a working system of the future. This was ARPA’s and especially PARC’s main mission. Make something that works, not just for a demo, but for a group of people. Some of what I showed during my talk is what Steve Jobs saw, and the Macintosh was a result of his glimpse and also interpretations of that glimpse by him and others at Apple. But it missed a number of really important ideas. Many of Ted’s and Doug’s ideas have been missed.
So, with all this working against someone like Ted, why bother having visions? Standard schooling is already trying to convert two-eyed children into standard children, that is, into blind children. Why not just put more effort into this and save all the bother?
To me, the visionaries are the most important people we have because it is only by comparing their ideas with our normal ideas that we can gauge how we are doing. Otherwise, as it is for most people, normal becomes reality, and they only measure from that less broad view of reality. Toss Ted back into this mix, and you’ve upset the Apple cart—and that’s what we need! This allows us to see that normal is only one of many possible constructions of reality, and some of them could have been much better. In addition, the normal ideas in the future could be very different and much better from what is considered reality today.
Let’s be very thankful that we live in a place where two-eyed people were really supported in the 1960s and at least tolerated today. And let us also be thankful that we have a two-eyed person like Ted Nelson who has been tirelessly energetic about not just having ideas but also about going out and telling people about those ideas, not letting them die, not letting them get absorbed into the low-pass filter.
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