Exploration Through Example

Example-driven development, Agile testing, context-driven testing, Agile programming, Ruby, and other things of interest to Brian Marick
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Fri, 29 Oct 2004

Three talks

(Or, "Just Another Boring Romantic, That's Me")

In one day at OOPSLA, I saw three keynote-ish talks.

The first was by the head of Microsoft Research. I'm sure he's a good fellow - most everyone I've met from Microsoft is - but it was just like a talk from every other high profile Microsoft presenter I've seen, down to that odd Gatesian way they have of gazing raptly at the person they bring on stage to demo something or other. It struck me as mostly a litany of More: more storage, more bandwidth, more cameras attached to more bodies, more visual editors to handle more complexity, more RFID chips in more places. More, more, more.

I found it profoundly depressing, the moreso for the answer when someone asked about privacy: "That's a hard problem" (repeated an uncomfortable number of times). No doubt so, but perhaps researchers ought to tackle such hard problems. I do not anticipate more privacy.

Ward Cunningham gave the best talk I've heard him give - a set of stories about the many Big Things that he's helped create: CRC cards, design patterns, wiki, XP. There were threads running through all the stories. Active waiting for flashes of insight. Building on luck. Simplicity. Communication. Courage. Attention to the physical world and the emotional world. Active awareness of others.

The Microsoft Research talk was mostly about piling things on top of things. Ward's was a story of things supporting people who change things that change people that.... Ward's is a story that, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, is more world-changing.

Alan Kay's Turing Award lecture was about three things: the power of a simple idea pursued relentlessly (the meme trail from Sketchpad and Simula to Smalltalk to Squeak), the as-yet-untapped potential of the computer, and our responsibility to our children to give them learning opportunities we couldn't have had.

His demos were cooler than the Microsoft ones. For a bit, that puzzled me. A searchable catalog of sky pictures and galaxies is cool: I plan to show it to my children. Being able to view most any location in the United States down to incredibly fine granularity is cool. So why is an ancient video of flickery black-and-white Sketchpad cooler? Why are Fun Manipulations of Two-Dimensional Objects in Squeak cooler? Why are not very detailed three dimensional moving objects so awesomely cool that I called my wife just to babble to her about it and say we had to teach our children Squeak?

I think it's because in the Microsoft Research world, we're observers, consumers, secondary participants in an experience someone else has constructed for us. In Alan Kay's vision, we're actors in a world that's actively out there asking us to change it. A world like that Cornel West says Ralph Waldo Emerson's was:

  1. Emerson held that "the basic nature of things, the fundamental way the world is, is itself incomplete and in flux" (p. 15). Moreover, the world and humans are bound up together: the world is the result of the work of people, and it actively solicits "the experimental makings, workings, and doings of human beings" (p. 15).

  2. Emerson believed that this basic nature makes the world joyous. It gives people an opportunity to exercise their native powers with success, because the world is fundamentally supportive of human striving.

  3. And finally, Emerson believed that human powers haven't yet been fully unleashed, but they can be through the "genius of individuals willing to rely on and trust themselves" (p. 16).

(My summary of what West says about Emerson in his The American Evasion of Philosophy.)

P.S. I feel bad saying this about the Microsoft Research guy. He can't help it that he doesn't have the vision of people like Ward and Alan Kay (or, if he does have it, can't express it). We're all just people, mostly muddling along the best we can. But Lord, I wish the genial humanists like Ward and the obsessive visionaries like Alan Kay had more influence. I worry that the adolescence of computers is almost over, and that we're settling into that stagnant adulthood where you just plod on in the world as others made it, occasionally wistfully remembering the time when you thought endless possibility was all around you.

## Posted at 13:30 in category /misc [permalink] [top]

About Brian Marick
I consult mainly on Agile software development, with a special focus on how testing fits in.

Contact me here: marick@exampler.com.




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