Thirty-one years since Steve Jobs visited Xerox Parc, and forty-two years after the initial conception by computing visionary Alan Kay, Steve Jobs has finally released the first dynabook.
Or has he?
Is the iPad a dynabook?
Physically similar, the dynabook was conceived as a 9-by-12-inch tablet. It had a GUI. It was intended to make media available to students. It was designed as an intensely personal computer—“A Personal Computer For Children Of All Ages” [check, check, check, check].
All these features covered, and many, many more besides. The iPad’s refinements would have been beyond imagining all those years ago. Yet something is missing.
En route to developing the dynabook—or so they thought—Xerox PARC developed the Alto. Here is what Steve Jobs said about the Alto:
“And they showed me really three things. But I was so blinded by the first one I didn’t even really see the other two. One of the things they showed me was object orienting programming they showed me that but I didn’t even see that. The other one they showed me was a networked computer system…they had over a hundred Alto computers all networked using email etc., etc., I didn’t even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
In hindsight, Jobs sees that the GUI blinded him to networking and object-oriented programming. But he’s realised these now. So the iPad is a dynabook!
Not so fast.
Alan Kay conceived of the dynabook as being a constructive technology—allowing children of all ages being able to construct knowledge:
“One of the problems with the way computers are used in education is that they are most often just an extension of this idea that learning means just learning accepted facts. But what really interests me is using computers to transmit ideas, points of view, ways of thinking. You don’t need a computer for this, but just as with a musical instrument, once you get onto this way of using them, then the computer is a great amplifier for learning.”
For Alan Kay, the defining feature of a dynabook is the constructive nature of the device. The iPad, in contrast, heavily construes the user as a consumer of information; not a generator of such.
The iPad has no Logo. No Squeak. No Scratch. No spreadsheet for your ideas. It is not end-user programmable, nor can it be. (Developers are precluded from shipping interpreters and run-times for higher-level languages.) Moreover, its constrained multi-tasking precludes intermixing multiple programs to achieve goals; stymying the user from mixing media beyond the imagination of other people.
It is ironic that the most refined, most captivating, most powerful and most advanced technological implementation of this 40 year old vision misses the mark by construing its users as consumers.
That day in 1979, Steve Jobs missed a fourth thing: the spirit of constructivism. Alan Kay’s desire to magnify children’s creativity through an intensely personal computer is yet to be realised.