Back to the future

Hi! My name is Stuart Malcolm, I have been creating software since the early 1980’s and for the past decade have been working on clinical trials.

This is my rant blog..

The computer revolution hasn’t happened yet

In 1997, Alan Kay in his speech “The computer revolution hasn’t happened yet”, observed that:

“The commercial computer is now about 50 years old and is still imitating the paper culture that came before it”

Alan Kay

And 20 years later, these ‘paper based’ ways of working with computers have become entrenched, while at the same time, the number of people using computers has grown exponentially.

In 2019 Gartner reported that there were 1 Billion knowledge workers worldwide.

A billion workers using Word Processor and Spreadsheets as if they were paper-based journals and ledgers in the 18th century.

Augmented human intellect

The ‘computer revolution’ that Alan Kay was talking about roots that go back to Doug Englebart’s visionary 1962 paper Augmented human intellect : A conceptual framework in which he describes how interactive groupware could be used to augment human intellect – not just individual humans, but collectively.

“The better we get at getting better, the faster we will get better.”

Doug Englebart

Four classes of “augmentation methods” are identified:

  1. Artifacts — physical objects designed to provide for human comfort, for the manipulation of things or materials, and for the manipulation of symbols.
  2. Language — the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of their world into the concepts that the mind uses to model that world, and the symbols that are attached to those concepts and used in consciously manipulating the concepts (“thinking”).
  3. Methodology — the methods, procedures, strategies, etc., with which an individual organizes their goal-centered (problem-solving) activity.
  4. Training — the conditioning needed by the human being to bring their skills in using Means 1, 2, and 3 to the point where they are operationally effective.

Artifacts such as mice, graphical user interfaces, Email, the Internet, etc. have become the norm for all 1 billion knowledge workers today.

The other augmentation methods have not. However there are one group of knowledge workers that have been developing and adopting all of these methods. Who?


Solving the software crisis

By the mid-1970’s, the growth in complexity and size of software projects led to the software crisis – projects late, over-budget, low-quality or not delivered at all.

Over the last few decades, various technologies, processes and methodologies have been developed, such as:

  • The Agile Manifesto
  • Object orientated programming
  • Universal Modelling Language
  • Open standards
  • Declarative programming
  • Domain specific languages
  • Continuous integration and deployment
  • etc!

There never was a “paper culture” for programming to imitate, so programmers have had to develop new ways to take a concept described in “human” language, and translate that into “computer” language.

Today, programming is highly automated – code is generated, compiled, tested,and deployed automatically. To make this happen requires machine readable languages; it requires data about dependencies, versions, locations, inputs and outputs.

It requires metadata.

Everyone becomes a programmer

Clearly, not everyone will have a job title ‘programmer’, but every knowledge-based industry will need to overcome its own “software crisis”, and move beyond a “paper culture” to embrace automation.

This means moving beyond Word Processors and Spreadsheets, and learning new tools, languages, methodologies and skills.

This means adopting many of the techniques that programmers have developed to work with machine-readable data.

The computer revolution, when it comes, will be metadata-driven.