Alan Kay on Marshal McLuhan and the Personal Computer

There’s a book titled The Art Of Human Computer Interface Design that I got for 2 bucks at my College a few years back. In it is an essay by Alan Kay. There’s an excerpt where he mentions Marshal McLuhan and his interpretation of the great prophets work and how it relates to computers. I find McLuhan hard to understand partly because I’m just not that smart. Alan Kay on the other hand…

This is an excerpt from his essay, User Interface: A Personal View (1989).

I read McLuhan’s Understanding Media and understood that the
most important thing about any communications medium is that message receipt is really message recovery: anyone who wishes to receive a message embedded in a medium must first have internalized the medium so it can be “subtracted” out to leave the message behind. When he said “the medium is the message” he meant that you have to become the medium if you use it. That’s pretty scary. It means that even though humans are the animals that shape tools, it is in the nature of tools and man that learning to use tools reshapes us. So the ‘‘message” of the printed book is, first, its availability to individuals, hence, its potential detachment from extant social processes: second, the uni-
formity, even coldness, of noniconic type, which detaches readers fiom the vividness of the now and the slavery of commonsense thought to propel them into a far more abstract realm in which ideas that don’t have easy visualizations can be treated . McLuhan‘s claim that the printing press was the dominant force that transformed the hermeneutic Middle Ages into our scientific society should not be taken too lightly-especially because the main point is that the press didn’t do it just by making books more available, it did it by changing the thought patterns of those who learned to read. Though much of what McLuhan wrote was obscure and arguable, the sum total to me was a shock that reverberates even now. The computer is a medium! I had always thought of it as a tool, perhaps a vehicle-a much weaker

conception. What McLuhan was saying is that if the personal computer is a truly new medium then the very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire civilization. He had certainly been right about the effects of the electronic
stained-glass window that was television-a remedievalizing tribal influence atbest. The intensely interactive and involving nature of the personal computerseemed an antiparticle that could annihilate the passive boredom invoked by
television. Rut it also promised to surpass the book to bring about a new kind ofrenaissance by going beyond static representations to dynamic simulation. Whatkind of a thinker would you become ifyou grew up with an active simulator con-
nected, not just to one point of view, but to all the points ofview of the ages represented so they could be dynamically tried out and compared?

Pretty interesting stuff eh? I just want to note that Alan was trying to find a correlation between the Personal Computer with the thoughts and ideas McLuhan had. I read that Kay had the vision that his Dynabook would be networked but I don’t think he had a total grasp of how networked computers could itself be a new medium in view of McLuhans thoughts. Interesting and confusing stuff.

If you want to read the essay, you can access it here.



There’s an informative discussion on this post from the audience at Hacker News. You can view it here.

Nacker on HN posted these links which might be informative as well:

In fact, McLuhan put most of his emphasis on warning of the dangers of technology rather than being some design guru.


13 thoughts on “Alan Kay on Marshal McLuhan and the Personal Computer

  1. Thanks , I have just been looking for info about this topic
    for a long time and yours is the best I’ve found out so far. However, what about the bottom line? Are you certain in regards to the source?

  2. The sad part is, Alan assumed people would be smart enough to “try out and compare” “all the points of view of the ages” but in reality, people mainly stick, fairly rigidly, to one point of view and any others are considered noise or worse and are to be shunned. Welcome to the web.

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