People Have the Star Trek Computer Backwards

I was watching Star Trek — the early episodes — with the family a couple weeks ago when it occurred to me: Silicon Valley has got the lesson of the Star Trek computer all wrong.

Here’s the Silicon Valley mythology of it, from Google, but it could be from any company there really:

So I went to Google to interview some of the people who are working on its search engine. And what I heard floored me. “The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we’re building,” Singhal told me. “It is the ideal that we’re aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.” He added that the search team does refer to Star Trek internally when they’re discussing how to improve the search engine. “It comes up often,” Singhal said. “For instance, we might say, ‘Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard to ask a question.’ So in that way it becomes one of the design principles—we see that because the Star Trek computer actively relies on speech, if we want to do that we need to work to push the barrier of speech recognition and machine understanding.”

This is what happens when you live in a town without history.

The Star Trek computer, at least in the 1960s, was not ahead of its time, but *of* its time. It lacked the vision to see even five years into the future.

It’s hard to get a good shot to demonstrate this, but here’s a couple to give you an idea. These are from the Omega Sector fan site.

alternative-factor BOTHAlternative2   Computer_center Star-Trek-The-Original-Series-Desktop-Computer-3

Now you can say as they do at Google:

“For instance, we might say, ‘Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard to ask a question.’ So in that way it becomes one of the design principles—we see that because the Star Trek computer actively relies on speech, if we want to do that we need to work to push the barrier of speech recognition and machine understanding.”

But this profoundly misses the point. Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard, because the idea was that computers were not meant to be messed with by users. They were instrumentation, for doing advanced sorts of mathematics and using it to decide which colored bulb to light. There’s no keyboard because there is no text, anywhere, on any computer on the Enterprise to edit.

And the reason for this was that in the 1960s people thought using computers for text processing was ridiculous. You see this in the history of hypertext. Andy Van Dam, who built pioneering text editing systems at Brown in the sixties was reduced to begging for time on the Brown computers. Why? Because computers were for math, stupid! The scientists at Brown laughed at him.

This is the same set of people who would tell Jef Raskin at Apple (a decade later) that you didn’t need lowercase letters on the Apple II because all users would be doing is playing games and writing BASIC anyway. (Thanks for the example, Lisa!)

Star Trek is not a post-keyboard world, it’s a pre-keyboard one. You would think a company that makes its money processing the billions of lower-case non-BASIC words that have been typed into computers since then would get that.

The Meaning of “Personal” and “Dynamic” in Personal Dynamic Media

So what happened? What changed? Well, for one, we started type text into computers.

But something bigger happened as well. Because text editing became a way of thinking about computers. You see this when Alan Kay starts talking about the DynaBook vision in the late 60s and early seventies. He starts by saying, look, you could have some text on this, and you could edit it. And you could swap out different fonts.

And then he thinks, well, music is really the same thing as text, isn’t it? Strings of characters produce documents the way that strings of notes produce songs. When you “display” a song, you play it. So you could edit sequences of notes and play them without being able to play an instrument, in a kind of text editor for music.

And he goes further. The same way you switch fonts, you could switch the sounds. You could try your composition as played by something trumpet-eque, and then switch it to organ, without redoing the composition. The way you can edit fonts you could edit timbre in the different sounds.

And pulling from ideas like Sutherland’s SketchPad he moves to notions of editable models, he imagines a user-created model of hospital throughput. You set your assumptions about time per patient, and how patients move through different departments. Then you fool around with staffing by adding or subtracting staff from different departments and see where bottlenecks emerge.


And in his mind, this changes communication, and allows us to communicate in new ways.

Now when I want to send my manager this week’s staffing, I can send them this dynamic document. Do they disagree with the staffing? Well, the document is open. They can change the staffing and see what happens. They can look at the assumptions and edit them. We have a conversation back and forth through editing the model. And you can do this with everything — you send me a song you wrote, I like it — but wouldn’t it be nice to add some resonance to that viola?

Compare this vision to the Star Trek vision. Here is Kirk interacting with a computer:

Now, having just seen this episode, I can tell you that Kirk has discovered that this dude who is a travelling actor might just be an infamous war criminal.

This is pretty important, the sort of observation that Star Fleet Command will want to have in their files. So Kirk edits the file, noting….

Except that he can’t edit this file. In the Star Trek world information goes into the computer and comes out of it, but nothing can be edited.

He can tell the computer, I suppose. And then the computer can decide whether to splice that into the next presentation or not. But editing?

Other computers are similar. Here is a TOSGraphics reconstruction of a command and control system pulled from Omega Sector.


Now I imagine the way this works is this. The lights show you various information and projections about the performance of the ship. Based on those you can alter the flow rate, jettison fuel, or do two other things I don’t quite get.

But what if I want to change the model? What if I want to know what those lights would look like if we reduced load by dropping half our cargo? Or if the computer’s assumptions about oxygen consumption by the crew turned out to be too optimistic?

What if, discovering an oversight in the assumptions, I wanted to distribute the new model to Star Fleet Command?

Again, I have no way to find that out, because I can’t edit, I can’t distribute.

These computers are centuries ahead, in some ways, but they are already behind the vision the pioneers of personal computing were imagining at the time. Vulcan intelligence may be unparalleled in the universe, but the equipment Spock uses reduces him to a switch flipper.

It’s this vision of a population of computer “operators” (a vision that was the most common at the time) that guides the portrayal of Enterprise technology, and renders it so quaintly 1960s, so non-textual, so I/O.

Stumbling Forward Into the Past

So the question we have to ask ourselves is how Silicon Valley came to see the Star Trek computer as a vision of the future, rather than an artifact of a pre-Kay, pre-Engelbart world.

I don’t have easy answers to that.

One possibility is they see the personal computing era as an anomaly. We edited our documents because computers weren’t smart enough to produce and edit documents for us. We edited assumptions in Excel spreadsheets because computers weren’t yet trustworthy enough to choose the right formulas. Soon computers will be smart enough, and Star Trek can commence.

Another is the scale of ubiquitous computing. Perhaps there is a belief that in a universe where everything is a computer, the prospect of having time to mess with parameters is just too overwhelming.

There’s some validity to these arguments, though it’s worth noting that these beliefs are identical to the beliefs of the average 1960s computer scientist. Computers were smart enough and numerous enough for them to believe that the future could be hard-wired in the 1960s. And they were dead wrong.

There’s a third possibility, though, and one that scares me quite a bit. And that’s that they are unfamiliar with how Star Trek’s technology vision was proved wrong.

In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter. Either the personal computing revolution can be rolled back (as it has been in many ways in the past few years) or we can push forward and see what happens. It serves the interests of the Google’s of the world to make their computers dynamic and your interface static, because dynamic means control (it’s not for nothing the term comes from the Greek for “power”).

For better or worse, Google, Apple, Facebook and others all are building the “ideal version of the Star Trek computer”. If we want to move past these quaint, archaic notions, it’s up to us to build something else.

A Portfolio of Connections

I’ve talked a bit about federated wiki in terms of the way it enables collaboration with others across institutional boundaries. But as we go into Happening #2, I’m gaining more appreciation with the way that it allows for collaboration with ourselves across temporal boundaries.

That may sound really muddled. But consider the scenario I demonstrate below. I’m reading a piece by MC Morgan in the current happening about the Jacquard Loom. He’s discussing it in our happening on teaching machines because it was an influential example of a “programmable machine”.

And I start to get a bit of an itch reading that, because I feel like we talked about something like that in the FIRST happening (which was *not* on teaching machines, or even machines). And so I — well, I’ll show you what happened in this 4 minute video.

Incidentally, while I edited out some “umms” and “ahhs” and silent readings out of that video, it’s not staged. It’s actually me realizing in near-real-time the connection between Stravinsky’s idea that the player piano ensured “fidelty” to the score to the idea the Jacquard Loom ensured fidelity to the design, to the idea that the appeal of courseware to administrations is tied up with this notion of fidelity too. That we talk about efficiency, but the other concern has been there since day one.

I knew these things separately, but I didn’t see the connection, didn’t REALLY see the connection, until just then.

A quick aside: If you’ve done screencasts of educational technology before, let me ask you this: have you caught an intense, unscripted moment of learning on them? Probably not, right? The weird thing is with federated wiki this happens ALL THE TIME. 

You start to see the bigger vision when you realize that federated wiki can accomodate many types of data: formulas, equations, programming tools, CSV data. Here I pull in an idea and connect it. But maybe I’m in a student in a stats class and I realize I can pull in some water readings I took in last semester’s bio class, and use that data to work through my understanding of standard deviation.

Maybe I see another kid pull in his old bio data, and I remember I built a data visualization tool last semester, so I pull that in and link it to the data, which pushes out a tweakable representation.

The thing is we think we know what hypertext and reuse looks like. But I don’t think we have any idea, because we’ve been confined to the very minimal linking and reuse the web allows. And so the idea vendors are pushing for students on the web is the “ePortfolio”, a coffin of dead projects the student has worked on, indistinguishable from a printed binder or filled portfolio case.

On one side, have this amazing, dynamic, living tool that could help us think thoughts impossible without it, and truly augment our intellect. You could graduate with a tool you had assembled, personally, to help you think through problems. Something quite close to Alan Kay’s vision of Personal Dynamic Media.

And on the other side we have a gaggle of vendors trying to sell us self-publishing tools.

Our thinking here is so, so small. As David Wiley has put it, we have built ourselves jets, and yet we’re driving them on the ground like cars. We have to do better.

Update for Alan (2/13): The full route

In the comments, Alan brings up the very real issue of what happens as more stuff pours into federated wiki. Will you be able to find the connections? Or will you be overwhelmed?

And I realized I had changed the meaning of the video a bit by cutting out the three to four boring minutes of digging around the last happening. In the newer video it looks like I was looking for Stravinsky, but in fact I was not looking for Stravinsky at all. I had 100% forgotten about player pianos, and mechanical ballets.

Here’s an uncut (but partly sped up) video of the process. You can put the sound down and run it while you read the rest of this post:

If you jump to 22 seconds in, you can see I come in and put a search in for music. What I’m actually thinking initially is there’s a relationship to artwork as recipe. The punch card is like a recipe.

But in music, it’s really not. And I realize this as I read it. We’ve had sheet music for a long time, but sheet music is a collaboration between the recipe and the cook. The loom doesn’t collaborate with anyone.

OK, so maybe it’s a different kind of sheet music. I’m reminded of the Varèse Score by the search results. Such scores were the representation of an electronic video and film show produced by Varèse. Is that a better connection?

I pull up some third party materials, but scanning it, it’s not really the Jacquard Loom, is it? These are scores written on paper, and in fact it’s kind of the opposite of the loom — because even Varèse couldn’t know exactly how the music would turn out — there was an element of randomness to it.

But Varèse Score links me to a page called Art as Mechanical Reproduction. I’ve actually been on this page a couple times before, but I was so fixated on the Varèse possibility I didn’t really read it.

With the Varèse idea finally dead, I dig deeper. And as I scan it I see this Stravinsky’s Player Piano link. And the first thing I think is a player piano roll is very like a punch card.

I click it, and as I scan it I’m reminded of Stranvinsky’s obsession that people play his music without interpretation. This notion of “fidelity” to an original abstract vision. And this is the connection that ties all three together — the loom, the player piano, and courseware. We talk efficiency, but the other attraction, for better or worse, is fidelity. And I say “Ah, this is what I was looking for!” as if I had known it the whole time. But of course I didn’t.

And in fact, it was the process of understanding why Varèse didn’t fit that primed me to see the Stravinsky connection.

This is a long answer to Alan’s question, but I think the answer is it may get harder to find the thing you want, but it should get easier to find the thing you need. More links is more serendipity, more routes to the idea that can help you. And since the neighborhood will dynamically expand as you wander, all your Happenings will link seamlessly together giving you access to everything as you need it.