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Alan Kay’s Universal Media Machine


In short, “new media” is “new” because new properties (i.e., new software techniques) can always be easily added to it. Put differently, in industrial, i.e. mass-produced media technologies, “hardware” and “software” were one and the same thing. For example, the book pages were bound in a particular way that fixed the order of pages. The reader could not change nether this order nor the level of detail being displayed a la Englebart’s “view control.” Similarly, the film projector combined hardware and what we know call a “media player” software into a single machine. In the same way, the controls built into a twentiteh-century mass-produced camera could not be modified at user’s will. And although today the user of a digital camera similarly cannot easily modify the hardware of her camera, as soon as transfers the pictures into a computer she has access to endless number of controls and options for modifying her pictures via software.
If in modern culture “experimental” and “avant-garde” were opposed to normalized and stable, this opposition largely disappears in software culture. And the role of the media avant-garde is performed no longer by individual artists in their studios but by a variety of players, from very big to very small - from companies such as Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple to independent programmers, hackers, and designers.

But this process of continual invention of new algorithms does not just move in any direction. If we look at contemporary media software – CAD, computer drawing and painting, image editing, word processors – we will see that most of their fundamental principles were already developed by the generation of Sutherland and Kay. In fact the very first interactive graphical editor – Sketchpad – already contains most of the genes, so to speak, of contemporary graphics applications. As new techniques continue to be invented they are layered over the foundations that were gradually put in place by Sutherland, Englebart, Kay and others in the 1960s and 1970s.

Article  2006