Home / Do you read the old papers?

Alan Kay’s talk at O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference was widely reported.

Here’s one of the most complete notes from the talk. Read it, it’s good. There’s one thing in the talk that got my attention. During the talk Kay demonstrated a lot of cool systems designed more than 30 years ago. His point was that those systems were better than what we have today. To quote:

This stuff is better than anything in our handhelds today. We could implement it from they papers they wrote then, but no one reads the papers that were written in the 60s.

I think he meant that no one bothers to read those papers i.e. it’s our laziness at fault. But I found more credible reason: those papers are not easily available. For example I tried to find Sutherland’s 1963 MIT thesis on his Sketchpad, which pioneered interactive graphics. It’s not freely available on-line. You can buy a PDF version from MIT library for $29 (not $6, like Kay said in the talk). I did buy it as an exercise but the price is ridiculously high and it’s MIT’s failure as an educational institution that they greedily squeeze every last cent from their copyrights.

Google and CiteSeer searches for Engelbart papers also turned up nothing.

Even if those papers were freely available there’s a problem of selection. Thanks to web we have a problem: information overload. We need filters and one good strategy of filtering is a trusted referral i.e. if someone we trust says that a given paper is good, we might read it. For example I spent $29 on Sketchpad paper because Kay (whom I trust) mentioned it.

Ironically it’s people like Kay could fix this situation. Why don’t they put a web page with recommended papers and let the blog word-of-mouth do the meme spreading thing? I couldn’t do it because no-one cares about “Krzysztof Kowalczyk’s recommended papers” page but a lot of people would care about “Alan Kay’s recommended papers”.

BTW: for $50 you can also buy a book “Seminal Graphics” that contains Sketchpad thesis (and other break-through papers).