Innovation and The Future of Programming

Bret Victor is one of the best presenters I have seen.  With very simple slides, he delivers powerful messages.  I first learned about Bret by watching his Inventing on Principle presentation, which was inspiring in its own right. But his recent “The Future of Programming” delivers another faith-shattering punch.  You should go watch it.  Seriously.  I’ll wait.

There seems to be a feeling that innovation is slowing.  Bret’s period presentation brilliantly mocks 40 years of computer science.  Sure, now we have mobile phones and epic facebook games, but major breakthroughs seem to be slowing.  Bret is not the first to pick up on this, Neal Stephenson broached this idea in Innovation Starvation.  While there are startups making our daily lives more convenient, aribnb and uber come to mind, there scope is not exactly world changing.  Khan Academy, Udacity and Coursera however I think will change the world. (My new Coursera t-shirt is one of the most comfortable t-shirts I have ever worn.)

But each of those examples are shaking up their respective industry.  NYC fought to keep Uber out, hotel laws are debated for airbnb hosts and as much as I would love to see it change, I doubt the American school system will be radically different for my children.  When the old guard actively try to snuff a new idea (generally it’s with litigation), innovation is bubbling.  Arranging a taxi pickup is obviously superior to waiting in the rain, just to get “upstreamed” by another New Yorker.  But Uber shakes the status quo and is met with those who know how taxiing is supposed to work.

I think the innovation starvation that Neal describes is a result of Bret’s final point, “The most dangerous thought you can have as a creative person is to think you know what you are doing.”  The inertia required to change directions in a well established system is incredible.  As Salman Khan describes in The One World Schoolhouse, the American education system has followed the same model since children needed the summer off to help with their farms.  The most innovation I’m aware of in primary education is the “new math,” which unsurprisingly came out of the sixties.

But Bret’s idea is not new.  Published just two years before Bret’s talk in 1970, was the book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”.  Bret’s sounds like a modern Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  This same principle leads to great music.  I’ve listened to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories over a dozen times now, and my favorite track is Giorgio by Moroder, where Giovanni Giorgio has this to say about his early career:

Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So, nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.

When will we see drastic innovations in programming or education or other industries that are “well established?”  Perhaps a Jedi Master knows best: “we must unlearn what we have learned.”

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