An Ill-Advised Personal Note about "Media for Thinking the Unthinkable"

Bret Victor / May 28, 2013

The talk I released today is called "Media for Thinking the Unthinkable". It's the most personal talk I've given, in that it was driven by my own motivations as opposed to someone else's.

Every talk is for an audience, and it's the speaker's responsibility to say what the audience needs to hear. "Inventing on Principle" was given to a roomful of software engineering students, and I spoke about things that I hoped would resonate with software engineering students. Likewise when speaking to people involved with computer art tools, or with data visualization tools. I certainly believe in the ideas presented, but the intent is always to influence a particular set of people with a particular set of interests.

This can, understandably, mislead people about my own interests, or my "field". I can be goaded into writing about programming, but that doesn't mean that "programming" is what I consider myself to be working on. It might just mean that I'm easily goaded.

(Well, what it really means is that a software system is an instance of a more general class of systems, so it's possible to write about "programming" using ideas that aren't actually specific to programming.)

I've seen some people refer to "Inventing on Principle" as my "manifesto", which is understandable, but untrue. If you were to ask me for a personal manifesto, I'd probably have to point you to "Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction". It uses a programming example, but it's not about programming. It's about a way of thinking. In particular -- a way of using representations to think powerfully about systems.

Today's talk doesn't overlap much with "Ladder of Abstraction", but it's about the same thing -- using representations to think powerfully about systems.

And especially (although I only dare to explicitly mention this in passing), using representations to develop a guiding intuition. Which is the sort of squishy-feely intangible mumbo-jumbo that you can't get away with unless you're George Polya, but fuck it, someone out there needs to hear it.

* * *

Carver Mead, father of VLSI and legendary engineering badass, gave a breathtaking talk at the 100-year anniversary of the Caltech Electrical Engineering department.

The department was founded in 1910 by Royal Sorenson, whose field was power electronics. As Mead describes it, Sorenson came on the scene just as the era of innovation in power electronics was ending, and the state of the art had matured to essentially what we still have today. Sorenson chose a field that was already finished. The future was in signals -- information -- but who could see that?

Here is the last minute of Mead's talk, and one of the most powerful and important statements you'll ever hear.

* * *

Right now, today, we can't see the thing, at all, that's going to be the most important 100 years from now.

It certainly won't be software. Today, software is the dominant field of systems engineering. But before that, there were integrated circuits, and before that, discrete transistor circuits, and before that, vacuum tubes, and relays, and mechanical gears of all sorts, and on and on, back to the hand-axes. Vannevar Bush's differential analyzer was a mechanical masterpiece which no longer matters.

I will not fix your vacuum tubes. I will not invent your Darlington pair. Any concept, technique, or tool that is specific to software engineering is guaranteed to have a short shelf life, at least on any time scale that I personally care about.

(Which is totally fine if you're into that, but this is my ill-advised personal note, not yours, and I personally care about mattering 100 years from now.)

So what lives on?

* * *

Claude Shannon introduced information theory in 1948. The telegraph was still around, although the (analog) telephone network was the dominant communication technology, and (analog) radio and TV were established broadcast media.

Not only was information theory relevant to every one of these diverse technologies, it made possible -- it made possible -- every communication technology that's come after it, including everything digital, everything wireless, and everything else that makes up our today-world.

All of the technology that went into the old phone system -- the long-distance electronic cables, the analog repeaters, the analog switch exchanges, all the other essential and brilliant and grueling products of human ingenuity -- no longer matters.

Information theory still matters, and will continue to matter, because it's a powerful, general, technology-independent way of thinking.

* * *

Right now, today, we can't see the thing, at all, that's going to be the most important 100 years from now.

How did Shannon see information?

Partly, it was Shannon himself. (As Hamming said of him, "Who but a man of infinite courage could have dared to think those thoughts?")

But even Shannon, without tools, is nothing. (As Kay said, "Leonardo could not invent a single engine for any of his vehicles. Maybe the smartest person of his time, but he was born in the wrong time. His IQ could not transcend his time.")

How did Shannon see information? We can't know that, but we can look at the tools that he used to see it. Here are some of the tools I see when I look at his paper --

probability theory

stochastic processes

calculus

graphs

information graphics

-- these powerful, general, technology-independent ways of thinking.

* * *

Right now, today, we can't see the thing, at all, that's going to be the most important 100 years from now.

We cannot see the thing. At all. But whatever that thing is -- people will have to think it. And we can, right now, today, prepare powerful ways of thinking for these people. We can build the tools that make it possible to think that thing.

We cannot see the thing. At all. My job is to make sure our children can.