Notes on Alan Kay's "The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It. But Is It Already Too Late?" (2018)

Most recent update: 31st March 2020 - 13:50:21 - 4016 characters

From Alan Kay's 2018 talk The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It. But Is It Already Too Late? , he tackles the concept of STEM education and our view of the future by rephrasing standard quotes and re-examining underlying statistics.

Kay's rephrases his own quote "the best way to predict the future is to invent it" to "the easiest way to predict the future is to prevent it". He also asks a fundamental question: did we specify that we wanted a healthy future? What does healthy even entail? He next turns to Einstein's quote of "We cannot solve our problems with the same levels of thinking that we used to create them" and then rephrases it to the corollary of "If your thinking abilities are weak and you have to use strong thinking to realize this, you are going to be in real trouble".

Flea markets are a view into the now defunct past, representing our misplaced desires (or short thinking) in making things. Kay notes that at some stage these items were invented and mass produced, potentially with a true purpose, but now they live as singletons, with both their purpose and number lost. When we create we should be aware that this is the likely fate of almost all of our work.

From Marshall McLuhan he pulls the quote "Children are the messages we send to the future". He rephrases this to "Children are the future that we send to the future". Rather than asking "What can we do right now to fix these issues?" we should be asking "How can we prepare future generations to fix the issues that we've created for them?". He notes that many of the innovations begun at Xerox PARC were done by second and third generation graduate students and took decades. They were more responsible for creating the principal investigators of the future.

It's not just about ideas, it's not just about technology, you're actually creating agents to send forward.

This implies three questions to ponder: "What can children learn?" (specifically: What can they learn beyond us? Most adults think the best thing they can do for a child is for them to become like them. This misses the ever continuing progression of humanity.), "What do they need to learn?", and "How can we help them?".

By far the best way to predict the future is to invent the children who will invent it.

Focusing on the question of "What can children learn and do?", he quotes Jerome Bruner, "Any subject can be taught to anyone in an intellectually honest form if we heed their level of development". He notes that Ted Williams, "regarded as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history", invented the batting tee for his own practice. This provides a perfect answer to "What can children start with that is the real thing?".

For children and "intellectually honest versions of subjects": What is the Tee-Ball of X?

For the process of learning he separates System 1 (akin to muscle memory) achieved by drudgery, a little of System 2 (akin to theory), a social drive to share and enjoy, which leads to time spent acquiring the skill with the joy overpowering the drudgery.

The main barrier and potential salvation are the adults. Most adults don't know enough to help their kids to the degree they want. In certain fields, like sports or music, you can find athletes or musicians to provide mentorship, but STEM appears to be lacking. Children adopt and learn from the environment they're in and most environments lack a strong STEM figure - especially important as the path to STEM is still too early to have the Tee-Ball moment.

The US has 1 million classrooms from K-8 and there exist 2 million retired STEM experts - the number of experts who could assist teachers is far larger than the number of classrooms that need help. This is the type of help that our future generations will need. That's how we can help the next generation invent the future.