Sunday, November 25, 2007

Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)—Computers in Entertainment 2006

2006 ACM Computers in Entertainment
Annual Scholarship Awards Reception

[Newton Lee, presenter] And now, please welcome my hero, my mentor, my dear friend Dr. Alan Kay. (applause)

[Alan C. Kay] Thanks a lot.—Newton asked me to actually give a keynote address, but I don't think that makes a lot of sense and—Especially after Quincy showed us how to give a short talk. (laughter)

If I had to give this talk in ten seconds I'd just quote a line from the Talmud, which says, We see things not as they are, but as we are. And I think education is the process that tries to bring those two things together; that we're set up as human beings to survive, to be sociable, to use language to tell stories, to seek revenge, to love music; a whole bunch of things that are common around the world. But many of the things that have lifted us up in civilization have been inventions, not things that are built into us. So while every group in the world, including ours, is interested in revenge, not every group in the world has the idea of equal rights, and equal rights is a much harder idea to learn than revenge. We can certainly see that from looking at the average Hollywood movie or television show. These are all aimed, primarily, at the things that are built into us, and it is a much more difficult task to make a movie about some invention, like science or math, or why having law is better than having revenge, or why having equal rights is better than having a hierarchy. These are very difficult ideas.

So instead of giving a talk about education, I thought I'd just mention a couple of ideas that I think about. One of them is the amazing relationship between marketing and education.

So people who are in the marketing business are very interested in who people are, and what they want, what they're interested in, and so are educators. And the big difference between the two groups is that, by and large, marketing people are trying to give people something that, after the transaction has happened, this person is the same, but they have some new thing; and educators are trying to have something different happen after the transaction, where they would like there to be a different person there than there was before. So one of them is simply additive, and of them is kind of ecological, just like when you throw some rabbits into Australia. You do not get Australian ecology plus rabbits, you get a whole new ecology, and education is a way of stirring up the ecology in our minds.

Another thing I think about a lot, and very apt here today, because here we are in a very dark room, and this room is used for screening, and could be a theater. So one night we might go to a wonderful theater in Hollywood and see very good-looking people, hear great music, hear wonderful words, and be transported by what's going on. And two days later we might go to the very same theater, and we might even see some of the very same people, and we might hear great music, and great words, but the first night might be a theatrical production, and the second time we go might be a political rally. And if we undergo the same psychological processes in both places we are not educated, because on the one hand we are in the presence of a story, for the purpose of entertainment or a kind of enlightenment; we want to give ourselves over to it, because that's what we are as human beings. We are able to participate in the ideas of our species by telling stories. But when we're talking about things that have to do with our political process, or talking about whether we should go to war, it's a very different thing, and we need to be in a very different frame of mind. And I think the difference between educated and uneducated people is that they know this difference. And again, it's kind of what the Talmud said. If we treat everything as it seems, then we're in its power, whereas if we understand that everything that seems is something that we're actually generating in part ourselves, then we have some power over it.

So I think the last thing in media—I guess I'm basically a media inventor along with some of my colleagues and personal computing and the Internet—And the interesting thing about environments is that, environments are the situations where people learn best. So a child is born into an environment, and the child winds up becoming a member of that environment. If we wanna learn French, the best thing to do is to go to France rather than to take a French class over here—To embed ourselves in that. And whenever we create media, we are actually creating an environment, and McLuhan pointed out that an electronic media will become an environment that will start affecting us the way the physical environment that we live in. So he was looking at both what the book has done to us over the last few centuries, and what he thought television was going to do to us. And the most important thing about any environment is that it sets up, in everyone's minds, an unconscious theory of what's normal. The stuff that's repeated over and over again gradually disappears into us. And it's not that, for instance, violence on television is telling us to be violent to anybody, but it is sanctioning it. And this is something to really think about when you are trying to wake up an audience with some idea that; a thousand people trying to wake up an audience the same way with some crash, or violence, is actually creating a normalcy for it. Or a hundred vigilante movies a year is creating something in where vigilanteism seems normal, yet, our entire society is formed against that. A notion of revenge shown over and over again is something that appeals to deep instincts inside of us, actually makes us think that revenge might be okay, when in fact, part of our legal system is set up to exact that kind of legal revenge.

So we have to think about that, because people in the media business have incredible power, not over people's minds directly, but you have incredibly power over what people consider to be normal. So, in many ways, what education is about, I think, is, learning how human beings think about things. How do we think. And especially, trying to understand how we ourselves think.—Thank you.

Marshall McLuhan
The Talmud
Hollywood industry

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