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Cycles of technology (#1191)

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, technology

As some of you may know, I’m a bit of a Papert-style Constructionist [1,2]. In particular, I believe that students learn better by doing and experimenting, especially when they are free to explore topics of interest. I have not mastered integrating Constructionism with the perspective that everyone should learn x to get on to the next class [3], which means that my classes are not fully Constructionist. Nonetheless, I look for ways to incorporate it into my teaching and research.

The other day [4], I was looking for books by Papert [6]. And I was reminded that, before he started experimenting with how children learn, Papert worked with Minksy on Perceptrons, a model of computer learning and artificial intelligence. Perceptrons were one of the early kinds of neural networks.

I ended up on Amazon’s page for one version of the book and found the following in a review.

But of even greater significance, the history of the perceptron demonstrates the complexity of analyzing neural networks. Before this reference, artificial neural networks were considered terrific, after this reference limited, and then in the 1980s terrific again. But at the time of this writing, it is realized that despite physiological plausibility, artificial neural networks do not scale well to large or complex problems that brains can easily handle, and artificial neural networks as we know them may actually be not so terrific. [8]

I found the review amusing, in part, because about fifteen years after it appeared, neural networks once again became popular, this time as one of the critical mechanisms for machine learning. As the reviewer notes [9], one thing that made them popular in the 1980s was that folks began to understand you could implement multi-layer networks. But it took until the 21st century until we had enough computing power (and, I suppose, data) to make neural networks a success.

It should not surprise me that it takes some ideas many years to become popular or successful. For example, we’ve been teaching functional programming in the first CS course at Grinnell since about 1995. I kept telling students that functional programming will become the next hot paradigm after object-oriented. These days, it’s hard to use a modern Javascript toolkit without some understanding of anonymous and higher-order procedures [10]. Of course, I wasn’t completely correct: We’ve reached a stage in which modern languages no longer focus on a single paradigm; multi-paradigm programming is the way to go.

Functional [11] programming also has a long history. John Backus, the primary architect of FORTRAN [12], wrote about the power of the functional paradigm in his 1977 Turing Award lecture [14]. Another John, John McCartney, included functional aspects in the original version of LISP [15] in the late 1950s. Going back even further, Church’s Lambda Calculus from the 1930s grounds the development of functional thinking. Was it popular when McCarthy decided to add it to LISP? I’m not sure.

Moving forward, Paul Graham took advantage of functional programming in building Yahoo Stores in the mid 1990s. But it turned out that too few programmers could understand functional programming to maintain them, so Yahoo Stores got rewritten in some object-oriented language [16].

Why is the functional approach now so important? Is this another case in which we needed to wait until computers were powerful enough? I’m not sure. Many advances made functional languages more tenable to those who complained about their inefficiencies, particularly inefficiencies associated with garbage collection. Or, given how much some people struggle with the functional model, perhaps we just needed to wait until there were enough people who’d studied LISP (or its variants) who had leadership positions. Someone out there might knows. Maybe I should ask my youngest son. Or maybe one of my colleagues can share wisdom.

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Alan Kay in which he demonstrated how easy it is for a child to make a drivable car in Scratch. I’d swear I’d seen him give a similar talk at EdMedia 2001 [17], long before Scratch existed. And, as Kay suggested in 2018 (or whenever I saw him most recently), all of the ideas he was showing were available in Smalltalk [18] in the late 1970s. Some great versions of Smalltalk existed long before Scratch, including versions for the Mac. Why didn’t Smalltalk become more popular? And why are there now many variants? More questions I don’t understand. But I do think I need to learn one better.

Then I find myself thinking about IDEs. Tom Reps developed the Synthesizer Generator in the early 1980s. While I see elements of structure editing in modern IDEs, I still wonder whether his vision of editors that only permit syntactically correct fragments will become the standard. Or perhaps they are common. It doesn’t help that I’m still tied to a vi [20] mindset.

I realize that these are just a few examples. The cycles are not uncommon. Or at least the long delays between great idea and popularity are not uncommon.

I wonder what unpopular computational idea/technology—with a small core of adherents and that has lost (or never had) broader support—will next become popular. If I knew, I suppose I could become famous or rich or influential [21]. Oh well. I do well enough.

But what if I got to choose?

Hmmm …

I remain enamored of HyperCard and HyperTalk. They empowered their users, and they did so in ways differnt than the Web or Scratch. Even my amazing wife could make her own stacks. I still don’t understand why Apple killed it [22]. In any case, I’d love to see a return of something more like HyperCard. Maybe it exists and I don’t know about it [23].

However, as I said, HyperCard was about user empowerment. And, sadly enough, it’s not clear that user empowerment is at the center of most technology development. I don’t think user empowerment will ever reach the top of technology’s wish list; it’s too hard to monetize.

So let’s look for something more in the domain of programmers. I know! A broader embrace of referential transparency would be awesome.

Or perhaps amusing.

Just not as exciting.

Of course, most people don’t find the mathematics of neural networks all that exciting, and, at the core, that’s what Perceptrons is about.

Postscript: I thought about including a note about hypertext being one of those cycling technologies, but I expect enough has been written about that.

Postscript: Now I wonder whether (re)-learn Smalltalk and LiveCode should be parts of my what to do in your spare time plans. I should also play more with PostScript [25].

Postscript: Other potential topics that come to mind as possible front-runners include program synthesis, language-oriented programming, and textual user interfaces.

[1] Papert-style Constructionism is not the same as Social Constructionism. The former is an educational theory focused on learning by doing; the latter is a hypothesis on the broader construction of knowledge.

[2] One of my friends who studied under Papert says that I’m not nearly enough of a Constructionist. It was interesting to watch them teach and sad to see College-age students’ discomfort with the model.

[3] Perhaps I never will.

[4] To be precise, the other day means yesterday [5].

[5] All my troubles were so far away.

[6] I’m still hoping to find affordable copies of the two anthologies on Constructionism. I’ll probably ILL [7] them later this summer.

[7] Inter-library loan.

[8] Schneider, Howard (27 Nov. 2000). Deja Vu. review. Available at

[9] That note is in the part that I did not include.

[10] There’s still not enough understanding of the value of referential transparency. Programmers are too wedded to state.

[11] Grammarly says that I use functional too much and should therefore change it to available programming. Sorry, Grammarly, but it’s not the same thing.

[12] I feel like it should be written ForTran, since it’s an abbreviation of Formula Translator. Nonetheless, the FORTRAN team named it with all caps, so I use that form.

[14] Backus, J (1998). Can Programming Be Liberated From the von Neumann Style? A Functional Style and its Algebra of Programs. Communications of the ACM, Vol. 21, Num. 8. pp. 613-641.

[15] As you might expect, I’d prefer LiSP, for List and Symbolic Processor.

[16] Perhaps one of many reasons that Yahoo has not retained its leadership in technology.

[17] It’s hard to believe that I chaired a conference with Alan Kay as keynote. I should have talked to him more.

[18] I have no concerns about that capitalization, although I did almost write it as SmallTalk [19].

[19] I also have trouble remembering whether it’s JavaScript or Javascript.

[20] vi is pronounced vee eye. It appears that vi stands for visual instrument.

[21] I suppose that would also require marketing skills and the right amount of luck.

[22] Here’s a claim that I’ve taken from the unexpectedly-found Web page at

You have a historical error here. I was on the HC team when it was killed. It was killed when Claris was returned to Apple in 1992, long before Steve Jobs returned (1997). This is the reason I left the team. The official reason given to us by the execs was there is no way to make money on a product we give away for free. I believe that Jean Louis Gassee was the man mover behind this despite opposition from John Sculley who was on his way out anyways. It was part of J.L. general attempt to kill all multi-media work at Apple. I believe he was paving his way to BeOS and wanted to destroy the competition.

I believe the page took that claim from elsewhere.

[23] I have heard that LiveCode serves as a kind of successor. But it doesn’t have the widespread adoption that HyperCard had. And it’s not free [24].

[24] There was a community edition of LiveCode. However, it has been discontinued.

[25] Capitalization verified.

Version 1.0 of 2022-06-07.