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Alan Kay's universal media machine

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While new-media theorists have spend considerable efforts in trying to understand the relationships between digital media and older physical and electronic media, the important sources the writing and projects by Ivan Sutherland, Douglas Englebart, Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, and other pioneers working in the 1960s and 1970s remain largely unexamined. What were their reasons for inventing the concepts and techniques that today make it possible for computers to represent, or remediate other media? I suggest that Kay and others aimed to create a particular kind of new media rather than merely simulating the appearances of old ones. These new media use already existing representational formats as their building blocks, while adding many new previously non-existent properties. At the same time, as envisioned by Kay, these media are expandable that is, users themselves should be able to easily add new properties, as well as to invent new media. Accordingly, Kay calls computers the first metamedium whose content is a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media.

Keywords: Alan Kay; Metamedium; New-media theory; Remediation; Simulation; Xerox PARC

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/nl.5.1.39_1

Affiliations: University of California, San Diego.

Publication date: September 7, 2007

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  • Northern Lights: Film and Media Studies Yearbook was first published in 2002 and places particular emphasis on film, television and new media. The yearbook, although carrying a theme each issue, welcomes a broad range of articles along with shorter review pieces.
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