Inventing the Future: Prologue

I started a new job yesterday. My job is to help invent the future.

I’m working on an ambitious project created by Alan Kay, who is more or less responsible for personal computing, the laptop, Ethernet, bit-mapped screens, painting and fonts, the overlapping windows user interface, object-oriented programming, the laser printer, and desktop publishing. He’s also famous for declaring, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” More about the project in the next blogs.

For now I thought I’d set down a bit of background on how I got here.

I’ve been un-, under-, or cross-employed since August 1, 2002. I helped write a grant proposal, which worked out well for the client. I’ve been doing applications consulting for a friend’s company for a year. The work is pretty much the same as my first job (for the same friend) when I left school for good in 1987:
1) Create the engineering rules for producing a product.
2) Someone feeds it the design parameters.
3) The system designs the product and produces the drawings and other engineering documents.
All this is supposed to allow better and more repeatable designs. Free engineers to do more creative stuff. All that’s really changed since 1987 is that the computer running this fits on my lap instead of in a refrigerator-sized box in another room.

There’s a lot of neat stuff behind this, and it had been pretty hot technology in 1987. There was a small IPO in the ‘90’s. Part of the company is now buried in Oracle, where they have developed some sales automation. We built solid stuff and had some impact, but didn’t change the world.

Next came eight years writing industrial controls. And a commercial Lisp system (an advanced and highly productive programming language that no one uses much). This little company did single-handedly make it cheap enough to manufacture industrial diamonds that the bottom fell out of the world-wide market a few years ago. Our arch-rival, GE, got out of the business. That’s pretty cool, but it’s not something that really effects the lives of my kids or other people’s kids.

But in 1999, we sold our real-estate and my wife’s publishing company and put everything into the stock market. We moved across the country to work at a start-up that was going to change the world through advanced Web technology. That’s the job I lost in August, 2002. Prescience. Not! Better invent the future instead of predicting it.

In the last two and a half years, I’ve turned over a lot of stones to find this new project. I created my own project in roughly similar space. (No startup. No business plan. Just personal research. OK, that’s a lie. First I created a business plan. That was wrong. Later I tore that up and concentrated on the research without thought to how it might ever make money for anyone.) I very nearly gave up and enrolled in law school. We moved out of Boston and far away from our huge mortgage. My wife and I (mostly my wife, actually) developed a whole new franchise business out the little pre-school we built. I’m not sure that there’s a lesson here. I’m just jawin’. I haven’t changed jobs much, but within or between organizations I have been very willing to try radically new things. To dare. To keep learning. And to keep trying over long periods of time.

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2 Comments

  1. John says:

    Howard is being somewhat coy. The project on which he’ll be working is http://www.opencroquet.org

    Open Croquet, which is quite cool, and you should check it out in anticipation.

    I’m looking forward to your diaries with great anticipation! Now, remind me, then: did Alan Kay work at EMVRC?

    (That’s an Acts of the Apostles joke, son)

    (Any of y’all as may not know what I’m talking about, feel free to download my famous techoparanoid novel from the link on the left.)

  2. Harold says:

    Good Luck! I have a number of frineds who have suffered through lengthy periods of underemployment and unemployment, and the happiest results happen to those willing to keep trying new things and reinvent not merely themselves, but the world around them.

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