The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Alan Kay did not invent OOP

I could have sworn I already had an article here.

There’s  story that’s occasionally pulled up from the ditches about some demo of technology that was supposed to be object-oriented, and some guy raises his hand and says “That’s not object oriented!”

“Well what would you know about object oriented?” the demonstrater replies

“I invented the term.” the interluder protests.

And scene.

This may have happened at Xerox PARC some years ago. And the guy who claimed to have invented the term probably was Alan Kay. But just because Alan Kay says he invented object oriented programming, that doesn’t actually mean he did.

First, let’s look at the common sense argument. The dominant languages that are classified as object oriented today are some static languages like C++, C#, and Java, as well as dynamic ones like Python and Ruby.

Alan Kay is also known for having said: “I invented OOP and C++ was not what I had in mind”. Well, if an inventor is saying he created X, and the most popular version of X is C++, and he’s saying C++ isn’t X… one of two things may be true:

  • We’ve somehow come very far from the inventor’s original vision (which I believe Mr. Kay is implying here)
  • Or the guy claiming to have invented X didn’t actually invent X

C++, in particular, is a good example in this common sense argument. It takes its roots from a very old language, Simula, which Wikipedia claims to the first object-oriented language.

To sum up the story so far, one of Alan Kay’s targets here – C++ – that he’s argued is not really object oriented, apparently derives quite closely from the first object-oriented language. Huh. So if C++ isn’t object oriented, neither was Simula?

That leads us into the second, historical argument. Of course, that’s weird, because Simula was one of Alan Kay’s own inspirations for Smalltalk, the language that never really took off that he bet his hat on and is now so cranky no one uses.

So there’s basically two different interpretations of what an object-oriented language is – one that includes C++, Simula and Smalltalk, and one that only includes Smalltalk. And of course, the guy who writes mostly in Smalltalk is quite happy to keep telling you he invented OOP and thus should be listened to.

Let’s talk about one final argument here – what if Alan Kay was merely saying he coined the term ‘object oriented’? So in this interpretation, Alan Kay isn’t going around trying to convince everyone he’s a genius and invented OOP and why don’t we all use Smalltalk, but rather, he merely coined a clever phrase to help other people.

Well, this runs afoul of the common sense argument again – what’s the use of coining a term if no one actually uses it that way. If most people think of C++, Java, and Smalltalk when they think of OOP, then you claiming you coined the term to only mean Smalltalk again runs afoul of two conclusions:

  • It either doesn’t matter what you said because most people have used a substituted definition anyway
  • Or you’re lying

In fact, doesn’t it all beg the question? If Alan Kay meant Object Oriented to mean Smalltalk, yet everyone else thinks it means C++ as well… well, who’s going around and spreading that ugly rumor?

In this world that Alan Kay is trying to present to us, he cleverly defines a term, then goes out to tell everyone what great work he’s done. And scoundrels like the people who designed C++ and Java try to ride his success. What ungrateful wretched tricksters, convincing us all that Object Orientation may not mean what Alan Kay is so sure it means!

And somehow, they were all so successful in convincing us that Object Orientation was something Alan Kay says it’s not, and Alan Kay was so unsuccessful, that that is why today we’re all confused.

That may be how things have happened. But let’s see what’s more likely – is it more likely that tricksters emerged to try and get their own languages adopted by hopping on the OO bandwagon “in name only”, meanwhile the one true and good language Smalltalk languishes… Or, is it more likely that OO was tied at the time more to what the inventors of C++ and Java claim it was tied to: Simula.

What we’re asking here is what a word meant in the 80’s, and while Alan Kay has made quite a fuss in the late 90’s and 00’s about what he meant then, he didn’t seem to be making much of a fuss in the 80’s when C++ and Java were being written up.

So let’s look at this version of events – here we have a whole bunch of languages being inspired by Simula: Smalltalk, Java, C++ and others. They all adopt a very similar view of the term ‘object oriented’ in that they have classes, objects, inheritance and the like. So far, so good.

Then some guy, Alan Kay, starts getting cranky that Smalltalk isn’t getting adopted and so starts trying to use what fame he had from Xerox to rewrite history.

Frankly, I believe the latter if only because it requires fewer tricksters. The first version of history requires everyone but Alan Kay trying to trick us, while the second only requires Alan Kay trying to trick us.

This is what frustrates me so much about this – we have some guy, using the fact that most other inventors are dead or in other non-English speaking countries, running around claiming his off the wall interpretation of OO is the one true way.

It’s like the ultimate archetypical asshole machismo asshole programmer, willing to ruin others careers and say terrible things to get his own time in the spotlight. He knows he isn’t going to be challenged because Simula was invented somewhere else, and he has a whole bunch of kids to try and teach his own version of history to. He exemplifies the lone genius programmer who is “smart and gets things done”, and perpetuates that myth in the middle of programming’s diversity and teamwork crisis.

Every time I hear the Alan Kay story, I think – someone else has just learned not to listen to others, not to work with others, not to give credit to others, to believe that everything’s been built by themselves and that every miscommunication is someone else’s fault. Culture is wrong, not me, and that’s why I don’t get along with everyone.

And that’s just fucking dangerous.


September 28, 2016 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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