Am I really that old? Reflections on appearing in the Apple 30th Anniversary of the Macintosh video.

This post originally appeared on the Touchpress blog: http://www.touchpress.com/blog/2014/01/am-i-really-that-old/

Apple just released a video and website in celebration of the 30th birthday of the Macintosh. It features one person for each year since the first Mac was released in 1984. I represent 1987, proving both that I'm really old, and that I peaked early. They asked everyone who appears in the video what they thought the future of creativity and the Macintosh was. I found this question completely exasperating, until I realized that the right answer is that there is no answer. The thing that makes any good tool interesting is precisely that you can't predict what it will be used for in the future, because if you could, you'd being doing that today, not some time in the future. Apparently they liked that answer because they let this quote pretty much define the future of the Macintosh:

“The great power of tools like Mathematica and the Macintosh is precisely that you cannot predict where they’re going to go.”

Theodore Gray

The thing I did that pegged me in 1987 was to develop a new kind of user interface for interactive symbolic computing, in the form of the first Notebook interface for Mathematica (a technical computing system created by Stephen Wolfram starting around 1986). I did that, of course, on a Macintosh. I think the first one I wrote code for that project on had 512K of memory, but it wasn't until we got the 1MB upgrade that it could actually run the whole system.

Mathematica (always running on a Mac, of course) has been the secret sauce in nearly everything interesting I've done since then. When I started collecting elements and needed to create a detailed website, I wrote Mathematica code to write the HTML for me: That's http://periodictable.com. When I decided to make an app out of my book The Elements: A Visual Exploration I built the entire contents of it, including everything actually visible on the screen, with Mathematica code. That turned into Touchpress, the company I founded together with Max Whitby, John Cromie, and Stephen Wolfram with the goal of doing more apps as interesting as our first.

We use a lot of different software at Touchpress to create our apps, but any time I need to do something myself, it's always with Mathematica on a Mac. The snow effect in Disney Animated prototyped in Mathematica. The interactive colormaps that let you see an overview of every Disney animated movie ever made in a single image? Created entirely in Mathematica.

There's no possible way I could have predicted in 1987 that I'd end up using this crazy tool to do that kind of stuff. Even less so that I'd end up in an Apple video in front of a giant computerized machine that was busy stitching an intricate pattern into a quilt. It's my girlfriend Nina Paley's machine, but yes, of course, the pattern was computed using Mathematica, on a Macintosh.

So when they asked me what I thought I'd be doing with a Mac in ten years, I'm like, WHAT? First off, I have not the slightest idea, and second, if I did, you can be sure I'd be doing it right now. But sadly it's in the nature of the beast that it's going to take me a full ten years to figure out the answer to that question.