Home » Codes We Live By: Alex Klein at TEDxTeen 2014 (Transcript)

Codes We Live By: Alex Klein at TEDxTeen 2014 (Transcript)

Alex Klein at TEDxTeen 2014

Following is the full text of Kano cofounder Alex Klein’s talk titled “Codes We Live By” at TEDxTeen 2014 conference.

Alex Klein – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

A lot of us didn’t know what we wanted to be when we grew up.

You wanted to be a dinosaur, and then, the next day, you wanted to be a doctor. And then you wanted to be a doctor that operates on dinosaurs, and it all starts swirling around, and that’s what’s so fun about being a kid.

But then, what happens is that some lines start to be drawn: “Oh, she’s creative!”, “He’s mathy,” left-brain, right-brain, and then, the educational system and our parents tend to arrive at the party with some code names and some code words that we live through.

Our GD, our BA, our MA, our MBA, maybe you’ll be GOP one day. And then you’ll go down the road exchanging code names for each other until eventually, you know, RIP.

So, a year ago I was a writer, and I was writing about things like Occupy Wall Street, and Mitt Romney, and Scientology, and the tech industry, and the connections therein, and I dropped it all.

I dropped all of those codes as instruction booklets and I started working with a group of amazing people in London on a different kind of computer, on a PC you make yourself, like Lego. Something that you can build and code with the simplicity and fun of a game.

And here’s one I made earlier, as they say on the cooking shows.

Now, the original idea for this project came from a conversation with my 7-year-old cousin, Micah. Like me, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he goes, “Pff!”

But what he does know is that he wants to build things and make things. I asked him: “Well, you’ve been building with Lego, you’ve been building cars… What do you want to build next?”

And he said, “A computer.”

And I was like, “Dude.”

And he was like, “No, really, a computer.”

I said, “OK, well, that sounds kind of difficult.”

He said, “No, it shouldn’t be difficult, it should be easy. Nobody should tell me how to do it, I should be able to do it myself.”

He basically said that it has to be as simple and fun as Lego. And me and my friend Yonatan, at the time, were amazed by this.

We were totally unqualified to take on this challenge. I was a writer, an amateur designer, I wrote code the way you might write a text at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, which is to say, quite sloppily.

Yonatan was an awesome guy working in the plastics industry and a snowboarder. But we got to work doing this, and here you see the final piece coming together.

It was based on some existing technology, called the Raspberry Pi, a $35 Linux board invented in Cambridge, where I was doing my master’s degree. We got to work and this is what eventually came out of it.

There was a book that gave a simple story about how computers work, and by the end, “Hey! A computer!”

And this is Micah and Jess. As someone who loves words — like a lot of the speakers who have appeared today — I started with the word ‘computer,’ and I think it’s a really interesting one because it’s really misunderstood.

400 years ago, a computer was a person, a person that you paid to do calculations for you. So you’d be like, “He’s a computer, she’s a computer.” Interesting.

And then, 200 years ago, when the computer was coming into being it was made out of levers and gears. And when you actually start thinking about it, a computer can be made out of anything, anything at all. Anything that can speak in a language that can accept rules and instructions.

You can even make the basic building blocks of a computer out of an audience, and that’s what I’m going to try and do with you now.

So if you would all take out your phones, if they’re not already out, and I’m going to give a little code, a little set of instructions that’ll allow us together to become what’s called a binary array, which is the building block of the computer.

It sounds complicated, what it really is, is a series of ‘yes’s and ‘no’s.

So I’m going to ask you two questions, if the answer is ‘yes’ to my question, turn on your screen like this, your phone screen.

So, as a test I would say: “Can you guys hear me right now?”

[Audience: Yes.]

But you just need the screen, don’t even have to say yes, it’s magic!

My first question for those of you who have your binary array out right now. Who here has seen the inside of a smartphone, ever? Interesting, interesting, OK.

My second question is: who here believes in magic? Which is also by the way a classic 60s song!

Do you believe in magic?


OK, so what we just did, although it seems kind of simple, we took a binary array and we performed a logical operation in it. The way computers think, their language, their words, is just a series of ‘yes’s and ‘no’s. I’ve always found that quite interesting and quite fundamental.

For those of you who said you’d never seen the inside of your smartphones, and who also said that they don’t believe in magic, I’m going to try and switch their brain around a little bit.

So, let me ask you this: what’s more magic than a sealed black box with a hermetic glass screen that you’ve never seen the inside of, perhaps you’ve no idea how it works, but’s slapped to your thigh most of time, it can connect you to all conceivable human info, to any human being that you’re ever met, that has more processing, and calculating power than that took us to the Moon on the Apollo?

What could be more magic than that? The problem is today, magic is a word we use for things that we don’t have words for, right? You call something magic when you don’t really have the right words to put it together.

In the world now, a tiny 1% of 1% has the words for computing. There’s this bubbling surging conversation of ideas, of rhythm, and motion going on at our thighs that almost none of us have access to, none of us have an ability to change and shape.

The most powerful, creative tool ever unleashed on the mind and soul of mankind is pretty much locked away, in a few sealed hubs, in Silicon Valley and a few other places, including London.

So there are 4.5 billion of these guys including laptops, smartphones, tablets, in the world, half of them are connected to the Internet, and astonishingly, none of us really have this simple, fun way to make them play.

This kind of brought us, me and Yonatan, my co-founder, back to Micah’s question: “Why shouldn’t a computer be as simple as this? Why shouldn’t the basic building blocks, the codes that allow a computer to think and work, why couldn’t they be like Lego?

If you zoomed in to this, the Raspberry Pi, all the way down here, what you would see is something not too dissimilar from what you just saw in the audience, switches turning on and off, representing ‘yes’s and ‘no’s.

What really matters in the end is the question, the input you give it. People think of this as alien, people think of this as something separate from us, but in fact it’s a mind and meaning machine, operating in ‘yes’s and ‘no’s, switches on and off like the neurons in your brain.

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