Kickstarter from IBM chief scientist celebrates history of computing

Computing is taken for granted in our post-PC world, in which we are increasingly surrounded by a multitude of smart devices. But did you know that computing and our quest to build intelligent machines is essentially a human narrative and a stunningly engaging one at that?

That’s the premise of a new Kickstarter project from Grady Booch, IBM’s (s ibm) chief scientist, co-creator of the Unified Modeling Language and a rock star in the programming world. Booch is looking for $25,000 to help launch Computing: The Human Experience. The project is aimed at shining a light on computing much the way that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series elevated the universe 25 years ago, generating excitement over the exploration and understanding of the heavens.

But to call Computing a documentary really just scratches the surface of what Booch is proposing. He’s envisioning a “trans-media” assault, complete with a series of broadcasts on the web and on TV as well as apps and interactive e-books, a social network and a website. Booch and his wife Jan along with screenwriter Seth Friedman will start by creating a series of recorded lectures that will lead to a book and online videos, culminating in a seven-minute trailer that can ultimately entice bigger funders. All in all, Booch imagines Computing to be a $10-million project.

So is there enough drama and excitement in all of this previously geeky territory? Absolutely, Booch says, because the project will not only focus on the science of computing but will challenge people to think about our relationship to computers and whether we are controlling or being controlled by our creations:

We need to show them all – in a way they totally understand – that Computing is distinctly not a boring technical video of talking heads, but that it is really the unbelievable, exciting, provocative story of humanity’s ongoing fight between extending and not surrendering ourselves to our digital doppelgangers. In other words, what we are doing here is creating the initial material that proves just how fascinating, jaw-dropping, and cool Computing really is. Very. Wickedly. Cool.

Booch is offering backers increasing levels of access to himself depending on the donations, ranging from a hand-written note for a $50 donation to a phone call or face-to-face meeting for $500. At the high end, $10,000 donors will get their name hidden in the book, a copy of the app, a credit in the teaser video and a Booch bobble head figure.

This definitely plays to the computer scientists in the crowd. But it’s cool to see Booch take on this subject and try to frame it for a mainstream audience. Booch apparently got some of the idea for the project after hearing from his goddaughter that all she needed to know about computing was surfing the web.

“That was frightening and it gave us even further impetus for the project,” Grady told eWeek. “We want to make sure people get an opportunity to know what’s behind their Facebook page.”

The project is not being pursued by IBM so Booch can’t count on big funding from his employer. But he’s found a good partner in The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, which has offered to host Booch’s first lecture talks. Booch has raised about $6,000 so far and has until Jan. 3 to reach his $25,000 goal.

I think this is a timely project, especially as computers become so personal and indispensable to people. I think it would be a shame to see so many people grow up surrounded by computers without having a deeper understanding about what’s happening. And for the sake of the U.S. tech sector, we need to do a better job of telling the story of our successes in technology, to help influence a generation of students who can help keep the Silicon Valley story alive.

We’re falling behind in the number of computer engineers we produce and already there’s a talent crunch in most big tech centers. We need to connect these cool mobile apps and online sites like Facebook to career choices for students. We need to demystify the computing story and make it less of something only geeks pursue. The big opportunity is in recruiting all kinds of people, non-technical and techie alike, to jobs in computing. I’m not sure one project can turn the tide but it’s time we had more ambitious efforts aimed in this direction.