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David Gelernter:
The InterMinds Interview

David Bennaham

In 1991 Yale Professor David Gelernter wrote "Mirror Worlds: Or the Day Software Puts the Universe in Shoebox...How it Will Happen and What it Will Mean." Two years before the Web became a household world, Gelernter imagined a world-wide network of "mirror worlds"- reflections of our real-time selves, others, institutions, and collectives of institutions (such as cities and nations) floating out in cyberspace.

Gelernter's Mirror World was an organizing principle, an interconnected global consensual hallucination whose purpose was to build context around the dizzying founts of information that comprise our lives. By providing a rich metaphor of digital "mirrors," a "reflection" of, say, traffic on Main Street, the status of patients in a hospital, or the flow of local-government expenditure, the Mirror World ostensibly returns power to the people by reflecting the real status of the world around us - like a giant EKG.

Five years later the Internet, and the World Wide Web, have become that de facto global network Gelernter envisioned. Beyond that, however, the Web bears minimal resemblance to Gelernter's cyberspace. In this installment of InterMinds, we visit Gelernter and explore the status of Mirror Worlds. The great mission behind his book (and, not coincidentally, most of computer science) is the hope that computers can serve us by giving perspective to the myriad threads of information produced by our global culture. It is a fifty-year-old dream that originates with the birth of digital computers. Are we any closer to its fulfillment? And how is it that computers made life more complex, not less? In Gelernter's own words:

"The goal is for computers to stop being such a damn nuisance and start being a help. I think they could cross that threshold at any time, but they haven't yet."

David Bennahum: How has the growth of the Net, an obscure network five years ago when you published Mirror Worlds, altered your vision of a global network?

David Gelertner: Much of what is happening is exactly the sort of thing that one would have predicted - what I discussed in Mirror Worlds, and what other people were talking about. It is also predictable that the Internet is mainly a shopping mall, that the character of the thing has so quickly been determined by the shopping-mall aspects of society. That's what people really use the Web for, as far as I can tell. The interesting thing is how hard it is to get actual data. The Net is mainly a consumer resource; we should have seen it coming. It is not evil. It is not bad. It's a little bit of a letdown.

DB: What was your expectation five years ago as to where we would be now?

DG: I imagined that the institutions that were struggling with, and being overwhelmed by, complexity would see the opportunity of capturing themselves in software -- of building software microcosms, creating a lifeline back to sanity, back to a sense of control over the evolution of institutions and public organizations.

DB: You mean they had no sense of how they were growing?

DG: Right. They had, and have, no sense of how they are using their resources, of what their past has been or what their likely trajectory is going to be. For instance, the savings-and-loans disaster of the late 1980s cost this country incredible amounts of money, and the repercussions are still being felt. That was building for years, right under everybody's noses. Nobody noticed it because the US financial and economic system is out of control: nobody has an overview. It would be absurd to doubt that situations exactly like that are developing today, not in the banking industry probably, but somewhere else.

There are all sorts of classic cases. In New York, the Kennedy airport rebuild drifted out of control for years. Money was being spent on projects made no sense, given the usage patterns at the airport. Tunnels to nowhere; parking lots that nobody could get to. This is characteristic of modern society: computers have allowed the complexity of these institutions to thwart the circuit breakers that used to keep things under control. It seemed to me that people were likely, as of five years ago, to see this as an obvious crisis to democracy. You cannot have a democracy if there is no way for the public to be informed.

Computers have made possible institutions that are far more complex than human beings are capable of dealing with. One might easily have imagined that it would be clear to people that what we most desperately needed and didn't have was a big picture, and that the computer would help us get it -- and they've done just the opposite. I think that's true in deep ways and trivial ways. Trivially, for instance, email tends to suppress decent editing and decent writing -- Cliff Stohl wrote about that in his latest book. In lots of ways computers have junked up the intellectual atmosphere. But that's not because they are evil machines. They could help us unjunk it too, but it requires a degree of thoughtfulness we don't appear to be interested in.

DB: How come we haven't managed to get computers to do this even though, over decades, so many talented people have raised this issue and proposed various solutions? Are we any closer to having computers give us the big picture of a complex world, or are we getting further away?

DG: Further away - computers have saturated society and they've mainly been spreading junk, because of the bad way they interact with the social climate. We're a society where, had computers never been invented, we would still be overwhelmingly interested in superficiality and glitz, quantity over quality, shallowness. And our attention span diminishes, our educational system collapses, our degree of sophistication and competence declines. When you add to that these glitz machines, these superficiality engines, you've got a brewing intellectual and cultural disaster. Scientifically it is just the opposite. Scientifically, computers have made a real revolution. This is less visible to people. The science of computation has turned the world of science upside down; that has mattered a lot to people in practical terms, though they don't know it. In pharmacology and medicine, for example. Cars are now crash-tested using 3D applications, and they're cheaper and better as a result. In technical, engineering, and scientific contexts, computers have outstripped our wildest dreams, but socially and culturally they have been a catastrophe.

DB: You could say that at its core what a computer does is to simulate things: it makes models. Is it better suited then to making models of things where human beings just aren't in the model - like a model of a car or atom, rather than a model of social behavior? Why does the model fall apart when people get in it?

DG: The analogy you draw is right. I claim that a Mirror World is a real-time model of social organization, of human society. And it is in building models that software has revolutionized science and engineering. Why has science made use of the power of computers in a methodical and disciplined way to learn a tremendous amount, and society by and large hasn't? I think some of it is as simple as the fact that science and engineering are more disciplined communities than society in general. This has to do with the way science and engineering are organized. The way in which problems are posed. The monetary rewards you get from solving them. The IQ of the average scientist or engineer - scientists and engineers tend to be smarter than a lot of people. The degree to which funding in science is available. One of the reasons why systems like Mirror Worlds have remained theoretical intellectual topics is that it is tremendously difficult to get work of that sort funded. I mean the ideas attract a lot of attention, but the time has been spent talking about it and arguing about it, and very little time has actually been spent building any software. Our research, for example, is funded by the Office of Naval Research. The funded research has to do with adaptive parallelism, it has to do with highly technical work of value in scientific computing and of value to the military. There is no way in hell that I could get Mirror Worlds research funded. It's all these different factors. I can't say I wrote this book and nobody paid any attention. People were interested. For lots of practical reasons it is tough to move ahead.

DB: Given the history of computers, do you think that the Mirror World would work? Or would it add to the problem by producing more information rather than simplifying?

DG: The Mirror World is not an information producer. It is an information consumer, an information synthesizer. It's no cure-all, and no miracles would follow once such a systems was up and running (and they will be at some point). It will be the sort of thing that will save businesses lots of money as they figure out where they are going, what their resources really are, what their near-term future is likely to be. I am not worried that Mirror Worlds will make the problem worse by generating data. They are not designed to generate data: they are designed to synthesize it in a new and more accessible way. Mirror Worlds aren't going to change the cultural climate or revivify democracy. While I think they will be valuable civic as well as commercial tools, our problems - our fundamental problems - have nothing to do with computers and cannot be solved with computers.

DB: Does the Internet exacerbate this? There are two views on this. Some say the Net is predisposed to increase democracy, freedom of speech and the spread of information.

DG: Look at the ongoing case of China's absolute intention of suppressing the Internet. That they are so worried about it means it has to be worth something. Look at Singapore's strategy - you see that it is not just China. Many of these Asian states with totalitarian or totalitarian-leaning governments - the fact that they worry about the Internet tends to suggest that it is worth something. But when Clinton announces that his dream is for every twelve-year-old to have access to the Internet - utterly bizarre. Where in the United States would you find one person in his right mind who'd assert that the problem with our schools is not enough data. "If only we could give students access to bigger databases." It is bizarrely irrelevant to the massive failures of education today. In that way, the Internet has been a disaster because it is a distraction. It is blatantly irrelevant, but impossible to ignore; just by saying the word you get points for being virtuous.

DB: Do you see the Internet as a nascent information-utility, bringing to fruition the old dream of a socket in the wall where we can plug into all the information we need?

DG: Yes, in a trivial sense. But the important part of that is not the hardware or the communication protocols. The important part is the software that makes it reasonable. The Internet itself is just hardware and primitive software. It is infrastructure, no question; but it's just the basement, not the skyscraper.

DB: My understanding is that you're trying to build the software that will allow everyone to share all sorts of information.

DG: The most important thing is not that people share information, but that they get their own information worlds in order, and transcend their primitive connection to a particular computer and particular operating system. We need to get each person's information world to float freely in cyberspace, be available transparently from anywhere. And the next step is for everybody's information space, or a lot of people's - say sixty percent of the population's information space - to be set up in this transparent rational way so communication gets shared more easily and the world makes an easier transition online. So, yes what's important are these higher-level data structures, the software, that is not there yet. We only have the low-level stuff.

DB: What you're describing would require a change in social behavior. People and institutions would have to be willing to let go of what appears to be proprietary information about themselves.

DG: No. The information that matters to me is not what the government has on file at the IRS. What I care about is all the files and letters and e-mail that I have created. And the information that is generated by other people for me, by the institutions I deal with -- the place I work and the health care system I deal with.

DB: This information is placed online and associated with you, and in a sense you hold the keys to it?

DG: I hold the key to it, probably in the form of a card, like an ATM card. It's encrypted.

DB: Presumably I can let other people look at my information if I choose to.

DG: Right. In the thing that we have in mind there is no distinction between your personal information world and your Web site. You can hand out selective access to your information world. In fact, you can hand it out in the literal sense by having a calling-card with magnetic keys, or you can hand it out electronically.

DB: So each card could have a different level of access, providing people with different views of your information world?

DG: For instance, say I'm teaching a course. I give my students limited access to my world so that they can look at my lecture notes and assignments.

DB: And to me, as a journalist, you might hand out a different card.

DG: Yes. And, for instance, what shows up on our Web site for researchers and scientists is a different view, emphasizing our papers and technical reports.

DB: It's a seductive vision. It reminds me of a computer game.

DG: [Laughs] It's interesting about computer games: they remain the main thing that people do with computers.

DB: A game is a mirror world of someone's fantasy. And the mirror world you describe is almost visceral, since everything is spatially and visually represented.

DG: The bottom line is that it is simple and immediately graspable in visual terms. The software that people rely on nowadays is rococo junk. It is amazingly bad.

DB: Software is still based on mice and icons and windows. Is that part of the problem? Have we outgrown that metaphor without having a new one?

DG: I'm just finishing a book that deals with the aesthetics of computing. One of the really elegant ideas in computer science was the "desktop" as originated at Xerox PARC and taken over and changed by Apple. It was brilliant in its time, no question about it. It was a hack - when faced with the electronic world, and you don't know what to do with it, the natural thing was to try and understand it like the paper world you're already familiar with. It turns out to be a far too rigidly constraining a way to think about computers. It forces on you bad ideas, like the idea of having to make up names for files, files going into directories, names for directories. All sorts of stuff which - like the idea of your having to backup your own files, like the idea of moving files around on disk - made perfect sense at the time in response to a bewildering electronic world nobody knew how to deal with. But these ideas are as obsolete as anything can be in the technical world, they were invented in the 1970s. Since the Mac was introduced in 1984 there has been no significant change, addition, or revision of any kind. Meanwhile the computer world has turned upside down.

DB: What are we moving to? We're going from the metaphor of the desk to the metaphor of what? Of the "world"?

DG: Here is where I have to stake my own part of the claim. Lots of people will agree that the desktop is dead. My partisan belief is that we are moving into a Lifestream world where the metaphor that gives you the most intellectual leverage at the moment is this chronological stream of documents that constitutes your electronic diary, that can be reorganized at the tap of a key, that floats in cyberspace and is accessible from any computer or, for that matter, from any phone, cell-phone, set-top box, any device. That is also the organizing metaphor for TV, for information sites, for phone conversations and so forth. It is a big, megalomaniacal claim, just as the desktop was a big claim at the time. Is it going to play out? I don't know. We are working on the Lifestreams stuff in a radically different way from how we pursued Mirror Worlds. It is a commercial project. It is the only way we have any chance of making headway, although we've been dragged into this kicking and screaming.

DB: Who is the commercial sponsor of the Lifestreams project?

DG: The company that is developing it has relations with other companies, none of which they can talk about now. It is a very volatile picture, like a million other technology startups. This is a good time, I will say. The idea has a lot of appeal to investors. I do not know what the long-term future will hold. My guess is that it is going to be a successful company in the near term.

DB: Are you the lead architect?

DG: I didn't build any of the software. That was almost all built by Eric Freeman, a finishing-up Ph.D. student. I'm responsible for the idea, but he's responsible for all the code. Other people who are heavily implicated in this - Nick Carrera of Yale, a very close colleague, and a bunch of commercial-type people. A dozen people in all. The ideas are mine, but all the practical input is coming from other people.

DB: Can we look at it?

DG: There is a demo system; it doesn't correspond to the first commercial release of the Lifestream version, but it does have a lot of the ideas in it.

DB: This Lifestream model is a continuation of what you started with Mirror Worlds, evolved for the present day?

DG: Mirror Worlds was a gigantic research project, a Wagnerian opera of a research plan. It had a million separate projects in it, each one of which could occupy us for a decade. There is no way that we ourselves could build it all. So we are focusing on the Lifestreams piece. These stream data-structures are described in Mirror World, but just as one part of the bigger picture.

DB: And the Lifestream is consistent with the grand vision of somehow using computers to help us make sense of life rather than be confused by it?

DG: I wouldn't want to say "make sense of life," that's too big, but make sense of the institutions we've built, the organizations in which we are enmeshed. In more pragmatic terms, the vision or the goal is for computers to stop being such a damn nuisance and start being a help.

DB: If it doesn't happen, what's the worst thing that could result?

DG: That we would get less and less purchase on our institutions because computers are helping us to continually complexify them. I see this all the time. Longer and longer documents, regulations with more and more details. It's not that the United States collapses, but that the pervasive sense of apathy and disengagement and out-of-controlness that is so typical today gets worse. But of even greater concern to me is the catastrophe of our schools. The whole world comes down to education, and given that our schools are in such rotten shape, the danger continues to exist that computers will be fastened on as a messianic cure-all.

DB: That phrase "out of control" comes up for you as a problem. Other people celebrate the phrase as a wonderful thing, for instance Kevin Kelly's book Out of Control embraces this state of being.

DG: I think that's another way of saying "I surrender." The idea of intelligently controlling my fate is something that I give up on -- do not think that an intelligent person can dare to do that. I want to emphasize that I'm not taking a one-hundred percent sourpuss view on the Internet and the Web today. You know, it's useful, it's fun. I like ordering books from Amazon.Com. I rely on some computer information services massively, like email. A day rarely goes by when I do not look at Nexis or use the electronic card catalog in the library. Lots of good things have happened, that's in a sense why it is a shame that we have not done better. The technology is wonderfully powerful. It's just that we've been so passive and unimaginative.


windwalker said:

It seems to me that we should address the needs of our educational system using the net as a highway to provide the needed classes. I envision a combination of television, computer and in-class lectures that will offer top of the line information to all, cutting away the need for holding some students back for lack of funds while giving the rich the better advantage of higher learning.

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