The Matrix: MEME 2.11


by David S. Bennahum

The last issue of MEME explored the creation of digital cities -- Web-based representations of our home towns. Towards the end of MEME 2.10 I explored the idea of "taking the pulse" of our cities as a more alluring alternative to entertainment listings and local news. Several readers wrote in suggesting I read a copy of Yale professor David Gelernter's 1991 book, Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox...How it Will Happen and What It Will Mean to learn about a fully-developed alternative to these city-based Web sites.

Gelernter's book was, as these intrepid readers deduced, a large part of the inspiration behind the "pulse" alternative I suggested. In the hyper-amnesiac world of cyberspace where brilliant books are written and forgotten with the lifespan of a version of Netscape (or Netscape itself, actually), this summer I stumbled across a used copy of Mirror Worlds in a second-hand bookstore, and was immediately struck by its timeliness. In the era of rampant World Wide Web info-glut, "mirror worlds," as Gelernter described them, are a solution to a problem as old as computer science. How can we use computers to help us make sense of the vast, ever increasing repositories of information produced by ourselves and society? The question was first put by Vannevar Bush (see MEME 2.06 for description of Bush's "memex" information appliance of 1945) over 50 years ago when he wrote that the volume of information we are creating is booming, while the means we have of sifting through it is barely evolving, creating a gap. Today this familiar crisis has its own buzzword: "information overload."

Gelernter's Mirror Worlds were proposed as the latest solution to the problem. Mirror worlds are software representations of social institutions and individuals, interconnected to form one massive heterogeneous whole existing on a world-wide computer network. People cooperate in the creation of mirror worlds by storing a trail of their lives in cyberspace. That's where their phone calls come, faxes, e-mail, their grocery orders originate from, and where their records are stored -- birth certificate, legal documents -- the entire corpus of stuff we create in the process of living. Institutions provide a similar trail, so for instance a hospital will have its own mirror world, as could the aggregate of institutions--say, a city or a nation. Where the mirror world solves the problem of info-bloat (rather than adding fuel), according to Gelernter, is its ability to provide you with a specific point-of-view on a person or institution. Assuming enough of a record is in the system, the reflection you see is an accurate representation of the what's-so in physical space, permitting people to simply and accurately apprehend the otherwise chaotic jumble of say, the Savings and Loan industry in the United States circa 1982.

This touches upon Gelernter's deeper concern, that stable democracies require informed citizens, and that without some information-complexity filters, the confusion and blindness to trends become destabilizing. The United States is still, for instance, paying for the extraordinary Savings and Loan debacle, much of which stemmed from no one having a complete picture of the industry, until the bottom fell out and it was too late to do anything about it.

The companies racing to build lavish, extensive Web-based information repositories on American cities will create a new fount of information, adding to the torrent. What most have failed to understand is that getting more information -- what to eat, where to shop, what to see, what to read, what to wear -- to people using computers instead of magazines or television will do little to enhance their lives or address their actual need: helping us make sensible choices. Traditionally, people have relied on each other to interpret this sort of information, but now we're hard pressed to keep up. Computer science, the great hope was, would pitch in with a solution. Flash-forward to 1996 and it's fair to say that computer science gets an "F" on this project. It has utterly, completely failed to give us a solution to the information complexity issue.

Today, Gelernter is working on a continuation of his mirror world idea, and I spoke with him about it (a transcript of the interview will be made available on-line; I'll let you know where and when). He is focusing on one element from the original Mirror World architecture, what Gelernter now calls "lifestreams." Lifestreams are a way of organizing information chronologically according to different themes, or streams. For instance, you could create a lifestream of your telephone calls, or a supermarket could create a lifestream of soup sales. These streams can "age," with the detail fading with time (how many cans of soup sold on Tuesday becomes "many cans" five years from now, or "a few") Streams can be combined to form larger streams, for instance all the sales of one store, or your entire life. In turn these could be fused into bigger streams -- your neighborhood, your family, a super-market chain. And again and again, reflecting the state of processing technology's advances over time. In other words, Lifestreams scales. It also, as Gelernter points out, breaks up an older, much outdated, simplifying metaphor, that of the "desktop" where everything must be given a name, placed in a directory, which also must be named. That metaphor (examined in MEME 2.08) was once posited as the solution to information overload. Back then the buzzword was "augmentation means" and the desktop was presented as "a means to augment man's intellect." Its prime architect, Douglas Engelbart, cited Vannevar Bush as his first inspiration.

The dilemma for Gelernter and all computer scientists interested in solving this problem is that it's out of their hands, rooted in social habit. All these computer-based solutions, so elegantly proposed, require our cooperation to function. They also upset the current order of things, especially where opacity is held to as an asset. For instance, if you could look up the lifestream of your local hospitals and apprehend the quality of care for different operations, it would jeopardize the stability of those institutional elements which were producing poor results. It's not clear that many institutions would embrace this kind of simple, clarifying public exposure, available to anyone. Discerning the proper marriage of computer technology with social habit still hasn't been done. Would people really cooperate in placing orders for food online or keep a record of their telephone calls through the network? Opacity, which protects institutions from judgement, also protects us. Perhaps this benefit will always outweigh the cost of confusion. In his own words, Vannevar Bush's challenge still resonates, unanswered:

"Of what lasting benefit has been man's use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence... There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers -- conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial... The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships."

--Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," The Atlantic magazine, 1945.

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