David Gelernter [12.31.99]
Introduction by:
David Gelernter


Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.

By John Brockman

David Gelernter .....

"...prophesied the rise of the World Wide Web. He understood the idea half a decade before it happened." (John Markoff)

" a treasure in the world of computer science...the most articulate and thoughtful of the great living practitioners" (Jaron Lanier)

" one of the pioneers in getting many computers to work together and cooperate on solving a single problem, which is the future of computing." (Danny Hillis)

" one of the most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time." (Bill Joy)

Yale computer scientist David Gelernter entered the public mind one morning in January '92 when The New York Sunday Times ran his picture on the front page of the business section; it filled nearly the whole page. The text of the accompanying story occupied almost another whole page inside.

In 1991 Gelernter had published a book for technologists (an extended research paper) called Mirror Worlds, claiming in effect that one day, there would be something like the Web. As well as forecasting the Web, the book, according to the people who built these systems, also helped lay the basis for the internet programming language "Java" and Sun Microsystems' "Jini."

Gelernter's earlier work on his parallel programming language "Linda" (which allows you to distribute a computer program across a multitude of processors and thus break down problems into a multitude of parts in order to solve them more quickly) and "tuple spaces" underlies such modern-day systems as Sun's JavaSpaces, IBM's T-Spaces, a Lucent company's new "InfernoSpaces" and many other descendants worldwide.

By mid-'92 this set of ideas had taken hold and was exerting a strong influence . By 1993 the Internet was growing fast, and the Web was about to be launched. Gelernter's research group at Yale was an acknowledged world leader in network software and more important, it was known for "The Vision Thing", for the big picture.

In June '93 everything stopped for Gelernter when he was critically injured by a terrorist mailbomb. He was out of action for the rest of '93 and most of '94 as the Web took off, the Internet become an international phenomenon and his aggressive forecasts started to come true. Gelernter endured numerous surgeries through 95, and then a long recuperation period.

Now Gelernter is back. In this audacious manifesto, "The Second Coming", he writes: "Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.""


DAVID GELERNTER, Professor of Computer Science at Yale University and adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a leading figure in the third generation of Artificial Intelligence scientists, known for his programming language called "Linda" that made it possible to link computers together to work on a single problem. He has since emerged as one of the seminal thinkers in the field known as parallel, or distributed, computing.

He is the author of Mirror Worlds (1991), The Muse In The Machine (1994), 1939: The Lost World Of The Fair (1995), And Drawiing A Life: Surviving The Unabomber (1998).

David Gelernter's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Stewart Brand, David Ditzel, John C. Dvorak, Feeman Dyson, George Dyson, Douglas Rushkoff, Rod Brooks, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, David Farber, Danny Hillis, Vinod Kholsa, John McCarthy on "The Second Coming - A Manifesto" by David Gelernter


Any Microsecond Now

Computing will be transformed. It's not just that our problems are big, they are big and obvious. It's not just that the solutions are simple, they are simple and right under our noses. It's not just that hardware is more advanced than software; the last big operating-systems breakthrough was the Macintosh, sixteen years ago, and today's hottest item is Linux, which is a version of Unix, which was new in 1976. Users react to the hard truth that commerical software applications tend to be badly-designed, badly-made, incomprehensible and obsolete by blaming themselves ("Computers for Morons," "Operating Systems for Livestock"), and meanwhile, money surges through our communal imagination like beer from burst barrels. Billions. Naturally the atmosphere is a little strange; change is coming, soon.

Everything Old Is New Again

1. No matter how certain its eventual coming, an event whose exact time and form of arrival are unknown vanishes when we picture the future. We tend not to believe in the next big war or economic swing; we certainly don't believe in the next big software revolution.

2. Because we don't believe in technological change (we only say we do), we accept bad computer products with a shrug; we work around them, make the best of them and (like fatalistic sixteenth-century French peasants) barely even notice their defects — instead of demanding that they be fixed and changed.

3. Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.

4. The Orwell law of the future: any new technology that can be tried willbe. Like Adam Smith's invisible hand (leading capitalist economies toward ever-increasing wealth), Orwell's Law is an empirical fact of life.

Ripe Ready and hanging by a thread

5. We know that big developments are inevitable in the software world — if only because nothing in that world corresponds to a "book." You can see a book whole from the outside. You know in advance how a book is laid out — where the contents or the index will be — and how to "operate" one. As you work through it, you always know where you stand: how far you have gone and how much is left. "Book" can be a physical object or a text — an abstraction with many interchangeable physical embodiments. These properties don't hold for file systems or web sites. You can't see or judge one from the outside, anticipate the lay-out, tell where you stand as you work your way through.

Whenever we are organizing information, the book is too powerful an idea to do without in some form or other.

6. Miniaturization was the big theme in the first age of computers: rising power, falling prices, computers for everybody. Theme of the Second Age now approaching: computing transcends computers. Information travels through a sea of anonymous, interchangeable computers like a breeze through tall grass. A dekstop computer is a scooped-out hole in the beach where information from the Cybersphere wells up like seawater.

7. "The network is the computer" — yes; but we're less interested in computers all the time. The real topic in astronomy is the cosmos, not telescopes. The real topic in computing is the Cybersphere and the cyberstructures in it, not the computers we use as telescopes and tuners.

8. The software systems we depend on most today are operating systems (Unix, the Macintosh OS, Windows et. al.) and browsers (Internet Explorer, Netscape Communicator...). Operating systems are connectors that fasten users to computers; they attach to the computer at one end, the user at the other. Browsers fasten users to remote computers, to "servers" on the internet.

Today's operating systems and browsers are obsolete because people no longer want to be connected to computers — near ones OR remote ones. (They probably never did). They want to be connected to information. In the future, people are connected to cyberbodies; cyberbodies drift in the computational cosmos — also known as the Swarm, the Cybersphere.

From The Prim Pristine Net To The Omnipresent Swarm

9. The computing future is based on "cyberbodies" — self-contained, neatly-ordered, beautifully-laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens.

10. You will walk up to any "tuner" (a computer at home, work or the supermarket, or a TV, a telephone, any kind of electronic device) and slip in a "calling card," which identifes a cyberbody. The tuner tunes it in. The cyberbody arrives and settles in like a bluebird perching on a branch.

11. Your whole electronic life will be stored in a cyberbody. You can summon it to any tuner at any time.

12. By slipping it your calling card, you customize any electronic device you touch; for as long as it holds your card, the machine knows your habits and preferences better than you know them yourself.

13. Any well-designed next-generation electronic gadget will come with a ``Disable Omniscience'' button.

14. The important challenge in computing today is to spend computing power, not horde it.

16. The future is dense with computers. They will hang around everywhere in lush growths like Spanish moss. They will swarm like locusts. But a swarm is not merely a big crowd. The individuals in the swarm lose their identities. The computers that make up this global swarm will blend together into the seamless substance of the Cybersphere. Within the swarm, individual computers will be as anonymous as molecules of air.

17. A cyberbody can be replicated or distributed over many computers; can inhabit many computers at the same time. If the Cybersphere's computers are tiles in a paved courtyard, a cyberbody is a cloud's drifting shadow covering many tiles simultaneously.

18. But the Net will change radically before it dies. When you deal with a remote web site, you largely bypass the power of your desktop in favor of the far-off power of a web server. Using your powerful desktop computer as a mere channel to reach web sites, reaching through and beyond it instead of using it, is like renting a Hyundai and keeing your Porsche in the garage. Like executing programs out of disk storage instead of main memory and cache. The Web makes the desktop impotent.

19. The power of desktop machines is a magnet that will reverse today's "everything onto the Web!" trend. Desktop power will inevitably drag information out of remote servers onto desktops.

20. If a million people use a Web site simultaneously, doesn't that mean that we must have a heavy-duty remote server to keep them all happy? No; we could move the site onto a million desktops and use the internet for coordination. The "site" is like a military unit in the field, the general moving with his troops (or like a hockey team in constant swarming motion). (We used essentially this technique to build the first tuple space implementations. They seemed to depend on a shared server, but the server was an illusion; there was no server, just a swarm of clients.) Could be an itinerant horde instead of a fixed Central Command Post? Yes.

Stranger Than Fiction: Computers Today

21. The windows-menus-mouse "desktop" interface, invented by Xerox and Apple and now universal, was a brilliant invention and is now obsolete. It wastes screen-space on meaningless images, fails to provide adequate clues to what is inside the files represented by those blurry little images, forces users to choose icons for the desktop when the system could choose them better itself, and keeps users jockeying windows (like parking attendants rearranging cars in a pint-sized Manhattan lot) in a losing battle for an unimpeded view of the workspace — which is, ultimately, unattainable. No such unimpeded view exists.

22. Icons and "collapsed views" seem new but we have met them before. Any book has a "collapsed" or "iconified" view, namely its spine. An icon conveys far less information that the average book spine — and is much smaller. should it be much smaller? Might a horizontal stack of "book spines" onscreen be more useful than a clutter of icons?

23. The computer mouse was a brilliant invention, but we can see today that it is a bad design. Like any device that must be moved and placed precisely, it ought to provide tactile feedback; it doesn't.

24. Metaphors have a profound effect on computing. The desktop metaphor traps us in a "broad" instead of "deep" arrangement of information that is fundamentally wrong for computer screens. Compared to a standard page of words, an actual desktop is big and a computer screen is small. A desktop is easily extended (use drawers, other desks, tables, the floor); a computer screen is not.

25. Apple could have described its interface as a pure "information landscape," with no connection to a desktop; we invented this landscape (they might have explained) the way a landscape architect or amusement park designer invents a landscape. We invented an ideal space for seeing and managing computerized information. Our landscape is imaginary, but you can still enter and move around it. The computer screen is the window of your vehicle, the face-shield of your diving-helmet.

26. Under the desktop metaphor, the screen IS the interface — the interface is a square foot or two of glowing colors on a glass panel. In the landscape metaphor, the screen is just a viewing pane. When you lookthrough it, you see the actual interface lying beyond.

Problems On The Surface And Under The Surface

27. Modern computing is based on an analogy between computers and file cabinets that is fundamentally wrong and affects nearly every move we make. (We store "files" on disks, write "records," organize files into "folders" — file-cabinet language.) Computers are fundamentally unlike file cabinets because they can take action.

28. Metaphors have a profound effect on computing: the file-cabinet metaphor traps us in a "passive" instead of "active" view of information management that is fundamentally wrong for computers.

29. The rigid file and directory system you are stuck with on your Mac or PC was designed by programmers for programmers — and is still a good system for programmers. It is no good for non-programmers. It never was, and was never intended to be.

30. If you have three pet dogs, give them names. If you have 10,000 head of cattle, don't bother. Nowadays the idea of giving a name to every file on your computer is ridiculous.

31. Our standard policy on file names has far-reaching consequences: doesn't merely force us to make up names where no name is called for; also imposes strong limits on our handling of an important class of documents — ones that arrive from the outside world. A newly-arrived email message (for example) can't stand on its own as a separate document — can't show up alongside other files in searches, sit by itself on the desktop, be opened or printed independently; it has no name, so it must be buried on arrival inside some existing file (the mail file) that does have a name. The same holds for incoming photos and faxes, Web bookmarks, scanned images...

32. You shouldn't have to put files in directories. The directories should reach out and take them. If a file belongs in six directories, all six should reach out and grab it automatically, simultaneously.

33. A file should be allowed to have no name, one name or many names. Many files should be allowed to share one name. A file should be allowed to be in no directory, one directory, or many directories. Many files should be allowed to share one directory. Of these eight possibilities, only three are legal and the other five are banned — for no good reason.

Streams Of Time

34. In the beginning, computers dealt mainly in numbers and words. Today they deal mainly with pictures. In a new period now emerging, they will deal mainly with tangible time — time made visible and concrete. Chronologies and timelines tend to be awkward in the off-computer world of paper, but they are natural online.

35. Computers make alphabetical order obsolete.

36. File cabinets and human minds are information-storage systems. We could model computerized information-storage on the mind instead of the file cabinet if we wanted to.

37. Elements stored in a mind do not have names and are not organized into folders; are retrieved not by name or folder but by contents. (Hear a voice, think of a face: you've retrieved a memory that contains the voice as one component.) You can see everything in your memory from the standpoint of past, present and future. Using a file cabinet, you classify information when you put it in; minds classify information when it is taken out. (Yesterday afternoon at four you stood with Natasha on Fifth Avenue in the rain — as you might recall when you are thinking about "Fifth Avenue," "rain," "Natasha" or many other things. But you attached no such labels to the memory when you acquired it. The classification happened retrospectively.)

38. A "lifestream" organizes information not as a file cabinet does but roughly as a mind does.

39. A lifestream is a sequence of all kinds of documents — all the electronic documents, digital photos, applications, Web bookmarks, rolodex cards, email messages and every other digital information chunk in your life — arranged from oldest to youngest, constantly growing as new documents arrive, easy to browse and search, with a past, present and future, appearing on your screen as a receding parade of index cards. Documents have no names and there are no directories; you retrieve elements by content: "Fifth Avenue" yields a sub-stream of every document that mentions Fifth Avenue.

40. A stream flows because time flows, and the stream is a concrete representation of time. The "now" line divides past from future. If you have a meeting at 10AM tomorow, you put a reminder document in the future of your stream, at 10AM tomorrow. It flows steadily towards now. When nowequals 10AM tomorrow, the reminder leaps over the now line and flows into the past. When you look at the future of your stream you see your plans and appointments, flowing steadily out of the future into the present, then the past.

41. You manage a lifestream using two basic controls, put and focus, which correspond roughly to acquiring a new memory and remembering an old one.

42. To send email, you put a document on someone else's stream. To add a note to your calendar, you put a document in the future of your own stream. To continue work on an old document, put a copy at the head of your stream. Sending email, updating the calendar, opening a document are three instances of the same operation (put a document on a stream).

43. A substream (for example the "Fifth Avenue" substream) is like a conventional directory — except that it builds itself, automatically; it traps new documents as they arrive; one document can be in many substreams; and a substream has the same structure as the main stream — a past, present and future; steady flow.

In The Age Of Tangible Time

44. The point of lifestreams isn't to shift from one software structure to another but to shift the whole premise of computerized information: to stop building glorified file cabinets and start building (simplified, abstract) artificial minds; and to store our electronic lives inside.

45. A lifestream can replace the desktop and subsume the functions of the file system, email system and calendar system. You can store a movie, TV station, virtual museum, electronic store, course of instruction at any level, electronic auction or an institution's past, present and future (its archives, its current news and its future plans) in a lifestream. Many websites will be organized as lifestreams.

46. The lifestream (or some other system with the same properties) will become the most important information-organizing structure in computing — because even a rough imitation of the human mind is vastly more powerful than the most sophisticated file cabinet ever conceived.

47. Lifestreams (in preliminary form) are a successful commercial product today, but my predictions have nothing to do with this product. Ultimately the product may succeed or fail. The idea will succeed.

Living Timestreams

48. Lifestreams today are conventional information structures, stored at web sites and tuned-in using browsers. In the future they will be cyberbodies.

49. Today's operating systems connect users to computers. In the future we will deal directly with information, in the form of cyberbodies. Operating systems will connect cyberbodies to computers; will allow cyberbodies to dock on computers. Users won't deal with operating systems any more, and won't care about them. Your computer's operating system will make as much difference to you as the voltage level of a bit in memory.

50. A lifestream is a landscape you can navigate or fly over at any level. Flying towards the start of the stream is "time travel" into the past.

45. You can walk alongside a lifestream (browsing or searching) or you can jump in and be immersed in information.

51. A well-designed store or public building allows you to size up the whole space from outside, or as soon as you walk in — you see immediately how things are laid out and roughly how large and deep the space is. Today's typical web site is a failure because it is opaque. You ought to be able tosee immediately (not deduce or calculate) how the site is arranged, how big it is, how deep and how broad. It ought to be transparent. (For an example of a "transparent" web site, Mirror Worlds — figure 7.6.)

52. Movies, TV shows, virtual museums and all sorts of other cultural products from symphonies to baseball games will be stored in lifestreams. In other words: each cultural product will be delivered to you in the form of an artifical mind. You will deal with it not as you deal with an object but roughly as you do with a person.

Institutions Afloat In The Cybersphere

53. Your car, your school, your company and yourself are all one-track vehicles moving forward through time, and they will each leave a stream-shaped cyberbody (like an aircraft's contrail) behind them as they go. These vapor-trails of crystallized experience will represent our first concrete answer to a hard question: what is a company, a university, any sort of ongoing organization or institution, if its staff and customers and owners can all change, its buildings be bulldozed, its site relocated — what's left? What is it? The answer: a lifestream in cyberspace.

54. A software or service company equals the employees plus the company lifestream. Every employee has his own view of the communal stream. The company's web site is the publically-accessible substream of the main company stream. The company's lifestream is an electronic approximation of the company's memories, its communal mind.

50. Lifestreams don't yield the "paperless office." (The "paperless office" is a bad idea because paper is one of the most useful and valuable media ever invented.) But lifestreams can turn office paper into a temporary medium — for use, not storage. "On paper" is a good place for information you want to use; a bad place for information you want to store. In the stream-based office, for each newly-created or -received paper document: scan it into the stream and throw it away. When you need a paper document: find it in the stream; print it out; use it; if you wrote on the paper while using it, scan it back in; throw it ou

55. Software can solve hard problems in two ways: by algorithm or by making connections — by delivering the problem to exactly the right human problem-solver. The second technique is just as powerful as the first, but so far we have ignored it.

The Second Coming Of The Computer

56. Lifestreams and microcosms are the two most important cyberbody types; they relate to each other as a single musical line relates to a single chord. The stream is a "moment in space," the microcosm a moment in time.

57. Nowadays we use a scanner to transfer a document's electronic image into a computer. Soon, the scanner will become a Cybersphere port of entry, an all-purpose in-box. Put any object in the in-box and the system develops an accurate 3D physical transcription, and drops the transcription into the cool dark well of cyberspace. So the Cybersphere starts to take on just a hint of the textural richness of real life.

We'll know the system is working when a butterfly wanders into the in-box and (a few wingbeats later) flutters out — and in that brief interval the system has transcribed the creature's appearance and analyzed its way of moving, and the real butterfly leaves a shadow-butterfly behind. Some time soon afterward you'll be examining some tedious electronic document and a cyber-butterfly will appear at the bottom left corner of your screen (maybe a Hamearis lucina) and pause there, briefly hiding the text (and showing its neatly-folded rusty-chocolate wings like Victorian paisley, with orange eyespots) — and moments later will have crossed the screen and be gone.

But What Does It All Matter?

58. If you have plenty of money, the best consequence (so they say) is that you no longer need to think about money. In the future we will have plenty of technology — and the best consequence will be that we will no longer have to think about technology.

We will return with gratitude and relief to the topics that actually count.