david_gelernter's picture
Computer Scientist, Yale University; Chief Scientist, Mirror Worlds Technologies; Author, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled our Culture (and ushered in the Obamacrats)

The Internet is virtualizing the universe, which changes the way I act and think. "Virtualization" (a basic historical transition, like "industrialization") means that I spend more & more of my time acting-within and thinking about the mirror-reflection of some external system or institution in the (smooth, pond-like) surface of the Internet. But the continuum of the Cybersphere will emerge from today's bumpy cob-Web when Virtualization reaches the point at which the Internet develops its own emergent properties and systems: when we stop looking at the pixels (the many separate sites and services that make up the Web) and look at the picture. (It's the picture, not the pixels! Eventually top-down thinking will replace bottom-up engineering in the software world—which will entail roughly a 99.9% turnover in the current population of technologists.)

Conversation spaces, for example, will be simple emergent systems in the Cybersphere, where I talk and listen (or read and write) in a space containing people with whom I like to converse, with no preliminary set-up (so long as there's a computer nearby), as if I were in a room with friends. If I want someone's attention I say his name or look at him; if I speak a little louder, I'm seeking a general discussion. If I say "Let's talk about Jasper Johns," the appropriate group of people materializes. If one of them is busy, I can speak now & he can speak back to me later, & I can respond later still. (Some people claim to be good at multi-tasking; we'll see how many slow-motion conversations they can keep going simultaneously.)

Today there are many universities & courses online; eventually, as Virtualization progresses, we'll see many or most absorbed into a world-university where you can walk the halls, read the bulletin boards & peek into classrooms within a unified space — without caring which conventional university or Web site contributed what. We'll see new types of institutions and objects emerge, too; virtual objects and institutions will absorb their own histories (like cloth absorbing the fragrance of flowers), so I can visit Virtual Manhattan now or roll it backwards in time; a large subset of all the knowledge that exists about (say) Wells Cathedral is absorbed into the virtual or emergent Wells Cathedral. At Virtual Wells, I can dive deeper for detail about any aspect of the place, or roll the building (& its associated ideas and institutions) backwards in time until they vanish "into the mists of history"; or, for that matter, tentatively push it Virtual Wells forward in time (which is not so easy — like pushing something uphill), & see what can be calculated, forecast or guessed about the cathedral's future a day, a week or a thousand years from now.

Virtualization has the important intellectual side-effect of leading us towards a better understanding of the relation between emergent properties & virtual machines or systems. Thus "I" am an emergent property of my body & mind; "I" (my subjective experience of the world & myself) am a virtual machine, of sorts; but "I" (or "consciousness") am just as real (despite being virtual) as the pull-down menu built of software — or the picture that emerges from the pixels. Like industrialization, virtualization is an intellectual as well as a technological & economic transition; like industrialization, it's a change in the texture of time.