CODE - George Dyson & John Brockman: A Dialogue
GEORGE DYSON: Everybody is worrying about Microsoft, and I think they're more or less missing the point. It's not whether a monopoly is good or bad, or whether it's breaking some rules to merge the browser with the operating system. Turning this into a political issue-Government versus Microsoft-is diverting attention from something much more significant: the growth of multi-cellular forms of organization on the Net. You have the same code-Windows-running on all the chips, and when you merge the Browser with that you get the same code running on all the chips, but also in communication, the way the cells of a metazoan are in communication. I don't think it's something we can stop-nor is it necessarily something we should stop. Nobody complains about UNIX. The development of multi-cellular operating systems is a separate issue from the question of whether what Microsoft does is fair or legal in a business sense.
JB: Go back-first you mention the same code is running on all the chips...
DYSON: Not all, but we're talking 80-90 percent.
JB: Second you're talking about multi-cellular digital organisms. How did we get to where we are now?
DYSON: The analogy with biological organisms is highly tenuous-as EDGE readers will be flooding your inbox to point out. It's just the beginnings of something, in a faintly metazoan sense. The operating system used to be the system that operated a computer. Now it is becoming something else. This all started with one computer, whichever one you choose, whether it was ENIAC, or the computer at the Institute for Advanced Study, or the machine in Manchester-you had one of these machines and it turns out it can do very useful stuff.
JB: Was David Farber involved in ENIAC?
DYSON: No. But he's Alfred Moore professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where ENIAC was built. He's carrying on the tradition-it's like holding the Lucasian Chair.
JB: Back in the '60s none of us had ever seen a computer. I remember leading a crew of artists to Harvard/MIT in '65-we went to see "the" computer. It wasn't about computers at all. It was about communications. Walter Rosenblith's field was sensory communications. Harold Edgerton was an electrical engineer; A.K. Soloman was a biophysicist. I don't recall meeting anyone who called himself a "computer scientist." Something important was lost when we started talking about hardware.
DYSON: So these things immediately started to communicate, by cards and paper tape and phone lines, nothing new or mysterious about that. But what's happening at Microsoft-and elsewhere-is a coalescence towards the complete communication of everything. As Farber would tell you-if you read his list, [IP, a mailing list that's a good way for someone outside the industry to keep up]-there are moves afoot to get the same code-Windows, or Windows CE, or Windows NT or whatever, not to mention underlying protocols-running everywhere. Running on your desktop, running on your network, running in your car, running in your toaster, running on the credit card you have in your wallet-it's all going to run this same code. And if it's not Windows it'll be something else. The thing is, it's happening. Which is very much what's gone on in the world of biology. In biology there is one operating system, and it's the one we're stuck with-the DNA/RNA operating system. All living organisms, with very rare exceptions, run that same system. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but...
JB: So can I call this conversation "Life as an Operating System"?
DYSON: Maybe, but then you'll offend the biologists who say, "Oh, but it's much more complicated than that."
JB: "Life as an Operating System, Sort Of."
DYSON: Or just "Operating System"-period. The power that Microsoft represents goes far beyond what we can ever imagine. Don't forget money-not the Microsoft Money program but real money-represented digitally, and incorporated into the operating system. It's inevitable. Most of the hard stuff is already in place. Money is cross-platform information, in a very powerful, fluid form. And a small percentage of it filters back to Redmond. It's like an ant hill or a termite nest. The ants collect crumbs, but the crumbs add up. You can take the view that it's dark and sinister, or you can say it's the coming of Utopia or whatever. I don't really advocate either position, I just think it needs to be treated as much more serious than the business of an oil monopoly or something like that.
JB: More important than most of the players in the industry or justice department realize. We become the tools we create. In 1965 John Cage handed me a book to read. It was Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. Then Marshall McLuhan turned me on to The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which began: "The word communication will be used here in a very broad sense to include all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another." For Cage, mind had become socialized. By inventing electric technology, we had externalized our central nervous systems, and he wanted to tap into this by creating "a global utilities network." (See Prologue to Digerati).
DYSON: And that's exactly what happened. 1965 was the beginning of the time- sharing revolution, when one computer could be shared by many users. Now we have time-sharing turned inside out-when one user can be shared by many computers. Microsoft's "Digital_Nervous_System" isn't some cybernetic vision-it's a product with an advertising campaign.
JB: It's on the mark in a nineties kind of way. And the big issue has nothing whatsoever to do with business, or government regulation. It's about who we are and who we will become.
DYSON: The question is, who does it belong to? We are all going to end up owning computers, but will we all end up owning shares?
JB: Let's go back to ENIAC.
DYSON: OK. So you've got one computer alone that can be very powerful, but when they're in communication they become more powerful. It's the same way that a colony of cells with no nervous system at all can become a starfish or a sponge or something like that just simply by chemical communication.
JB: By communication you're talking about a network such as the Internet?
DYSON: Yes, but you have to have all sorts of other communication to make an organism happen: chemical, hormonal, mechanical. We are still immersed in the metaphor of fifty years ago, the computer as brain, the brain as electrical network, etc. The metaphor we haven't quite got to yet will come from molecular biology, when we start to see the digital universe less as an electrical switching network or giant computer and more as an environment swimming with different levels of code. How these increasingly complex one-dimensional strings of code actually do things, interacting with each other and with the three-dimensional world we live in, has more in common with the code-string and protein-folding world of molecular biology, where molecules interact with each other-and do things-by means of templates, rather than by reference to some fault-intolerant system of numerical address.