Edge: CODE - George Dyson & John Brockman: A Dialogue [page 3]
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JB: There is no Internet-there is only a process. When you stop a process to name it, it becomes dead. What we think of as the Internet is only a measure of its effect.

DYSON: Look at it from the point of view of the code itself, not the end user sitting at a terminal, which is either a synapse to some other coded process, or the means to some formalizable end. In ancient (computer) times code would run, be executed, and be terminated, that was the end of it. On the Internet code can keep moving around; it may escape termination by the local CPU, and when it arrives at a terminal, that doesn't mean it stops.

JB: How do you define "code"?

DYSON: Sequences of instructions, or data, that form either patterns in time or patterns in space. It's a very broad definition. For instance a sequence that when decoded by your machine turns into a song that you make copies of and thereby reproduce. When you write it to your disk it stops being a pattern in time and becomes a pattern in space. Computers transform patterns in time into patterns in space and back again, and they do it very fast-that's the whole Turing machine concept, the ability to make transformations between these two kinds of patterns, by formalizing a relationship between bit-to-bit (coding) on tape, and moment-to-moment (processing) in time. It's a symbiosis-the hardware doesn't make any sense without the code, and the code wouldn't exist without the hardware.

JB: Multi-cellular?

DYSON: Danny Hillis has a good explanation of that-from when he started to do massively parallel computing. There's two kinds-single instruction multiple data, and multiple instruction multiple data. What you have in biology is sort of single instruction-you have one seed, which is one string of code, and then it divides and becomes all these different cells that differentiate into things-from cells to individuals to species-and they are all running this original mother code, but doing different things with it. That's what Windows is trying to do, to become this one seed of code that allows you to do all these different things-balance your check book, play your games, do your income tax, and everything else. And of course it has become bloated by trying to do all that. But then code in biology is bloated as well-that's one thing we've learned. We thought DNA must be so efficiently coded; but it's actually full of all this redundancy, because molecules are cheap, and editing is expensive.

JB: So you say that this is not just a monopoly such as an oil monopoly?

DYSON: I think it's more serious. Because it is infiltrating everything.

JB: There is an essential feedback process in which a technology relays back signals telling us what to do/who we are. Government is out of this feedback loop. Until only very recently no democratic populace, no legislative body, ever voted for what kind of information it desires. We didn't vote for the telephone, for the automobile, for printing, for airplanes, for the birth control pill, for antibiotics, for television, for xerography, for transistors, for space travel, for electricity. Governments play catch-up in terms of legal code. The other role government plays is to muscle in on the action and shake down the successful technologists. That's what we're seeing happen today.

DYSON: It's puzzling to me, as a historian, that government suddenly feels left out. From the 1890 census (the origins of the punched card industry and IBM), through the 1940s and 50s and right up into the 1990s, most of the critical innovations in computing (time-sharing, packet switching, HTML, etc.) were instigated by the government, or at least incubated with government support.

JB: Right, and Buckminster Fuller and his colleague John McHale, rarely missed an opportunity to note that current military technology has a way of winding up in your dishwasher twenty years later.

But let's move on and talk about Jaron Lanier's thinking, i.e. that the architecture of the operating system is becoming embedded for a thousand years. Would you agree with that?

DYSON: Yes. The Year 3000 Problem! And the issue of monoculture vs. biodiversity in the software world. It has parallels with religion. Once established, they tend to last a very long time. We live in a world with many different religions, we've had some of the most vicious wars fought over issues of religion, and we've had no end of government involvement in religion. Yet we still have a world of diverse religions. With operating systems it looks like we may be losing that diversity.

JB: And there have been quite a few up to now-Unix, etc.

DYSON: But the growth now is favoring Windows and Windows NT. And in the next generation those two are going to merge. And perhaps become much larger than Microsoft is today.

JB: Is there something inherently sinister in this process? We both know a lot of people at Microsoft. They're not at all sinister.

DYSON: Which is why it's so wrong to treat this as simply a legal or business conflict-it isn't. It's the incorporation, by one corporation, of collective behavior that's moving at an unprecedented pace.

JB: What does it mean?

DYSON: I don't know. What's remarkable is that we're not going to have to wait that long to find out. It used to be that you'd say "I sure wish I'd be alive in a hundred years to see what happens"-if we live five more years we're going to see what happens.

JB: Is it going to be a good thing if and when there will be no Netscape? You will be limited to accessing the universe of information through Microsoft's eyes.

DYSON: At the beginning, the browser and the operating system were symbiotic bodies of code. But then one swallowed the other. That's probably how we have the modern living cell, with all its embedded subsystems, because free-living symbionts were absorbed into the cell. That's what's happening with the browser, it's gone from being an outside symbiotic body of code to something that's swallowed by the operating system and become the nucleus of it. It's a very sensible way to do it, just to be able to browse everything, whether it's on your disk or on somebody else's. The problem here is that Netscape got incorporated not by symbiosis but by imitation, and people sense that somehow this isn't fair. (And then you hear, "But who imitated Mosaic?")

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