The Third Culture

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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 will be. 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.