Digerati - Chapter 11

Digerati - Chapter 11

David Gelernter [10.1.96]

Chapter 11


David Gelernter

THE SKEPTIC (Cliff Stoll): There are lots of clever computer scientists; David Gelernter is one of the few who is wise. He understands the need to interact with people rather than computers. He understands the limitations of computer science. He speaks to the problems of technologists, namely, how come there are so few women online. He addresses serious questions‹why there is so little useful stuff on the Net. He realizes that there is much more to context and content than merely bits of information here and hypertext jumps over there. He is a historian, social commentator, and sage with a snicker. In Mirror Worlds, Gelernter predicted the power of computer models. His book on the 1939 World's Fair is a joy, showing how we've gained the future but lost our way. Despite, or because, of his deep experience in computing, he questions the maniacal adoption of computers and hypertext in schools and society.

David Gelernter, a Yale University computer scientist, is the author of Mirror Worlds (1991), The Muse in the Machine (1994), and 1939: The Lost World of the Fair (1995).

David Gelernter, a leading figure in the third generation of artificial intelligence (AI) scientists, is highly regarded for 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.

The day I met him, he walked into my office and began to lecture me on the problems with current theories of consciousness. "The discussion of consciousness is dominated by two opposite positions," he said, starting to pace back and forth in front of my desk. "On one side you have your friend the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who, in Consciousness Explained, presents his reductionist agenda for thinking about the mind. On the other, there are the holistic ideas of the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose in The Emperor's New Mind." He stopped, turned, and faced me. He looked me in the eye and in a very measured and direct tone said, "They're both full of crap!"

I loved it. A new generation arrives with new ideas that do not answer the old questions, but subsume them in a new paradigm. In David's case, he was presenting a new theory of consciousness, incorporating the full spectrum of cognition, from "high focus" logical thinking to the dreamlike "low focus" thought that characterizes so much of our daily thinking patterns. He believes that bringing emotions, the body, and aesthetics into the discussion about the mind enables him to arrive at the intellectual center of our era.

"The physical body is not irrelevant to a human community," says David. "A community is not a community of disembodied spoken statements in part because the most important aspect of the communication that people have is emotional, and one often communicates emotion not in terms of the text but as a subtext. The emotional subtext of human communication is crucial to human thought. It isn't a footnote. Too many computer scientists don't understand this."

David is The Conservative. He's a contributing editor at the City Journal and National Review, a contributor to Commentary, and an art critic at the Weekly Standard. He has also put in appearances as token conservative or technology pundit at The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Feed, a Web magazine.

THE CONSERVATIVE (David Gelernter): The Net is a fad. The Web is a fad, an interesting fad. The Net has been a serious communications medium for only ten or fifteen years. What we're seeing is prehistory; the history of the Net per se hasn't yet begun. This fun-and-games period will come to an end when someone comes up with an application that matters, which won't to be the sort of stuff we're seeing now. George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier that makes it clear that the '30s was a more technologically intensive time than today. During that period, technology had revolutionized everyday life in ways that really mattered to people. The technologies that matter are those that make daily life less obnoxious and more pleasant, applications that you can leverage all the time, not the glitzy fun and games that are going on now. When the Net really matters to American culture and society, people won't recognize it. It is going to happen with software a lot different from what we see today.

The Net is going to start mattering in a significant way when it relieves people of the burden of dealing with the garbage inherent in the information flow of everyday life. The Net is going to matter when I can rely on it to store the information I now keep on disk, and the computer is a completely transparent object. I plug in one computer, I see through it to the object that matters to me, and I have my entire information life online, in chronological order, searchable from my electronic birth certificate onward. All the documents and pieces of information important to me are maintained by the Net with sufficient reliability so that I can unplug my computer and smash it with a hammer without affecting anything. I can walk up to any computer anywhere and focus it on my own life stream, my own information object. A laptop begins to look like a Winnebago, something that is a little eccentric to carry around with you.

The Net is going to matter when all of my information transactions with the outside world go through it. I buy an object of some sort and can find the owner's manual on it, all my bills and correspondence go through it, I can save snapshots and videos on it, and it serves as my appointment calendar and electronic diary. At that point the Net is not going to look glitzy. It's not going to be virtual reality. It's not going to be splashy graphics. It is going to be something transparent that you can easily forget but it will be hard to picture life without it, like central heating.

The most important way people are going to make money on the Net is on the model of the electric power utilities or cable TV companies, by providing a service that you are going to pay for monthly. I am going to hire a server to manage all my documents, I am going to throw out my desk and file cabinets, I am not going to care what computer I use, and I will be happy to pay $12.50 a month for an absolutely reliable storage facility. This company stores my documents, supports all sorts of fancy searches, and makes my documents available anywhere. However, we aren't moving in that direction. A big transition has to happen: people need to get over their boyish excitement, stop playing games, and get serious.

A lot of work has been done on electronic newspapers. They have failed because they have not given the public anything that's worth money compared with paper newspapers. The developers haven't grasped why an old-fashioned paper newspaper is a great technology. An electronic newspaper could offer something that I would pay for, but first of all, it has to be designed by someone who grasps why a paper newspaper is a great technology: it's cheap, it's portable, and it fits in my briefcase. I can spread it out on a table and read it while I drink coffee and eat a doughnut. I can browse it. If I have an electronic newspaper, I am going to give up a lot of those things. A company that is going to make money on electronic newspapers will have to come up with something different. A page that looks like The New York Times will not do it.

I would like to see an electronic newspaper that has multiple translucent layers, with each layer evolving at a different rate. The top layer is late-breaking stuff, and as I delve down as deeply as I want into the layers, I get more detailed information. It's got good features. I don't have to read it for a few days or a few weeks and I can rewind and essentially fast-forward through the time I've missed. A good feature for me is that I can read it with my eyes closed. If I've had a hard day in the office, I can lie down on the couch, close my eyes, and read this electronic newspaper by plugging in headphones, pointing to a story with a mouse, and having it read to me. Maybe these features are not the ones that will make a billion dollars for a new company, but whatever it is, someone is going to have to have an idea different from the product out there now.

The standard question that people in computing and information management are discussing is how to organize information in new ways. At Yale, where the concentration is on history, we are looking at a different kind of interface that we call a fuzzy space-time interface. The way this interface works is that you see a map of the world on the computer and you designate the part of the world you care about. If I am interested in Basque sheep shearing in the fourteenth century, I draw a circle around the Basque country and steer the thing back in time by pulling on a joystick to go back to the fourteenth century. Then I type what I care about, essentially key words. The interface has a heuristic kind of database, and based on the piece of space-time I focus on and the key words I type, it shows me some points, each having to do with a document, and it uses colors to tell me whether the document is warmer or colder relative to what I am describing. What's interesting is that I can use the interface to organize not only documents but people. If there is someone in Tokyo who is an expert in Basque sheep farming, he can be in there too, and I can find his business card and send him mail. Is the fuzzy space-time interface going to make a billion dollars? It could. It's something new and different, and there's an idea behind it.

We see lots of image databases on the Net today, and the images are usually lousy quality. Why are people excited about art museums and fine art online? Why is Microsoft, among other companies, making this huge investment? Why all these companies are turning to CDs of fine art is beyond me, because the image quality is pathetic. You can get better, more nuanced colors from a two-dollar box of Crayola crayons than you can from a five-thousand-dollar monitor. On the Net we are seeing old ideas that aren't well suited to the technology. There is an idea void: too many people, too excited, who spend too much time playing and not enough time thinking.

What kind of people use the Net and the Web? What kind of community are they and what are their activities doing to the country, the world, the culture? It may sound like a parochial issue that women don't like computers that much, but they don't, and the issue is a tremendously important one. It is a fact that there are not many girls majoring in computer science, and there are not many women in the field. People have been doing handstands to get more women to enter the field. An article in Time magazine fifteen years ago about the first wave of videogames in penny arcades observed that boys played them and girls didn't. It stated in a serious, sanctimonious way that experts were asking how can we get girls to play videogames. My response is, Why should they want to? They are not attracted to this world, certainly not to the extent that men are, and that's one of the reasons why it is such a spiritually impoverished world. Most men with a reasonable degree of sophistication are happier in an environment that includes women. One of the problems with the computer society is that not only is it an almost all-male society, but it is a little-boy society, part of an ongoing infantilization of the society over the last half century.

The worrisome thing about computers from my point of view is the extent to which they play off our worst tendencies. There's a feedback loop whereby computers make it easy for us to do certain bad things that, unfortunately, we tend to do anyway. Look at education. Schools have been lousy for two decades, teachers have been unwilling to teach what students don't like to learn, and basic skills have been suffering. With computers you can say, "Don't worry about the basic stuff, because a spell checker can check your spelling and a grammar checker can check your grammar, a drawing program can make your pictures come out right, and a smart database program can do your research." We wind up with uneducated morons.

Within the computer community, we defensively believe that 80 percent of the people are too dumb to use software properly and that our friends or colleagues who aren't up-to-date on the latest software are manifesting stupidity and a lack of technological or scientific intelligence. A vivid example is that pathetic piece of software Microsoft released called Bob, to tell people how to use an earlier version of Windows. It uses cartoon characters and its message is that if you don't understand how to use Windows 3.1, you are stupid and deserve to be treated like a child. 

Society has temperamentally conservative people in it. They don't like machines and they never will. These may be very bright people for whom the computer world is never going to be a completely satisfactory world. In addition to this 35 percent, there's another 35 percent who might be great computer users but who realize that computer software stinks and both hardware and software are poorly designed. They realize that the whole computer world is set up on a primitive basis: that they should not have to worry about compatibility, that they should not have to worry about backing up their disk or about the format of my floppy disk. Consumers wouldn't put up with any of this if they were serious.

Some people who use the Web as a community, who turn to the Web for friendship and fellowship and companionship, are sufficiently inept at dealing with their fellow creatures face-to-face that they have no recourse but to deal at arms' length, by remote control. A community is not a community of disembodied spoken statements, in part because the most important aspect of the communication that people have is emotional, and one often communicates emotion not in terms of text but as subtext. The physical body is not irrelevant to a human community. The emotional subtext of human communication is crucial to human thought. It isn't a footnote. Too many computer scientists don't understand this. They conceive of cognition as something in a box over here and emotion in a box over there. In fact, there is no thought without emotion, and there is no real communication without emotion‹subtle emotions that allow us to recognize another human being and understand the nuances of what is being communicated. This doesn't happen online.

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

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): David's one of the pioneers in getting many computers to work together and cooperate on solving a single problem, which is the future of computing.

THE PRODIGY (Jaron Lanier): David Gelernter is a unique and profoundly important presence in the information technology community. He's a full-out visionary, able to present ideas as wild and on the edge as anyone (see Mirror Worlds). But at the same time he remains grounded in the simple basis of human life, in the family, in the values of love and regeneration. He is also, obviously, a rare example of someone from our community who has had to face real danger, and he's done so with courage and without falling into bitterness. Mostly I value him as a clear thinker, able to get to the bottom of technical and moral issues with equal grace.

THE DEFENDER (Mike Godwin): David Gelernter demands that human beings refuse to let technologies or extraneous circumstances define themselves and their society. Instead, we have to make value-driven choices and do the defining ourselves. Even when I disagree with him, which is often, I think he is a valuable contributor to the debates about the technologies we increasingly rely on and the unquestioned visions of the future that we've predicated on those technologies.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): In this tome you call Gelernter "The Conservative." I think I'd lump him with Danny Hillis and call David "The Genius II" or, since he's older, call Danny "The Genius II." His book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair is worth a detour.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.