A Dialogue
John Brockman, George Dyson, J. Doyne Farmer, Steven R. Quartz, Tom Standage, Charles Simonyi [6.11.98]
Introduction by:
John Brockman, George Dyson, J. Doyne Farmer, Steven R. Quartz, Tom Standage, Charles Simonyi

CODE is an attempt to get at the foundational issues of the digital age. George Dyson has a biological approach and I have my own points to make based on an engagement with the founders of cybernetics that began in 1965. We are joined in the conversation by chaos and complexity theorist J, Doyne Farmer, biologist Steven R. Quartz, digital edtior of The Economist Tom Standage, and mathematician and software pioneer Charles Simonyi, creator of the WYSYWYG word processor.


GEORGE DYSON is a leading authority in the field of Aleut-Russian kayaks, and his work has been a subject of the PBS television showScientific American Frontiers. He is the author of Baidarka, Darwin Among The Machines, and Turing's Cathedral.



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.

BROCKMAN: Go back-first you mention the same code is running on all the chips...

DYSON: Not all, but we're talking 80-90 percent.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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...

BROCKMAN: 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."

BROCKMAN: "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.

BROCKMAN: 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."

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.

BROCKMAN: 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?

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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.

BROCKMAN: 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?")

BROCKMAN: Any advice to the Justice Department?

DYSON: Lay off this question of whether you can merge your browser and your operating system and these other vague things-all they can possibly lead to is being argued about in court for ten years. Send a bunch of hard-nosed lawyers in there who understand business deals and can crack down on some of the details-any number of smaller cases where Microsoft has pushed their weight around-but not these big religious issues that can't be solved. Make sure they obey the absolute letter of the law.

BROCKMAN: What's a religious issue?

DYSON: Well, the issue of whether Microsoft is a monopoly or not, or where you draw the line between applications and operating systems. Those are tough things to legally decide. And can you really do anything if you decide them?

BROCKMAN: Are you saying that there's no point in breaking up Microsoft and having an operating system company and an applications company that compete?

DYSON: Right, because the only way you can break it up is by forcing some larger government administrative structure upon it, so the cure is worse than the disease. One thing we know about regulation is that it's very, very slow, and it's usually about ten years behind. Microsoft may exercise its power unwisely, but government inefficiency may be worse.

BROCKMAN: The Justice department's involvement on the technological level is off the mark. There are issues to consider that are more important than Microsoft, Netscape, "the consumers", or the today's economy. We don't need Justice, Congress, the lawyers for this.

DYSON: We need biologists. Molecular biologists and field biologists. Entomologists. Immunologists. Viral geneticists-they can tell you how to write (or evolve) robust code. As far as I know, there's almost no biologists at Microsoft. Lots of physicists, and four-dimensional topologists even, and of course Nathan's work with dinosaurs, but not much else. Maybe they're keeping it quiet. It reminds me of Von Neumann's computer group at the Institute in the 1950s-Charney's meteorology group was a convenient smoke screen for all the calculations being done on thermonuclear bombs. But the bombs were sort of an open secret. There was a much deeper secret, however: Nils Barricelli's numerical symbioorganisms. No one dared draw attention to that.

BROCKMAN: Have you discussed this with Microsoft?

DYSON: I was invited to visit Microsoft-and gave my pitch for software evolution as a somewhat haphazard symbiogenetic process, and some of the programmers seemed to take this as a criticism of their work. Programmers write code, code doesn't self-evolve.

BROCKMAN: What was your pitch?

DYSON: In nature, every possible variation of code is tried sooner or later and nature selects what works. You throw code at the universe and see what grows. That in a very crude sense is what I see happening at Microsoft. There are 13,000 people, many of them writing code. Whole divisions write code for a year and if it doesn't work and the market doesn't buy it, it's dead-if it's something that works, if something's successful, it grows. You throw money like grass seed in a park and watch where the paths form. There are some very clever programmers but can anyone predict ahead of time what's going to work? I think it's much more an element of chance. It's not random- you see the successful things because they're the ones that get to market, but it doesn't take thousands of people to write-even to write an operating system.

BROCKMAN: How does it happen?

DYSON: Systems grow by symbiosis. Remember the System Development Corporation, which was started in the early 1950s as a small subdivision of RAND, to write operating systems for air defense. By the mid-1950s it had grown to twice the size of the rest of RAND. Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety says that effective control systems have to be at least as complex as the systems they control. So you have to use components--and hierarchical languages. No one could engineer something as complicated as Windows 95 from scratch; it has to be built up from other autonomous things that are known to work. The code has a life of its own-it has to go out in the world like biological code and do something, and then the response goes back to the source and if it's successful it gets reproduced-or imitated, which gives digital evolution a faintly Lamarckian quality that's absent in the natural world.

BROCKMAN: Have you had this discussion with Charles Simonyi?

DYSON: Only in snippets. His project on intentional programming is way ahead of the curve. He's a mathematician, and he can think in more than two or three dimensions. There's always a higher dimension than the one in which you are writing the code. There's always another level-the language above the language-and this IP-Intentional Programming -project is a way of opening a doorway so that something successful at one level can be extended to the other levels without this incredibly laborious process. It becomes less brittle. But it's not just another language. Languages form layers, whereas IP, as I understand it, has depth.

BROCKMAN: Software is the only business today.

DYSON: In the 1930s it took a visionary to see this coming. Turing (and Goedel) said that everything can be coded-people laughed and said, oh, those romantic mathematicians are imagining this unreal stuff. In the 1940s it started to happen.

BROCKMAN: A notion that descended directly to the logic of By The Late John Brockman . Everything's being coded. And now, it's going to be coded through Windows.

DYSON: Exactly. That's the amazing thing-technically Windows is just a number. One very long number. You buy Windows, it's on a compact disk, it's just one long string of bits. If you tried to type it out as a book, you would be typing for a very long time. In Turing's day this all seemed ridiculously abstract-the idea that you could have some kind of universal number, and here Windows is the idea of a universal number, carried to reality and shrink-wrapped. If you took somebody 50 years ago and tried to tell them this is going to happen in 50 years they wouldn't believe it.

BROCKMAN: But it's just a string of bits.

DYSON: Yes, it is. But let me remind you of something "which might interest biologists more than artificial intelligencers," as logician John Myhill put it in 1964. "The possibility of producing an infinite sequence of varieties of descendants from a single program... suggests the possibility of encoding a potentially infinite number of directions to posterity on a finitely long chromosomal tape."

BROCKMAN: Who owns the tape?

DYSON: Good question.