STREAMS

David Gelernter [12.2.01]
Topic:

"When we ask ourselves what the effect will be of time coming into focus the way space came into focus during the 19th century, we can count on the fact that the consequences will be big. It won't cause the kind of change in our spiritual life that space coming into focus did, because we've moved as far outside as we can get, pretty much. We won't see any further fundamental changes in our attitude towards art or religion ­ all that has happened already. We're apt to see other incalculably large affects on the way we deal with the world and with each other, and looking back at this world today it will look more or less the way 1800 did from the vantage point of 1900. Not just a world with fewer gadgets, but a world with a fundamentally different relationship to space and time. From the small details of our crummy software to the biggest and most abstract issues of how we deal with the world at large, this is a big story."

DAVID GELERNTER is a professor of computer science at Yale and chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies (New Haven). His research centers on information management, parallel programming, and artificial intelligence. The "tuple spaces" introduced in Nicholas Carriero and Gelernter's Linda system (1983) are the basis of many computer communication systems worldwide. Dr. Gelernter is the author of Mirror Worlds, The Muse in the Machine, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, and Drawiing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber.

David Gelernter's Edge Bio page


STREAMS

[DAVID GELERNTER:] Questions about the evolution of software in the big picture are worth asking. It's important that we don't lose sight of the fact that some of the key issues in software don't have anything to do with big strategic questions, they have to do with the fact that the software that's becoming ubiquitous and that so many people rely on is so crummy, and that for so many people software ­ and in fact the whole world of electronics ­ is a constant pain. The computers we're inflicting on people are more a cause for irritation and confusion and dissatisfaction and angst than a positive benefit. One thing that's going to happen is clearly a tactical issue; we're going to throw out the crummy, primitive software on which we rely, and see a completely new generation of software very soon.

If you look at where we are in the evolution of the desktop computer today, the machine is about 20 to 25 years old. Relatively speaking we're roughly where the airplane was in the late 1920s. A lot of work had been done but we were yet to see the first even quasi-proto modern airplane, which was the DC3 of 1935. In the evolution of desktop computing we haven't even reached DC3 level. We're a tremendously self-conscious and self-aware society, and yet we have to keep in mind how much we haven't done, and how crummy and primitive much of what we've built is. For most people a new electronic gadget is a disaster, another incomprehensible users manual or help set, things that break, don't work, that people can never figure out; features they don't need and don't understand. All of these are just tactical issues, but they are important to the quality of life of people who depend on computers, which increasingly is everybody.

When I look at where software is heading and what is it really doing, what's happening and what will happen with the emergence of a new generation of information-management systems, as we discard Windows and NT ­ these systems that are 1960s, 1970s systems on which we rely today, we'll see a transition similar to what happened during the 19th century, when people's sense of space suddenly changed. If you compare the world of 1800 to the world of 1900, people's sense of space was tremendously limited and local and restricted in 1800. If you look at a New England village of the time, you can see this dramatically, everything is on site, a small cluster of houses, in which everything that needs to be done is done, and fields beyond, and beyond the fields a forest.

People traveled to some extent, but they didn't travel often, most people rarely traveled at all. The picture of space outside people's own local space was exceptionally fuzzy. Today, our picture of time is equally fuzzy; we have an idea of our local time and what happened today and yesterday, and what's going to happen next week, what happened the last few weeks, but outside of this, our view of time is as restricted and local as people's view of space was around 1800. If you look at what happened in the 19th century as transportation became available, cheap and ubiquitous, all of a sudden people developed a sense of space beyond their own local spaces, and the world changed dramatically. It wasn't just that people got around more and the economy changed and wealth was created. There was a tremendous change in the intellectual status of life. People moved outside their intellectual burrows; religion collapsed; the character of arts changed during the 19th century far more than it has during the 20th century or during any other century as the people's lives became fundamentally less internal, less spiritual, because they had more to do. They had places to go, they had things to see. When we look at the collapse of religion in the 19th century, it had far less to do with science than with technology, the technology of transportation that changed people's view of space and put the world at people's beck and call, in a sense. In 1800 this country was deeply religious; in 1900 religion had already become a footnote. And art had fundamentally changed in character as well.

What's going to happen, what software will do over the next few years ­ this has already started to happen and will accelerate ­ is that our software will be time-based, rather than space-based. We'll deal with streams of information rather than chaotic file systems that are based on 1940s idea of desks and file cabinets. The transition to a software world where we have a stream with a past, present and future is a transition to a world in which people have a much more acute sense of time outside their own local week, or month ­ in which they now have a clear idea of what was different, why February of 1997 was different from February of 1994, which most people today don't have a clear picture of.

When we ask ourselves what the effect will be of time coming into focus the way space came into focus during the 19th century, we can count on the fact that the consequences will be big. It won't cause the kind of change in our spiritual life that space coming into focus did, because we've moved as far outside as we can get, pretty much. We won't see any further fundamental changes in our attitude towards art or religion ­ all that has happened already. We're apt to see other incalculably large affects on the way we deal with the world and with each other, and looking back at this world today it will look more or less the way 1800 did from the vantage point of 1900. Not just a world with fewer gadgets, but a world with a fundamentally different relationship to space and time. From the small details of our crummy software to the biggest and most abstract issues of how we deal with the world at large, this is a big story.

"Streams" is a software project I've been obsessed with. In the early '90s it was clear to me that the operating system, the standard world in which I lived, was collapsing. For me and the academic community it was Unix; but it was the same in the world of Windows or the world of Mac or whatever world you were in. In the early 90s we'd been online solidly for at least a decade; I was a graduate student in the early 80s when the first desktop computers hit the stands. By the early 90s there was too much, it was breaking down. The flow of email, the number of files we had because we kept making more and they kept accumulating, we no longer threw them out every few years when we threw out the machine, they just grew to a larger and larger assemblage.

In the early 90s we were seeing electronic images, electronic faxes and stuff like that. The Web hadn't hit yet but it was clear to some of us what was coming and we talked about it and we wrote about it. The Internet was already big in the early 90s, and it was clear that the software we had was no good. It was designed for a different age. Unix was built at Bell Labs in the 1970s for a radically different technology world where computing power was rare and expensive, memories were small, disks were small, bandwidth was expensive, email was non-existent, the net was an esoteric fringe phenomenon. And that was the software we were using to run our lives in 1991, 1992. It was clear it was no good, it was broken, and it was clear that things were not going to get any better in terms of managing our online lives. It seemed to us at that point that we needed to throw out this 60s and 70s stuff.

The Unix idea of a file system copied so faithfully from the 1941 Steelcase file cabinet, which had its files and it had its folders, and the Xerox idea of a desktop with its icons of wastepaper baskets and stuff just like the offices that we were supposed to be leaving behind us, all this stuff copied faithful from the pre-electronic age. It was a good way to get started, but it was no good anymore. We needed something that was designed for computers. Forms and ways of doing business that were electronic and software-based, as opposed to being cribbed from what people knew how to do in 1944. They did well in 1944 but by 1991 it was no longer the way to operate in a software and electronic-based world.

It seemed to us that we wanted to arrange our stuff in time rather than in space. Instead of spreading it out on a virtual desktop in front of us we wanted all our information to accumulate in a kind of time line, or a diary or narrative with a past, present and future, or a stream, as we called the software. Every piece of information that came into my life, whether it was an email, or eventually a URL, or a fax or an image or a digital photo or a voice mail, or the 15th draft of a book chapter, all pieces of information would be plopped down at the end of a growing stream.

By looking at this stream I'd be looking at my entire information life, I would drop the absurd idea of giving files names ­ the whole idea of names and directories had rendered itself ridiculous, and a burden. If we dropped everything into the stream and we provided powerful searching and indexing tools and powerful browsing tools, and we allowed time itself to guide us, we'd have a much better tool than trying to remember, am I looking for letter to John number 15B or am I looking for new new new letter to John prime. Instead I could say I'm looking for the letter to John I wrote last week, and go to last week and browse. It was clear that by keeping our stuff in a time line we could throw away the idea of names, we could throw away the idea of files and folders, we could throw away the desktop. Instead we'd have the stream, which was a virtual object that we could look at using any computer and no longer have to worry whether I put the file at work or at home, or in the laptop or the palm pilot. The stream was a virtual structure and by looking at it, tuning it in, I tuned in my life, and I could tune it in from any computer. It had a future as well, so if I was going to do something next Friday, I'd drop into the future, and next Friday would flow to the present, the present would flow to the past.

To make a long story short we built the software and the software was the basis of a world view, an approach to software and the way of dealing with information. It was also a commercial proposition. That's got intellectual content in a way because for so many of us we have been challenged, asked whether the intellectual center of gravity and technology has not moved away from the university into the private sector. I thought it was a rotten idea, I resisted this heavily. I had a bet with my graduate students in the mid-90s. I would try to fund this project by the usual government funding ways and they would try and fund it by private investors, and whoever got the money first, that's the way we would go. I thought there was no contest, I had all sorts of Washington funding contacts, but they beat me hands down. When I was trying to wangle invitations to Washington to talk about this stuff, they would get private investors to hop on a plane and fly to New Haven to see it. The difference in energy level between the private and the Washington sector was enormous. And bigots like myself, who didn't want to hear about private industry or private spending or the private sector, who believed in the university, as I still do, in principle were confronted with the fact that there was a radically higher energy level among people who had made a billion dollars and wanted to make another billion, than people who had got tenure and who were now bucking for what? A chair, or whatever.

The academic world was more restricted in terms of what it could offer greedy people, and greed drives the world, one of the things which you confront as you get older. Reluctantly. So this story is a commercial story also, and raises questions about the future of the university ­ where the smart people are, where the graduate students go, where the dollars are, where the energy is, where the activity is. It hasn't been raised in quite the same way in some of the sciences as it has in technology. It certainly has become a big issue in biology and in medicine. The University, forgetting about software, and forgetting about the future of the stream, fiddling while Rome burns, or whatever it does, thinks that it's going to come to grips with the world by putting course notes on the Web. But we're dealing with something much bigger and much deeper than that.

What Yale charges for an education, as you know, is simply incredible. What it delivers is not worth what it charges. It gets by today on its reputation and in fact can get good jobs for its graduates. However, we're resting on our laurels. All these are big changes. And the changes that will happen in this nation's intellectual life when the university as we know it today collapses. The Yales and the Harvards, will do okay, but the 98% of the nation's universities that are not the Yales and Harvards and the MITs, when they collapse, intellectual life will be different, and that will be a big change, too. We're not thinking about this enough. And I know the universities are not.