The always provocative Edge Magazine (curated by John Brockman) has a recent article up by David Gelernter on the current state and potential future of the internet.
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. He is the author of Mirror Worlds, and Drawing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber.
The article offers a series of 35 points that we might want to consider as the internet continues to evolve. Some of them are incredibly useful and necessary topics of discussion, some a little less so. Here are the first 12 to get the conversation started.
1. No moment in technology history has ever been more exciting or dangerous than now. The Internet is like a new computer running a flashy, exciting demo. We have been entranced by this demo for fifteen years. But now it is time to get to work, and make the Internet do what we want it to.
2. One symptom of current problems is the fundamental puzzle of the Internet. (Algebra and calculus have fundamental theorems; the Internet has a fundamental puzzle.) If this is the information age, what are we so well-informed about? What do our children know that our parents didn’t? (Yes they know how to work their computers, but that’s easy compared to — say — driving a car.) I’ll return to this puzzle.
3. Here is a simpler puzzle, with an obvious solution. Wherever computers exist, nearly everyone who writes uses a word processor. The word processor is one of history’s most successful inventions. Most people call it not just useful but indispensable. Granted that the word processor is indeed indispensable, what good has it done? We say we can’t do without it; but if we had to give it up, what difference would it make? Have word processors improved the quality of modern writing? What has the indispensable word processor accomplished?
4. It has increased not the quality but the quantity of our writing — “our” meaning society’s as a whole. The Internet for its part has increased not the quality but the quantity of the information we see. Increasing quantity is easier than improving quality. Instead of letting the Internet solve the easy problems, it’s time we got it to solve the important ones.
5. Consider Web search, for example. Modern search engines combine the functions of libraries and business directories on a global scale, in a flash: a lightning bolt of brilliant engineering. These search engines are indispensable — just like word processors. But they solve an easy problem. It has always been harder to find the right person than the right fact. Human experience and expertise are the most valuable resources on the Internet — if we could find them. Using a search engine to find (or be found by) the right person is a harder, more subtle problem than ordinary Internet search. Small pieces of the problem have been attacked; in the future we will solve this hard problem in general, instead of being satisfied with windfalls and the lowest-hanging fruit on the technology tree.
6. We know that the Internet creates “information overload,” a problem with two parts: increasing number of information sources and increasing information flow per source. The first part is harder: it’s more difficult to understand five people speaking simultaneously than one person talking fast — especially if you can tell the one person to stop temporarily, or go back and repeat. Integrating multiple information sources is crucial to solving information overload. Blogs and other anthology-sites integrate information from many sources. But we won’t be able to solve the overload problem until each Internet user can choose for himself what sources to integrate, and can add to this mix the most important source of all: his own personal information — his email and other messages, reminders and documents of all sorts. To accomplish this, we merely need to turn the whole Cybersphere on its side, so that time instead of space is the main axis.
7. In the last paragraph I wrote “each Internet user”; but users of any computing system ought to have a simple, uniform operating system and interface. Users of the Internet still don’t.
8. Practical business: who will win the tug of war between private machines and the Cloud? Will you store your personal information on your own personal machines, or on nameless servers far away in the Cloud, or both? Answer: in the Cloud. The Cloud (or the Internet Operating System, IOS — “Cloud 1.0”) will take charge of your personal machines. It will move the information you need at any given moment onto your own cellphone, laptop, pad, pod — but will always keep charge of the master copy. When you make changes to any document, the changes will be reflected immediately in the Cloud. Many parts of this service are available already.
9. Because your information will live in the Cloud and only make quick visits to your personal machines, all your machines will share the same information automatically; a new machine will be useful the instant you switch it on; a lost or stolen machine won’t matter — the information it contains will evaporate instantly. The Cloud will take care that your information is safely encrypted, distributed and secure.
10. Practical business: small computers have been the center of attention lately, and this has been the decade of the cellphone. Small devices will continue to thrive, but one of the most important new developments in equipment will be at the other end of the size spectrum. In offices and at home, people will increasingly abandon conventional desktop and laptop machines for large screen computers. You will sit perhaps seven feet away from the screen, in a comfortable chair, with the keyboard and controls in your lap. Work will be easier and eyestrain (which is important) will decrease. Large screen computers will change the shape of office buildings and create their own new architecture. Office workers will spend much of their time in large-screen computer modules that are smaller than most private offices today, but more comfortable. A building designed around large-screen computers might have modules (for example) stacked in many levels around a central court; the column whose walls consist of stacked modules might spiral helically as it rises….
11. The Internet will never create a new economy based on voluntary instead of paid work — but it can help create the best economy in history, where new markets (a free market in education, for example) change the world. Good news! — the Net will destroy the university as we know it (except for a few unusually prestigious or beautiful campuses). The net will never become a mind, but can help us change our ways of thinking and change, for the better, the spirit of the age. This moment is also dangerous: virtual universities are good but virtual nations, for example, are not. Virtual nations — whose members can live anywhere, united by the Internet — threaten to shatter mankind like glass into razor-sharp fragments that draw blood. We know what virtual nations can be like: Al Qaeda is one of the first.
12. In short: it’s time to think about the Internet instead of just letting it happen.
Elephant Journal has positioned itself on the leading edge of the new internet – so how can Waylon and the rest of the crew move forward in a more widespread, compassionate, and profitable way?
I am just a contributor here, so let’s pretend I am writing this at another blog.
One of things I would be down with is an iPhone/iTouch application to keep up with the ever-changing content here. I have no idea how feasible this is, or how costly. It seems like a low-cost way to expand our reach and attract new readers, a great way to spread the EP ethos, but it might be too expensive to be a viable option right now.
Besides, we are about more than commerce (as much as enlightened commerce is necessary).
30. As I wrote at the start of this piece, no moment in technology history has ever been more exciting or dangerous than “now.” As we learn more about now, we know less about then. The Internet increases the supply of information hugely, but the capacity of the human mind not at all. (Some scientists talk about artificially increasing the power of minds and memories — but then they are no longer talking about human beings. They are discussing some new species we know nothing about. And in this field, we would be fools to doubt our own ignorance.) The effect of nowness resembles the effect of light pollution in large cities, which makes it impossible to see the stars. A flood of information about the present shuts out the past.
Gelernter makes a valid point – we can expand our reach, add infinitely to the content and information available to us, but the real issue is, How Do We Keep All of this Information in Context?
What the internet amounts to is little more than a vast pile of the past – with as many possible perspectives as you can imagine (or some you’d rather not imagine). But we are increasingly focused on the now and the future, especially in the world of social media like Twitter, Google Buzz, and Facebook – so I guess the big questions I want to ask you is this: How Do We Create a Better Future through this Medium?