Friday, April 24, 2009

Edge - Lord of the Cloud - A Roundtable

Interesting topic and an interesting discussion, as is usual from Edge. I'm not enough of a tech geek to fully grok all of this, but it's a great discussion.
The central idea we were working on was this idea of de-localized information — information for which I didn't care what computer it was stored on. It didn't depend on any particular computer. I didn't know the identities of other computers in the ensemble that I was working on. I just knew myself and the cybersphere, or sometimes we called it the tuplesphere, or just a bunch of information floating around. We used the analogy — we talked about helium balloons. We used a million ways to try and explain this idea.

John Markoff and Clay Shirky talk to David Gelernter
An Edge Roundtable

In June, 2000 Edge published David Gelernter's audacious "The Second Coming: A Manifesto", in which he wrote: "Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us." Publication of the manifesto led to one of the most vibrant and interesting Edge discussions, with contributions from many of the leading Edge thinkers in the area of computation. from Stewart Brand, to Freeman Dyson, to W. Daniel Hillis. To reprise the introduction:

David Gelernter .....

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

" a treasure in the world of computer science...the most articulate and thoughtful of the great living practitioners" (Jaron Lanier)

" one of the pioneers in getting many computers to work together and cooperate on solving a single problem, which is the future of computing." (Danny Hillis)

" one of the most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time." (Bill Joy)

Yale computer scientist David Gelernter entered the public mind one morning in January '92 when The New York Sunday Times ran his picture on the front page of the business section; it filled nearly the whole page. The text of the accompanying story occupied almost another whole page inside.

In 1991 Gelernter had published a book for technologists (an extended research paper) called Mirror Worlds, claiming in effect that one day, there would be something like the Web. As well as forecasting the Web, the book, according to the people who built these systems, also helped lay the basis for the internet programming language "Java" and Sun Microsystems' "Jini."

Gelernter's earlier work on 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) and "tuple spaces" underlies such modern-day systems as Sun's JavaSpaces, IBM's T-Spaces, a Lucent company's new "InfernoSpaces" and many other descendants worldwide.

By mid-'92 this set of ideas had taken hold and was exerting a strong influence . By 1993 the Internet was growing fast, and the Web was about to be launched. Gelernter's research group at Yale was an acknowledged world leader in network software and more important, it was known for "The Vision Thing", for the big picture.

In June '93 everything stopped for Gelernter when he was critically injured by a terrorist mailbomb. He was out of action for the rest of '93 and most of '94 as the Web took off, the Internet become an international phenomenon and his aggressive forecasts started to come true. Gelernter endured numerous surgeries through 95, and then a long recuperation period.

Now Gelernter is back. In this audacious manifesto, "The Second Coming", he writes: "Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us."

In his manifesto, Gelernter further developed ideas he had been working on since the 1980s. One such idea was that of the cyberbody as a "cloud":

17. A cyberbody can be replicated or distributed over many computers; can inhabit many computers at the same time. If the Cybersphere's computers are tiles in a paved courtyard, a cyberbody is a cloud's drifting shadow covering many tiles simultaneously.

He also inroduced his idea of the "life stream":

38. A "lifestream" organizes information not as a file cabinet does but roughly as a mind does.

39. A lifestream is a sequence of all kinds of documents — all the electronic documents, digital photos, applications, Web bookmarks, rolodex cards, email messages and every other digital information chunk in your life — arranged from oldest to youngest, constantly growing as new documents arrive, easy to browse and search, with a past, present and future, appearing on your screen as a receding parade of index cards. Documents have no names and there are no directories; you retrieve elements by content: "Fifth Avenue" yields a sub-stream of every document that mentions Fifth Avenue.

40. A stream flows because time flows, and the stream is a concrete representation of time. The "now" line divides past from future. If you have a meeting at 10AM tomorow, you put a reminder document in the future of your stream, at 10AM tomorrow. It flows steadily towards now. When now equals 10AM tomorrow, the reminder leaps over the now line and flows into the past. When you look at the future of your stream you see your plans and appointments, flowing steadily out of the future into the present, then the past.

Today, Bill Gates's name is synonymous with Microsoft Basic. A mention of Bill Joy in the press is usually accompanied by acknowledgment of his early development work on UNIX. Ted Nelson is always associated with hypertext. Jaron Lanier is often identified and credited with his pioneering work on virtual reality. But rarely are "cloud computing" and "lifestreams" (or "lifestreaming") presented in connection with, and with proper credit to, the visionary behind them.

Edge asked John Markoff, who covers technology for The New York Times, and first brought Gelernter's ideas to a wide reading public with his 1991 New York Times profile, and social software seer Clay Shirky. a professor at NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), to talk to Gelernter about his ideas. The roundtable took place in New York City on April 25, 2009.

John Brockman


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 Drawiing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber.

David Gelernter's Edge Bio page

JOHN MARKOFF covers the computer industry and technology for The New York Times. He is the coauthor ofTakedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw (with Tsutomu Shimomura), and author of What The Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

John Markoff's Edge Bio page

CLAY SHIRKY is an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology—how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He is the author of Here Comes Everybody.

Clay Shirky's Edge Bio page

Watch the videos and read the transcript.

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