“FROM its very beginnings, the software industry has suffered from having too many engineers,” says David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University. “There are too many people who love computers and too few who are impatient with them.” He blames his fellow technologists for making computers too difficult for non-specialists to use effectively. “The industry doesn’t grasp the fundamental lack of sympathy between, conservatively, at least half the population and the software they’re using.” But what about the late Steve Jobs of Apple, who was obsessed with building elegant and easy to use products? He and Dr Gelernter ought to have been natural allies. One of the many oddities of Dr Gelernter’s unusual career, however, is that they ended up as adversaries instead.
More than two decades ago, Dr Gelernter foresaw how computers would be woven into the fabric of everyday life. In his book “Mirror Worlds”, published in 1991, he accurately described websites, blogging, virtual reality, streaming video, tablet computers, e-books, search engines and internet telephony. More importantly, he anticipated the consequences all this would have on the nature of social interaction, describing distributed online communities that work just as Facebook and Twitter do today.
“Mirror Worlds aren’t mere information services. They are places you can ‘stroll around’, meeting and electronically conversing with friends or random passers-by. If you find something you don’t like, post a note; you’ll soon discover whether anyone agrees with you,” he wrote. “I can’t be personal friends with all the people who run my local world any longer, but via Mirror Worlds we can be impersonal friends. There will be freer, easier, more improvisational communications, more like neighbourhood chatting and less like typical mail and phone calls. Where someone is or when he is available won’t matter. Mirror Worlds will rub your nose in the big picture and society may be subtly but deeply different as a result.”
If his vision was correct, Dr Gelernter realised, then new systems would be needed—and whoever built them would have an opportunity to make them more elegant and accessible than existing software. He had already made a big contribution to the field of network computing with his work on the development of Linda, a parallel-programming language that allows programs running on different machines to co-ordinate their actions. Multiple interconnected computers can then operate as a single, more powerful machine. In 1991 Dr Gelernter and his colleagues at Yale demonstrated the value of this approach by linking 14 small “workstation” computers to create a cluster that was as powerful as a supercomputer, but cost a fraction of the price. This was a forerunner of the modern “cloud computing” approach in which firms such as Google and Amazon combine thousands or millions of machines to deliver computing services.
Clouds on the horizon
Linking up machines in this way, Dr Gelernter observed at the time, made far more efficient use of computing resources and created a foundation for new applications such as those outlined in “Mirror Worlds”. In 1992 the New York Times wrote of his vision of “a world wired together into one giant computer”, though it noted that this scenario was considered “a potential nightmare by people who worry about computer privacy”.
The publicity around Dr Gelernter’s work may explain why Ted Kaczynski, an anti-technology terrorist known as the Unabomber, decided to target him with a letter bomb in 1993. Mr Kaczynski hoped to foment a worldwide revolution against the “industrial-technological system” and sent a series of letter bombs, causing three deaths and many injuries before being arrested in 1996. The letter bomb sent to Dr Gelernter put him in hospital for weeks, required him to undergo extensive surgery and left him with permanent injuries to his right eye and right hand, which he covers with a glove. “Whenever I get to feeling a bit morose and missing my old right hand, I wind up thinking instead how privileged I am to be an academic in computer science,” he wrote to his friends by e-mail after leaving hospital. “In the final analysis one decent typing hand and an intact head is all you really need.”
The attack prompted Dr Gelernter to branch out into new areas beyond computing. While convalescing he wrote an acclaimed book about the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and he has gone on to establish himself as a political commentator, art critic and painter. (He was originally attracted to computer science because he thought it would be a solid career that would allow him to pursue his love of painting.) At the same time Dr Gelernter pressed on with his work as a computer scientist. In 1997 he and his colleague Eric Freeman formed a company, also called Mirror Worlds, to develop an approach called “lifestreams”—a graphical user interface intended to replace the windows and files of conventional computer desktops with an elegant chronological stream of digital objects.
Looking like an endless Rolodex, a lifestream would extend from the moment of your birth to the day of your death, containing every document, photo, message or web page you have ever interacted with—all in a single, searchable stream, and held safely online. Individual items could be shared with other people. “When I want to make something public, I flip a switch, and everyone in the world who’s interested sees it,” says Dr Gelernter. “I could also blend millions of other streams into mine, with a simple way to control the flow of information so I’m not overwhelmed. It would be my personal life, my public life and my confidential electronic diary.”
If that sounds an awful lot like Facebook, the similarities become almost eerie when Dr Gelernter explains how he hoped to release lifestreams into the world. “I wanted the company to build software for college students, who are eager early adopters. It would be designed not only to eliminate file systems but also to be a real-time messaging medium. Social networking was the most important aspect of it. Starting with Yale, we would give it away for free to get undergraduates excited about recommending it to their friends,” he says. But Mirror Worlds’ investors decided that it would be better to focus on corporate clients, and the result was an organisational tool called Scopeware. It sold modestly to a few large American state agencies, but never took off. Mirror Worlds ceased trading in 2004, the same year that Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook.
The story of Mirror Worlds was not over yet, however. In 2008 the company, now owned by a hedge fund, revived itself and filed suit against Apple for patent infringement. Between 1996 and 2003, Dr Gelernter and Dr Freeman had generated a number of patents relating to the idea of lifestreams. These patents, the firm argued, were being infringed by several Apple products, including its Spotlight search feature, its Cover Flow interface for displaying album covers in iTunes and its Time Machine backup software. A countersuit from Apple accused Dr Gelernter of hiding prior art relating to his patents and misrepresenting his inventorship.
Dr Gelernter thus found himself at war with Jobs, one of the few figures in the computer industry who shared his views on the importance of technology being subservient to users, rather than the other way around. “Apple has always been interested in the cultural and aesthetic value of its products over the engineering. Steve always saw himself as an artist,” says Dr Gelernter. According to an internal Apple e-mail presented at the trial, Jobs saw an article about Scopeware in 2001, was impressed by the idea and suggested that Apple might want to license it. The two firms met but no deal was done.
Inversion of fortune
In 2010 a district court in Texas found Apple guilty on all counts and awarded Mirror Worlds a stunning $625.5m in damages—the fourth-biggest patent award in history. “It was good to be vindicated, although by that time, I had only a small financial interest in the verdict,” says Dr Gelernter. “In research, the capital that you have is not money in the bank but your reputation. I simply wanted a footnote saying that these were Gelernter’s ideas.” But in April 2011 a federal judge overturned the verdict, even while upholding the Mirror Worlds patents, ruling that Apple had not infringed them and should pay nothing. “It was like a punch in the face,” says Dr Gelernter. Mirror Worlds is now appealing against this ruling and a final judgment is expected in early 2012.
Given his track record for predicting the future, what is Dr Gelernter working on next? One prediction in “Mirror Worlds” remains conspicuously unfulfilled: his vision of cyberspace seething with billions of intelligent software agents working on behalf of their human masters. They might monitor news feeds, track local-government decisions or keep an eye on people’s health via digital sensors. “I want the state of each hospital patient to be watched by a million agents,” says Dr Gelernter. “We can create a software agent for a particular rare combination of circumstances that happens only once every 1,000 years but happens to you.” The technology exists, he says, “but our Mirror World is uninhabited. It’s like a forest with nothing living in it.”
He plans to form a new company to focus on this agent-based approach, something today’s internet firms show little interest in pursuing. “Google is commercially successful and dazzlingly imaginative but I don’t see what I would like to see from them, or Facebook or Twitter,” says Dr Gelernter. “They’re not turning on their imaginations.” His new company will also deliver a new incarnation of lifestreams, capable of subsuming social networking, news and multimedia. “I’ve added software layers and apps that make it easy to take any kind of document, object or image and put it in the stream,” he says. “I want this to be a publication medium, the launch pad for everything and a copy of everything.”
As ever, Dr Gelernter’s excitement about the potential of new technology is tempered by frustration that too little attention is paid to aesthetic and social factors. “A lot of convenience and power could be gained, and a lot of unhappiness, irritation and missed opportunities avoided, if the industry thought about design, instead of always making it the last thing on the list,” he says. “We need more people who are at home in the worlds of art and the humanities and who are less diffident in the presence of technology. There are not enough articulate Luddite, anti-technology voices.”
It is not the sort of thing you expect to hear from a professor of computer science, let alone the victim of an anti-technology extremist. But as well as having foreseen the future of computing, over his career Dr Gelernter has developed a clear understanding of humans’ conflicted relationship with the technology on which they increasingly rely.
Article source: http://www.economist.com/node/21540383?fsrc=rss
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