Gelernter - The Second Coming - A Manifesto

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From: Ciamac Cyrus Moallemi (
Date: Sat Jun 17 2000 - 10:14:06 PDT

[A Martin Luther-style missive on the need for new metaphors for computing
(e.g. lifestreams).]

By David Gelernter

Any Microsecond Now

Computing will be transformed. It's not just that our problems are big,
they are big and obvious. It's not just that the solutions are simple, they
are simple and right under our noses. It's not just that hardware is more
advanced than software; the last big operating-systems breakthrough was the
Macintosh, sixteen years ago, and today's hottest item is Linux, which is a
version of Unix, which was new in 1976. Users react to the hard truth that
commerical software applications tend to be badly-designed, badly-made,
incomprehensible and obsolete by blaming themselves ("Computers for
Morons," "Operating Systems for Livestock"), and meanwhile, money surges
through our communal imagination like beer from burst barrels. Billions.
Naturally the atmosphere is a little strange; change is coming, soon.

Everything Old Is New Again

1. No matter how certain its eventual coming, an event whose exact time and
form of arrival are unknown vanishes when we picture the future. We tend
not to believe in the next big war or economic swing; we certainly don't
believe in the next big software revolution.

2. Because we don't believe in technological change (we only say we do), we
accept bad computer products with a shrug; we work around them, make the
best of them and (like fatalistic sixteenth-century French peasants) barely
even notice their defects instead of demanding that they be fixed and

3. Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a
magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.

4. The Orwell law of the future: any new technology that can be tried will
be. Like Adam Smith's invisible hand (leading capitalist economies toward
ever-increasing wealth), Orwell's Law is an empirical fact of life.
Ripe Ready and hanging by a thread

5. We know that big developments are inevitable in the software world if
only because nothing in that world corresponds to a "book." You can see a
book whole from the outside. You know in advance how a book is laid out
where the contents or the index will be and how to "operate" one. As you
work through it, you always know where you stand: how far you have gone and
how much is left. "Book" can be a physical object or a text an
abstraction with many interchangeable physical embodiments. These
properties don't hold for file systems or web sites. You can't see or judge
one from the outside, anticipate the lay-out, tell where you stand as you
work your way through.

Whenever we are organizing information, the book is too powerful an idea to
do without in some form or other.

6. Miniaturization was the big theme in the first age of computers: rising
power, falling prices, computers for everybody. Theme of the Second Age now
approaching: computing transcends computers. Information travels through a
sea of anonymous, interchangeable computers like a breeze through tall
grass. A dekstop computer is a scooped-out hole in the beach where
information from the Cybersphere wells up like seawater.

7. "The network is the computer" yes; but we're less interested in
computers all the time. The real topic in astronomy is the cosmos, not
telescopes. The real topic in computing is the Cybersphere and the
cyberstructures in it, not the computers we use as telescopes and tuners.

8. The software systems we depend on most today are operating systems
(Unix, the Macintosh OS, Windows et. al.) and browsers (Internet Explorer,
Netscape Communicator...). Operating systems are connectors that fasten
users to computers; they attach to the computer at one end, the user at the
other. Browsers fasten users to remote computers, to "servers" on the

Today's operating systems and browsers are obsolete because people no
longer want to be connected to computers near ones OR remote ones. (They
probably never did). They want to be connected to information. In the
future, people are connected to cyberbodies; cyberbodies drift in the
computational cosmos also known as the Swarm, the Cybersphere.

 From The Prim Pristine Net To The Omnipresent Swarm

9. The computing future is based on "cyberbodies" self-contained,
neatly-ordered, beautifully-laid-out collections of information, like
immaculate giant gardens.

10. You will walk up to any "tuner" (a computer at home, work or the
supermarket, or a TV, a telephone, any kind of electronic device) and slip
in a "calling card," which identifes a cyberbody. The tuner tunes it in.
The cyberbody arrives and settles in like a bluebird perching on a branch.

11. Your whole electronic life will be stored in a cyberbody. You can
summon it to any tuner at any time.

12. By slipping it your calling card, you customize any electronic device
you touch; for as long as it holds your card, the machine knows your habits
and preferences better than you know them yourself.

13. Any well-designed next-generation electronic gadget will come with a
``Disable Omniscience'' button.

14. The important challenge in computing today is to spend computing power,
not horde it.

16. The future is dense with computers. They will hang around everywhere in
lush growths like Spanish moss. They will swarm like locusts. But a swarm
is not merely a big crowd. The individuals in the swarm lose their
identities. The computers that make up this global swarm will blend
together into the seamless substance of the Cybersphere. Within the swarm,
individual computers will be as anonymous as molecules of air.

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.

18. But the Net will change radically before it dies. When you deal with a
remote web site, you largely bypass the power of your desktop in favor of
the far-off power of a web server. Using your powerful desktop computer as
a mere channel to reach web sites, reaching through and beyond it instead
of using it, is like renting a Hyundai and keeing your Porsche in the
garage. Like executing programs out of disk storage instead of main memory
and cache. The Web makes the desktop impotent.

19. The power of desktop machines is a magnet that will reverse today's
"everything onto the Web!" trend.
Desktop power will inevitably drag information out of remote servers onto

20. If a million people use a Web site simultaneously, doesn't that mean
that we must have a heavy-duty remote server to keep them all happy? No; we
could move the site onto a million desktops and use the internet for
coordination. The "site" is like a military unit in the field, the general
moving with his troops (or like a hockey team in constant swarming motion).
(We used essentially this technique to build the first tuple space
implementations. They seemed to depend on a shared server, but the server
was an illusion; there was no server, just a swarm of clients.) Could be an itinerant horde instead of a fixed Central Command Post? Yes.

Stranger Than Fiction: Computers Today

21. The windows-menus-mouse "desktop" interface, invented by Xerox and
Apple and now universal, was a brilliant invention and is now obsolete. It
wastes screen-space on meaningless images, fails to provide adequate clues
to what is inside the files represented by those blurry little images,
forces users to choose icons for the desktop when the system could choose
them better itself, and keeps users jockeying windows (like parking
attendants rearranging cars in a pint-sized Manhattan lot) in a losing
battle for an unimpeded view of the workspace which is, ultimately,
unattainable. No such unimpeded view exists.

22. Icons and "collapsed views" seem new but we have met them before. Any
book has a "collapsed" or "iconified" view, namely its spine. An icon
conveys far less information that the average book spine and is much
smaller. should it be much smaller? Might a horizontal stack of "book
spines" onscreen be more useful than a clutter of icons?

23. The computer mouse was a brilliant invention, but we can see today that
it is a bad design. Like any device that must be moved and placed
precisely, it ought to provide tactile feedback; it doesn't.

24. Metaphors have a profound effect on computing. The desktop metaphor
traps us in a "broad" instead of "deep" arrangement of information that is
fundamentally wrong for computer screens. Compared to a standard page of
words, an actual desktop is big and a computer screen is small. A desktop
is easily extended (use drawers, other desks, tables, the floor); a
computer screen is not.

25. Apple could have described its interface as a pure "information
landscape," with no connection to a desktop; we invented this landscape
(they might have explained) the way a landscape architect or amusement park
designer invents a landscape. We invented an ideal space for seeing and
managing computerized information. Our landscape is imaginary, but you can
still enter and move around it. The computer screen is the window of your
vehicle, the face-shield of your diving-helmet.

26. Under the desktop metaphor, the screen IS the interface the interface
is a square foot or two of glowing colors on a glass panel. In the
landscape metaphor, the screen is just a viewing pane. When you look
through it, you see the actual interface lying beyond.

Problems On The Surface And Under The Surface

27. Modern computing is based on an analogy between computers and file
cabinets that is fundamentally wrong and affects nearly every move we make.
(We store "files" on disks, write "records," organize files into "folders"
file-cabinet language.) Computers are fundamentally unlike file cabinets
because they can take action.

28. Metaphors have a profound effect on computing: the file-cabinet
metaphor traps us in a "passive" instead of "active" view of information
management that is fundamentally wrong for computers.

29. The rigid file and directory system you are stuck with on your Mac or
PC was designed by programmers for programmers and is still a good system
for programmers. It is no good for non-programmers. It never was, and was
never intended to be.

30. If you have three pet dogs, give them names. If you have 10,000 head of
cattle, don't bother. Nowadays the idea of giving a name to every file on
your computer is ridiculous.

31. Our standard policy on file names has far-reaching consequences:
doesn't merely force us to make up names where no name is called for; also
imposes strong limits on our handling of an important class of documents
ones that arrive from the outside world. A newly-arrived email message (for
example) can't stand on its own as a separate document can't show up
alongside other files in searches, sit by itself on the desktop, be opened
or printed independently; it has no name, so it must be buried on arrival
inside some existing file (the mail file) that does have a name. The same
holds for incoming photos and faxes, Web bookmarks, scanned images...

32. You shouldn't have to put files in directories. The directories should
reach out and take them. If a file belongs in six directories, all six
should reach out and grab it automatically, simultaneously.

33. A file should be allowed to have no name, one name or many names. Many
files should be allowed to share one name. A file should be allowed to be
in no directory, one directory, or many directories. Many files should be
allowed to share one directory. Of these eight possibilities, only three
are legal and the other five are banned for no good reason.

Streams Of Time

34. In the beginning, computers dealt mainly in numbers and words. Today
they deal mainly with pictures. In a new period now emerging, they will
deal mainly with tangible time time made visible and concrete.
Chronologies and timelines tend to be awkward in the off-computer world of
paper, but they are natural online.

35. Computers make alphabetical order obsolete.

36. File cabinets and human minds are information-storage systems. We could
model computerized information-storage on the mind instead of the file
cabinet if we wanted to.

37. Elements stored in a mind do not have names and are not organized into
folders; are retrieved not by name or folder but by contents. (Hear a
voice, think of a face: you've retrieved a memory that contains the voice
as one component.) You can see everything in your memory from the
standpoint of past, present and future. Using a file cabinet, you classify
information when you put it in; minds classify information when it is taken
out. (Yesterday afternoon at four you stood with Natasha on Fifth Avenue in
the rain as you might recall when you are thinking about "Fifth Avenue,"
"rain," "Natasha" or many other things. But you attached no such labels to
the memory when you acquired it. The classification happened retrospectively.)

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

41. You manage a lifestream using two basic controls, put and focus, which
correspond roughly to acquiring a new memory and remembering an old one.

42. To send email, you put a document on someone else's stream. To add a
note to your calendar, you put a document in the future of your own stream.
To continue work on an old document, put a copy at the head of your stream.
Sending email, updating the calendar, opening a document are three
instances of the same operation (put a document on a stream).

43. A substream (for example the "Fifth Avenue" substream) is like a
conventional directory except that it builds itself, automatically; it
traps new documents as they arrive; one document can be in many substreams;
and a substream has the same structure as the main stream a past, present
and future; steady flow.

In The Age Of Tangible Time

44. The point of lifestreams isn't to shift from one software structure to
another but to shift the whole premise of computerized information: to stop
building glorified file cabinets and start building (simplified, abstract)
artificial minds; and to store our electronic lives inside.

45. A lifestream can replace the desktop and subsume the functions of the
file system, email system and calendar system. You can store a movie, TV
station, virtual museum, electronic store, course of instruction at any
level, electronic auction or an institution's past, present and future (its
archives, its current news and its future plans) in a lifestream. Many
websites will be organized as lifestreams.

46. The lifestream (or some other system with the same properties) will
become the most important information-organizing structure in computing
because even a rough imitation of the human mind is vastly more powerful
than the most sophisticated file cabinet ever conceived.

47. Lifestreams (in preliminary form) are a successful commercial product
today, but my predictions have nothing to do with this product. Ultimately
the product may succeed or fail. The idea will succeed.

Living Timestreams

48. Lifestreams today are conventional information structures, stored at
web sites and tuned-in using browsers. In the future they will be cyberbodies.

49. Today's operating systems connect users to computers. In the future we
will deal directly with information, in the form of cyberbodies. Operating
systems will connect cyberbodies to computers; will allow cyberbodies to
dock on computers. Users won't deal with operating systems any more, and
won't care about them. Your computer's operating system will make as much
difference to you as the voltage level of a bit in memory.

50. A lifestream is a landscape you can navigate or fly over at any level.
Flying towards the start of the stream is "time travel" into the past.

45. You can walk alongside a lifestream (browsing or searching) or you can
jump in and be immersed in information.

51. A well-designed store or public building allows you to size up the
whole space from outside, or as soon as you walk in you see immediately
how things are laid out and roughly how large and deep the space is.
Today's typical web site is a failure because it is opaque. You ought to be
able to see immediately (not deduce or calculate) how the site is arranged,
how big it is, how deep and how broad. It ought to be transparent. (For an
example of a "transparent" web site, Mirror Worlds figure 7.6.)

52. Movies, TV shows, virtual museums and all sorts of other cultural
products from symphonies to baseball games will be stored in lifestreams.
In other words: each cultural product will be delivered to you in the form
of an artifical mind. You will deal with it not as you deal with an object
but roughly as you do with a person.

Institutions Afloat In The Cybersphere

53. Your car, your school, your company and yourself are all one-track
vehicles moving forward through time, and they will each leave a
stream-shaped cyberbody (like an aircraft's contrail) behind them as they
go. These vapor-trails of crystallized experience will represent our first
concrete answer to a hard question: what is a company, a university, any
sort of ongoing organization or institution, if its staff and customers and
owners can all change, its buildings be bulldozed, its site relocated
what's left? What is it? The answer: a lifestream in cyberspace.

54. A software or service company equals the employees plus the company
lifestream. Every employee has his own view of the communal stream. The
company's web site is the publically-accessible substream of the main
company stream. The company's lifestream is an electronic approximation of
the company's memories, its communal mind.

50. Lifestreams don't yield the "paperless office." (The "paperless office"
is a bad idea because paper is one of the most useful and valuable media
ever invented.) But lifestreams can turn office paper into a temporary
medium for use, not storage. "On paper" is a good place for information
you want to use; a bad place for information you want to store. In the
stream-based office, for each newly-created or -received paper document:
scan it into the stream and throw it away. When you need a paper document:
find it in the stream; print it out; use it; if you wrote on the paper
while using it, scan it back in; throw it ou

55. Software can solve hard problems in two ways: by algorithm or by making
connections by delivering the problem to exactly the right human
problem-solver. The second technique is just as powerful as the first, but
so far we have ignored it.
The Second Coming Of The Computer

56. Lifestreams and microcosms are the two most important cyberbody types;
they relate to each other as a single musical line relates to a single
chord. The stream is a "moment in space," the microcosm a moment in time.

57. Nowadays we use a scanner to transfer a document's electronic image
into a computer. Soon, the scanner will become a Cybersphere port of entry,
an all-purpose in-box. Put any object in the in-box and the system develops
an accurate 3D physical transcription, and drops the transcription into the
cool dark well of cyberspace. So the Cybersphere starts to take on just a
hint of the textural richness of real life.

We'll know the system is working when a butterfly wanders into the in-box
and (a few wingbeats later) flutters out and in that brief interval the
system has transcribed the creature's appearance and analyzed its way of
moving, and the real butterfly leaves a shadow-butterfly behind. Some time
soon afterward you'll be examining some tedious electronic document and a
cyber-butterfly will appear at the bottom left corner of your screen (maybe
a Hamearis lucina) and pause there, briefly hiding the text (and showing
its neatly-folded rusty-chocolate wings like Victorian paisley, with orange
eyespots) and moments later will have crossed the screen and be gone.

But What Does It All Matter?

58. If you have plenty of money, the best consequence (so they say) is that
you no longer need to think about money. In the future we will have plenty
of technology and the best consequence will be that we will no longer
have to think about technology.

We will return with gratitude and relief to the topics that actually count.

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