Streams

December 4, 2001 by David Gelernter

How will peoples’ sense of time change when software and computing technology evolves into new paradigms? In this Edge article, David Gelernter explores space, time and the next generation of computing.

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 toward 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.

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 toward 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.

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