Saturday, April 14, 2007

Edge question for 2007: What are you optimistic about?

I've been so busy and distracted these past few months that I completed forgot to dig into John Brockman's Edge question for 2007: What are you optimistic about?

Edge puts out a new question at the beginning of every year. This one came out on January 1, 2007.

This year there were 160 responses from a wide range of scientists, intellectuals, and other thought leaders.

I've only skimmed a few of the responses and have yet to sit down and do some serious reading of them.

Here's the short response from computer scientist David Gelernter:

The Future of Software

I am optimistic about the future of software, because more and more people are coming out of the closet every month — admitting in public that they hate their computers.

Within the last month I've heard three people shouting (or muttering) curses at their machines. One was a bona fide software virtuoso! These particular three were ticked off about (1) an airline website that was so badly designed it was useless, (2) a commercial web-site-building tool (bought for real money) that made it nearly impossible to build simple structures and (3) a home PC that, despite reasonably sophisticated software counter-measures, was so junked-up with viruses that starting a word processor took five minutes.

The file systems and desktop and spreadsheets, the word processors and mailers and database programs we rely on are vintage 1984 or older. They're as obsolete as a 1984 PC. When I first described the "empty computer" model in the early '90s, people thought I was crazy. Many still do—but fewer each year (and I guess that's progress). There was a larger jump in admitted cases of computer- and software-hatred in '06 than in any previous year I remember.

Technologists who blandly assume that hardware will (somehow) keep getting better while software stays frozen in time are looking wronger every month. In the empty-computer world of the near future, your information assets have all been bundled-up, encrypted and launched into geosynchronous orbit in the Cybersphere; computers are interchangeable devices for tuning in information. (If computers are so cheap, why does everyone need to carry one around with him? We don't make you carry a desk and chairs around with you; we can afford to provide chairs and flat surfaces wherever you need them.)

In the empty computer world it will take five minutes to upgrade to a new machine (throw the old one out, plug the new one in—your information stays in orbit where it's always been); comfortable large-screen public computers will be available all over the place. And instead of expanding into a higher-and-higher-entropy mess, the Web will implode into a "blue hole": a single high-energy information beam that holds all the world's digital assets.

Gelernter's Law: the computer industry revolutionizes itself at least once a decade. We're nearly due for the next revolution.

Actually, now that I read what he wrote, he seems to be describing something similar to what I wrote up as Distributed Virtual Personal Data Storage (DVPDS). I'm certainly optimistic about this concept, but I don't expect it any time soon. Besides, the computer won't actually look or feel "empty" to the user. It's just that the contents can be reproduced at will for little cost.

In any case, there is plenty of good reading and fodder for blogging in the responses to the Edge question.

-- Jack Krupansky


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