I had read David Gelernter’s book “Mirror Worlds” nearly a decade ago. I was quite fascinated by it, but didn’t quite understand the full implications of what he was saying. Reading Steven Johnson’s column about the book makes me think I should go and re-read it.
In 1991, computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale University predicted in his book Mirror Worlds that advances in computing power and connectivity would lead to the creation of virtual cities: micro versions of the real world built out of data streams and algorithms instead of bricks and concrete…Fast-forward a decade, and evidence of Gelernter’s prescience abounds. Millions of people are active participants in virtual worlds that possess the economic and creative vitality of actual communities. The Net denizens who have built a homestead in massively multiplayer games like The Sims Online (www. thesimsonline.com) are the digital world’s equivalent of the postwar immigration to California. The worlds are so vivid that the players now take the virtual objects that they’ve accumulated in these gamesswords, houses, entire charactersand sell them in online auctions for real-world currencies.
In a true mirror world, data would be mapped onto recognizable shapes from real life. For instance, to find information on a local hospital, you would locate the building on a computerized map and click on it with an “inspector” tool. Within seconds, the big-picture data about the facility would come into focus: number of patients and doctors, annual budget, how many patients died in operating rooms last year, and more. If you were looking for more specific informationsay you were considering giving birth at the hospitalyou could zoom in to the obstetrics department, where you would see data on such subjects as successful births, premature babies, and stillborns. Information about how the hospital connects to the wider citywhat Gelernter calls topsightcould be had by zooming out.
Another key feature of Gelernter’s vision is what he calls narrative information systems. The data in a mirror world are time-based: The mortality rate at a hospital varies from month to month and from year to year, and a mirror world would record those changes. So with any variableor combination of variablesyou could reverse the data stream to see past conditions. This is a tool not only for making sense of the past but also for predicting the future: If you’re in the middle of an economic downturn and you’re thinking of moving to a new neighborhood, you might like to see how the real estate values fared during previous recessions. With a mirror world, you would select a neighborhood (or a city block, if you wanted that much detail) with the inspector tool and shuttle the data stream to 1990 or the mid-1970s or the late 1920s, as though you were rewinding a VHS tape.