TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Mirror Worlds

In 1991, David Gelernter wrote a landmark book called Mirror Worlds. Heres an extract from an article about the book from Sohodojo:

Mirror Worlds is the most important book about the Internet that you can read. What is even more amazing? Mirror Worlds isn’t supposed to be about the Internet.

Ten years after its publication, the really impressive about Mirror Worlds is what Gelernter and all the rest of us didn’t foresee. The Mirror World is a magical Looking Glass; a transforming two-way mirror. The rapid growth of the Internet and its associated impact on the emerging global economy means that the model has become the system itself. The outside world is changing to reflect our lives inside the wired, network world we live in… not the other way around.

In Mirror Worlds Gelernter envisioned us mustering the resources and implementation efficiencies to allow us to build grand software simulations of government, economic and social systems. Then, by cleverly instrumenting the simulations to be real-time reflections of the system being modeled… you get a BIG BANG!

The simulation becomes something qualitatively different. It is a Mirror World. As more and more of our value exchanges and communication take place purely in cyberspace, the model is the system… we don’t have to build the simulation and instrument it… the model and the system are one and the same.

Steven Johnson wrote recently about Gelernters vision in a slightly different context:

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 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.

Somewhere in this mix of tools and interactivity, a true mirror world is brewing. Combine the visual interfaces of SimCity, the up-to-the-minute data of My Neighborhood Statistics, the multiple inroads of Game Neverending, and you’d be able to create a true alternate universe, one that was mapped to real events. Ten years from now, a massive public planning operation like the one under way for the Ground Zero site might well be unimaginable without a mirror world. Photoshop pictures of the new skyline are nice but can’t answer the important question: How will this new space actually be used once it’s built? Will it be dreary, teeming, commercial, or diverse? Just create a virtual model of each proposal, download the latest economic data, populate it with users willing to participate as residents and workers, and press play.

The bloggers of the world are doing just that creating Mirror Worlds of themselves, and for us.

Tomorrow: Mirror Worlds (continued)

TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.