TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Mirror Worlds (Part 2)

Jon Udell wrote about Mirror Worlds on his blog a few months ago:

I found a copy of David Gelernter’s book, Mirror Worlds. Written in 1991, it resonates powerfully a dozen years later. I couldn’t stop grabbing quotes. Here’s a keeper:

At the same time as we develop vast complex software worlds, the simple machines of information structure are also just being invented. The wheel, the ramp, the wedge, the screw, the lever.

From Gelernter’s 1991 perspective, it wasn’t clear what those simple machines would be. It’s a bit clearer now: HTTP, HTML, XML, RSS. We’ll use these wheels and levers to make structures that rival the most magnificent monuments:

New software Saint Marks’ [cathedral] will rise. They will monopolize the energy and attention of thousands in the building, will broadcast an aesthetic and a world-view to millions, will mold behavior and epitomize the age.

In 1991, Yahoo!, Napster, and Google were right around the corner. What’s right around the corner now? Predictions are always dicey. For example, here’s what Gelernter imagined:

To use a Mirror World program, you sit down at your computer, which has a large color screen and a connection to the local fiberoptic utility cable…Or — if you’re willing to put up with a smaller picture and it’s a nice day — you pick up your laptop, tune in Data Radio, and head for the hammock.

It’s always fascinating to compare prediction to reality. In 1991 I’d have been more surprised by the Data Radio in my hammock than by the fiberoptic utility cable. Well, the fiber isn’t here yet, but if it were a nice day, I’d be typing these words from my hammock.

So, what is a Mirror World? A vast, detailed representation of a company or a city, or of parts of these structures, or even of the larger economic and political structures to which they belong. What’s it good for? To monitor and debug the things that are represented.

Lets look at how David Gelernter himself envisioned his Mirror Worlds (written in 1991):

A Mirror World is an ocean of information, fed by many data streams. Some streams slowly represent hand-entry of data at computer terminals; they flow slowly. Others are fed by automatic data-gathering in and monitoring equipment, like the machinery in a hospitals intensive care unit, or weather-monitoring unit, or traffic-volume sensors installed in roadways. These streams may be so fast-rushing that they threaten to overwhelm the main programs with information tidal waves. The solution is to connect Mirror Worlds to fast-rushing data streams via a sort of software hydroelectric plant. Such programs are designed to sift through complex floods of data looking for trends and patterns as they emerge. They are constructed as layered networks. Data values are drawn in at the bottom and passed upwards through a series of data-refineries, which attempt to convert them into increasingly general and comprehensive chunks of information. As low-level data flows in at the bottom, the big picture comes into focus at the topA Mirror World is a two-faced duality. You can look it as a datapool, as a detailed historical archive; or you can look it as a datafilter, capturing and synopsizing the current state of a complicated system right now.

Read the passage closely. Gelernters Mirror World seems to describe the blogosphere of today! There is an ocean of information out there, with the RSS streams representing the data streams. The filters are the actions of bloggers. The layers are made up by the circle of bloggers think of them as concentric circles of bloggers with the radius determined by their degree of separation from us. So, on the one hand we can access the vast pool of information through search engines like Google and directories like Yahoo, or we can use the work of bloggers as information filters.

Next Week: Constructing the Memex (continued)

TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.