Manifesto and Rebuttal


Après Spam: The Next Email Crisis

Many web generations ago, the ARPA knights started a revolution against the telco circuit-switching empire
and determined to destroy the death stars and their twisted pairs.
I was one of those knights when our leader Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet, crossed over to the telco side of the force.
Cerf Vader and legions of imperial stormlawyers are now defending the death stars against the insignificant ispwoks.
The previous speaker in this forum series, the Father of the Web, Tim-Berners-Lee-Po - who speaks over 6,000,000,000 dialects -
has been captured by Java the Hutt.  You are Luke and Leia.  The death stars must be destroyed and I foresee it.

- Bob Metcalfe

by David Gelernter


You get an email (maybe longer or more complicated than average, or from someone you don't know); you have no time to respond right now, but you mean to answer - but other emails stack up, and you answer those first - but you still plan to reply - but more emails keep arriving ... Meanwhile the sender is wondering: Is he ignoring me on purpose?  (I'll cross him off my list and forget about it.)  Did he mean to reply, but has since forgotten?  (Resend my message.)  Or does he still mean to reply and just hasn't gotten around to it?  (Don't get mad or resend.)  All three possibilities are real, and happen all the time.  As volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued further, and the problem gets worse - people set even less store by a mail message, send one out on even less provocation, volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued even further.

Luckily, there are good ways to deal with an unreliable medium like email - but not enough people know or use them.  (And the techniques won't work unless many people use them.)  These techniques can't add more hours to your day, but can make email fairly transparent.  This is a behaviour (not technology) issue - but today's software makes the problem worse, because the obvious techniques (which involve "acknowledgments" and "time outs") require a kind of time awareness that today's software mostly discourages.

Still, a prediction: Protocols like the ones proposed below will be commonplace before long.  You have to start somewhere.

  1. The Acknowledgment Rule - Acknowledge in haste, respond at leisure.  When you receive an email, acknowledge it within 24 hours if you can; take 1 week if you must, but more than that is (ordinarily) too long.  An acknowledgment is not an answer.  It's a one-liner, something like "thanks for your note; I'll be in touch soon."  It tells the sender that his message has got through and that you plan to answer it some day.  Once you've acknowledged a message, you should answer within (say) 2 weeks of sending the acknowledgment.
  2. The Re-Send Rule - If an acknowledgment or (later) an answer doesn't arrive in good time, resend your message verbatim.  The receiver's time limits dictate the sender's.  If your message hasn't been acknowledged 1 week later, resend it.  If the acknowledgment arrives but no answer has materialised 2 weeks after that, resend.  So you get (at the outside) two chances to restart a sputtering conversation - and that's it.  (When you resend a message, a discreet "2" or "3" in the subject line should be enough to let the receiver know what's going on.)

Where did the "24 hours, 1 week, 2 weeks" time limits come from?  I just made them up.  Maybe they're wrong.  All I can say in their defense is that I've been a faithful emailer since 1982, and they strike me as about right.

If a message arrives and you can answer right away - be my guest, and forget the acknowledgment.  But feel free to acknowledge (and not answer until later) any ordinary email, no matter how brief.  A short email isn't necessarily easy to answer.  Any substantive answer costs time and concentration.  We can all sympathise with those desperate characters who attach "sender asked to be notified" messages to their outbound email, but such messages have no place in polite society.  (When you read one of these booby-trapped emails, a note pops up: "Sender asked to be notified when you read this message - okay to send a notification?")  No good.  "May I spy on your activities and send back a report?" will never be a tactful question no matter how delicately you phrase it.

Consider how my rules work in a few common situations.

bulletYou overlook an email entirely.  Especially common in the spam age, but happens regularly for other reasons too.  Under my protocol, the sender waits a week; having got no acknowledgment, he then resends - without worrying whether he's waited long enough, whether you want to ignore him and he is intruding on your splendid isolation, et cetera.  The conversation gets a 2nd chance.
bulletYou see an email, plan to respond but forget.  Especially likely when the email is long or complicated.  By sending a quick acknowledgment, you give the sender permission to nudge you (in a reasonable way, after a fair interval).  The conversation is less likely to flicker out by accident.
bulletYou finally remember to respond, but you've forgotten the details.  It suddenly hits you that you intended to answer a message from somebody about some piece you once published - but a message from whom about what?  A conscientious correspondent will shoulder his virtual shovel and dig the thing out. In practice, the exchange is probably going nowhere unless the sender decides to try again.
bulletYou ignore an email on purpose.  In this case you are better off without the protocol.  Under the protocol, you will be forced to ignore not only the original but the duplicate.  Reform is rarely cost-free.

These rules could be put into effect right now, using any mail system.  But they are pointless unless a whole community uses them, and would be a nuisance to apply using conventional mail software.  What's required is a 2-button mail-reader.  One button is labelled "acknowledge (quick!)," the other "answer (slow!)."  When you press the "acknowledge" button, you see a time-ordered list of all messages you have yet to acknowledge.  Also included: repeat messages that await resending - you've sent them once but they have not been acknowledged, or remain unanswered.  And acknowledgments received - just to glance at; no action needed.

Maintaining such a list is fairly complicated, but software does the work.  Whenever a new message (except an acknowledgment) arrives, the system will ordinarily start a 24-hour timer, put the message on your "acknowledge" list and prepare an acknowledgment to be launched when you are ready.  Whenever you kick off a new conversation, the system will start a 7-day timer; when the timer runs out, your original message is hauled out of storage, readied for re-launch, and added to the "acknowledge" list.  All these manipulations go on behind the scenes.  Pressing "answer" shows you messages you have acknowledged but have not yet responded to.

Everything on "acknowledge" can be dealt with quickly.  If you check it several times a day, you can keep up without bogging down.  You might deal with "reply" once a week.  Bottom line:  You keep afloat by relying on mass-processing efficiencies (your time-consuming correspondence is bundled into a neat batch to be dealt with every now and then), and by discreetly re-launching stalled conversations without being obnoxious.  Which is exactly what nearly everyone tries to do anyway.  But your two lists let you do the obvious thing at minimal cost in overhead, and without driving your correspondents crazy.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

Source: 29 September 2003 Vol 9 Issue 3 © 2005, News Corporation, Weekly Standard all rights reserved.

I can't say just how many times I've received an email from am incipient correspondent and, delighted, I've set it aside because I wanted plenty of time to prepare an in-depth reply - only to run across the email two months later.  By then, I would be too embarrassed to reply and would tell myself that, if it had been important enough, I would've answered already - mostly just so I can stop feeling so bad about it.  Because OF COURSE it was important - I'm often elbow-deep in a project which consumes my attention (and multi-tracking becomes harder as I get older - and older) and writing emails is labour-intensive for me because I don't like to just dash something off.  Gelernter's rules would be received by me with a sigh of relief - but only if some combination of hardware and software made it as easy as selecting which button to push - otherwise, I would be little better off than I am now. Since lots of people are bound to have this same problem, I'm surprised that this hasn't already been "fixed."

Coming Again - a Manifesto

by David Gelernter

Introduction by John Brockman:

Yale computer scientist David Gelernter entered the public mind one morning in January '92 when The New York Sunday Times ran his picture on the front page of the business section; it filled nearly the whole page.  The text of his story occupied almost another whole page inside.

In 1991 Gelernter had published a book for technologists (an extended research paper) called Mirror Worlds, claiming in effect that one day, there would be something like the Web.  As well as forecasting the Web, the book, according to the people who built these systems, also helped lay the basis for the internet programming language "Java" and Sun Microsystems' "Jini."

Gelernter's earlier work on his parallel programming language "Linda" (which allows you to distribute a computer program across a multitude of processors and thus break down problems into a multitude of parts in order to solve them more quickly) and "tuple spaces" underlies such modern-day systems as Sun's JavaSpaces, IBM's T-Spaces, a Lucent company's new "InfernoSpaces" and many other descendants worldwide.

By mid-'92 this set of ideas had taken hold and was exerting a strong influence.  By 1993 the Internet was growing fast, and the Web was about to be launched.  Gelernter's research group at Yale was an acknowledged world leader in network software and more important, it was known for "The Vision Thing", for the big picture.

In June '93 everything stopped for Gelernter when he was critically injured by a terrorist mail bomb.  He was out of action for the rest of '93 and most of '94 as the Web took off, the Internet become an international phenomenon and his aggressive forecasts started to come true.  Gelernter endured numerous surgeries through 95, and then a long recuperation period.

Now Gelernter is back.  In this audacious manifesto, The Second Coming, he writes: "Everything is up for grabs; everything will change.  There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us."

The Second Coming - A Manifesto

by David Gelernter

Any Microsecond Now

Computing will be transformed.  It's not just that our problems are big, they are big and obvious.  It's not just that the solutions are simple, they are simple and right under our noses.  It's not just that hardware is more advanced than software; the last big operating-systems breakthrough was the Macintosh, 16 years ago, and today's hottest item is Linux, which is a version of Unix, which was new in 1976.

Users react to the hard truth that commercial software applications tend to be badly-designed, badly-made, incomprehensible and obsolete by blaming themselves ("Computers for Morons," "Operating Systems for Livestock"), and meanwhile, money surges through our communal imagination like beer from burst barrels.  Billions.  Naturally the atmosphere is a little strange; change is coming, soon.

Everything Old Is New Again

  1. No matter how certain its eventual coming, an event whose exact time and form of arrival are unknown vanishes when we picture the future.  We tend not to believe in the next big war or economic swing; we certainly don't believe in the next big software revolution.
  2. Because we don't believe in technological change (we only say we do), we accept bad computer products with a shrug; we work around them, make the best of them and (like fatalistic 16th-century French peasants) barely even notice their defects - instead of demanding that they be fixed and changed.
  3. Everything is up for grabs.  Everything will change.  There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.
  4. The Orwell law of the future: any new technology that can be tried will be.  Like Adam Smith's invisible hand (leading capitalist economies toward ever-increasing wealth), Orwell's Law is an empirical fact of life.

Ripe Ready and hanging by a thread 

  1. We know that big developments are inevitable in the software world - if only because nothing in that world corresponds to a "book."  You can see a book whole from the outside.  You know in advance how a book is laid out - where the contents or the index will be - and how to "operate" one.  As you work through it, you always know where you stand: how far you have gone and how much is left.  "Book" can be a physical object or a text - an abstraction with many interchangeable physical embodiments.  These properties don't hold for file systems or web sites.  You can't see or judge one from the outside, anticipate the lay-out, tell where you stand as you work your way through.

Whenever we are organising information, the book form is too powerful an idea to do without in some form or other.

  1. Miniaturisation was the big theme in the first age of computers: rising power, falling prices, computers for everybody.  Theme of the Second Age now approaching: computing transcends computers.  Information travels through a sea of anonymous, interchangeable computers like a breeze through tall grass.

A desktop computer is a scooped-out hole in the beach where information from the Cybersphere wells up like seawater.

  1. "The network is the computer" - yes; but we're less interested in computers all the time.  The real topic in astronomy is the cosmos, not telescopes.  The real topic in computing is the Cybersphere and the cyberstructures in it, not the computers we use as telescopes and tuners.
  2. The software systems we depend on most today are operating systems (Unix, the Macintosh OS, Windows et al) and browsers (Internet Explorer, Netscape Communicator, etc).  Operating systems are connectors that fasten users to computers; they attach to the computer at one end, the user at the other.  Browsers fasten users to remote computers, to "servers" on the internet.

Today's operating systems and browsers are obsolete because people no longer want to be connected to computers - near ones OR remote ones.  (They probably never did).  They want to be connected to information.  In the future, people are connected to cyberbodies; cyberbodies drift in the computational cosmos - also known as the Swarm, the Cybersphere.

From The Prim Pristine Net To The Omnipresent Swarm

  1. The computing future is based on "cyberbodies" - self-contained, neatly-ordered, beautifully-laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens.
  2. You will walk up to any "tuner" (a computer at home, work or the supermarket, or a TV, a telephone, any kind of electronic device) and slip in a "calling card," which identifes a cyberbody.  The tuner tunes it in.  The cyberbody arrives and settles in like a bluebird perching on a branch.
  3. Your whole electronic life will be stored in a cyberbody.  You can summon it to any tuner at any time.
  4. By slipping it your calling card, you customise any electronic device you touch; for as long as it holds your card, the machine knows your habits and preferences better than you know them yourself.
  5. Any well-designed next-generation electronic gadget will come with a "Disable Omniscience" button.
  6. The important challenge in computing today is to spend computing power, not horde it.
  7. The future is dense with computers.  They will hang around everywhere in lush growths like Spanish moss.  They will swarm like locusts.  But a swarm is not merely a big crowd.  The individuals in the swarm lose their identities.  The computers that make up this global swarm will blend together into the seamless substance of the Cybersphere.  Within the swarm, individual computers will be as anonymous as molecules of air.
  8. A cyberbody can be replicated or distributed over many computers; can inhabit many computers at the same time.  If the Cybersphere's computers are tiles in a paved courtyard, a cyberbody is a cloud's drifting shadow covering many tiles simultaneously.
  9. But the Net will change radically before it dies.  When you deal with a remote web site, you largely bypass the power of your desktop in favour of the far-off power of a web server.  Using your powerful desktop computer as a mere channel to reach web sites, reaching through and beyond it instead of using it, is like renting a Hyundai and keeping your Porsche in the garage.  Like executing programs out of disk storage instead of main memory and cache.  The Web makes the desktop impotent.
  10. The power of desktop machines is a magnet that will reverse today's "everything onto the Web!" trend.  Desktop power will inevitably drag information out of remote servers onto desktops.
  11. If a million people use a Web site simultaneously, doesn't that mean that we must have a heavy-duty remote server to keep them all happy?  No; we could move the site onto a million desktops and use the internet for coordination.  The "site" is like a military unit in the field, the general moving with his troops (or like a hockey team in constant swarming motion).  (We used essentially this technique to build the first tuple space implementations.  They seemed to depend on a shared server, but the server was an illusion; there was no server, just a swarm of clients.)  Could  be an itinerant horde instead of a fixed Central Command Post?  Yes.

Stranger Than Fiction: Computers Today

  1. The windows-menus-mouse "desktop" interface, invented by Xerox and Apple and now universal, was a brilliant invention and is now obsolete.  It wastes screen-space on meaningless images, fails to provide adequate clues to what is inside the files represented by those blurry little images, forces users to choose icons for the desktop when the system could choose them better itself, and keeps users jockeying windows (like parking attendants rearranging cars in a pint-sized Manhattan lot) in a losing battle for an unimpeded view of the workspace - which is, ultimately, unattainable.  No such unimpeded view exists.
  2. Icons and "collapsed views" seem new but we have met them before.  Any book has a "collapsed" or "iconified" view, namely its spine.  An icon conveys far less information that the average book spine - and is much smaller.  Should it be much smaller?  Might a horizontal stack of "book spines" onscreen be more useful than a clutter of icons?
  3. The computer mouse was a brilliant invention, but we can see today that it is a bad design.  Like any device that must be moved and placed precisely, it ought to provide tactile feedback; it doesn't.
  4. Metaphors have a profound effect on computing.  The desktop metaphor traps us in a "broad" instead of "deep" arrangement of information that is fundamentally wrong for computer screens.  Compared to a standard page of words, an actual desktop is big and a computer screen is small.  A desktop is easily extended (use drawers, other desks, tables, the floor); a computer screen is not.
  5. Apple could have described its interface as a pure "information landscape," with no connection to a desktop; we invented this landscape (they might have explained) the way a landscape architect or amusement park designer invents a landscape.  We invented an ideal space for seeing and managing computerised information.  Our landscape is imaginary, but you can still enter and move around it.  The computer screen is the window of your vehicle, the face-shield of your diving-helmet.
  6. Under the desktop metaphor, the screen IS the interface - the interface is a square foot or two of glowing colours on a glass panel.  In the landscape metaphor, the screen is just a viewing pane.  When you look through it, you see the actual interface lying beyond.

Problems On The Surface And Under The Surface

  1. Modern computing is based on an analogy between computers and file cabinets that is fundamentally wrong and affects nearly every move we make.  (We store "files" on disks, write "records," organize files into "folders" - file-cabinet language.)  Computers are fundamentally unlike file cabinets because they can take action.
  2. Metaphors have a profound effect on computing: the file-cabinet metaphor traps us in a "passive" instead of "active" view of information management that is fundamentally wrong for computers.
  3. The rigid file and directory system you are stuck with on your Mac or PC was designed by programmers for programmers - and is still a good system for programmers.  It is no good for non-programmers.  It never was, and was never intended to be.
  4. If you have three pet dogs, give them names.  If you have 10,000 head of cattle, don't bother.  Nowadays the idea of giving a name to every file on your computer is ridiculous.
  5. Our standard policy on file names has far-reaching consequences: doesn't merely force us to make up names where no name is called for; also imposes strong limits on our handling of an important class of documents - ones that arrive from the outside world.  A newly-arrived email message (for example) can't stand on its own as a separate document - can't show up alongside other files in searches, sit by itself on the desktop, be opened or printed independently; it has no name, so it must be buried on arrival inside some existing file (the mail file) that does have a name.  The same holds for incoming photos and faxes, Web bookmarks, scanned images...
  6. You shouldn't have to put files in directories.  The directories should reach out and take them.  If a file belongs in six directories, all six should reach out and grab it automatically, simultaneously.
  7. A file should be allowed to have no name, one name or many names.  Many files should be allowed to share one name.  A file should be allowed to be in no directory, one directory, or many directories.  Many files should be allowed to share one directory.  Of these eight possibilities, only three are legal and the other five are banned - for no good reason.

Streams Of Time

  1. In the beginning, computers dealt mainly in numbers and words.  Today they deal mainly with pictures.  In a new period now emerging, they will deal mainly with tangible time - time made visible and concrete.  Chronologies and timelines tend to be awkward in the off-computer world of paper, but they are natural online.
  2. Computers make alphabetical order obsolete.
  3. File cabinets and human minds are information- storage systems.  We could model computerised information-storage on the mind instead of the file cabinet if we wanted to.
  4. Elements stored in a mind do not have names and are not organised into folders; they are retrieved not by name or folder but by contents.  (Hear a voice, think of a face: you've retrieved a memory that contains the voice as one component.)  You can see everything in your memory from the standpoint of past, present and future.  Using a file cabinet, you classify information when you put it in; minds classify information when it is taken out.  (Yesterday at 4pm stood with Natasha on Fifth Avenue in the rain - as you might recall when you are thinking about "Fifth Avenue," "rain," "Natasha" or many other things.  But you attached no such labels to the memory when you acquired it.  The classification happened retrospectively.)
  5. A "lifestream" organises information not as a file cabinet does but roughly as a mind does.
  6. A lifestream is a sequence of all kinds of documents - all the electronic documents, digital photos, applications, Web bookmarks, rolodex cards, email messages and every other digital information chunk in your life - arranged from oldest to youngest, constantly growing as new documents arrive, easy to browse and search, with a past, present and future, appearing on your screen as a receding parade of index cards.  Documents have no names and there are no directories; you retrieve elements by content: "Fifth Avenue" yields a sub-stream of every document that mentions Fifth Avenue.
  7. A stream flows because time flows, and the stream is a concrete representation of time.  The "now" line divides past from future.  If you have a meeting at 10am tomorow, you put a reminder document in the future of your stream, at 10am tomorrow.  It flows steadily towards now.  When now equals 10am tomorrow, the reminder leaps over the now line and flows into the past.  When you look at the future of your stream you see your plans and appointments, flowing steadily out of the future into the present, then the past.
  8. You manage a lifestream using two basic controls, put and focus, which correspond roughly to acquiring a new memory and remembering an old one.
  9. To send email, you put a document on someone else's stream.  To add a note to your calendar, you put a document in the future of your own stream.  To continue work on an old document, put a copy at the head of your stream.  Sending email, updating the calendar, opening a document are three instances of the same operation (put a document on a stream).
  10. A substream (for example the "Fifth Avenue" substream) is like a conventional directory - except that it builds itself, automatically; it traps new documents as they arrive; one document can be in many substreams; and a substream has the same structure as the main stream - a past, present and future; steady flow.

In The Age Of Tangible Time

  1. The point of lifestreams isn't to shift from one software structure to another but to shift the whole premise of computerised information: to stop building glorified file cabinets and start building (simplified, abstract) artificial minds; and to store our electronic lives inside.
  2. A lifestream can replace the desktop and subsume the functions of the file system, email system and calendar system.  You can store a movie, TV station, virtual museum, electronic store, course of instruction at any level, electronic auction or an institution's past, present and future (its archives, its current news and its future plans) in a lifestream.  Many websites will be organised as lifestreams.
  3. The lifestream (or some other system with the same properties) will become the most important information-organising structure in computing - because even a rough imitation of the human mind is vastly more powerful than the most sophisticated file cabinet ever conceived.
  4. Lifestreams (in preliminary form) are a successful commercial product today, but my predictions have nothing to do with this product.  Ultimately the product may succeed or fail.  The idea will succeed.

Living Timestreams

  1. Lifestreams today are conventional information structures, stored at web sites and tuned-in using browsers.  In the future they will be cyberbodies.
  2. Today's operating systems connect users to computers.  In the future we will deal directly with information, in the form of cyberbodies.  Operating systems will connect cyberbodies to computers; will allow cyberbodies to dock on computers.  Users won't deal with operating systems any more, and won't care about them.  Your computer's operating system will make as much difference to you as the voltage level of a bit in memory.
  3. A lifestream is a landscape you can navigate or fly over at any level.  Flying towards the start of the stream is "time travel" into the past.
  4. You can walk alongside a lifestream (browsing or searching) or you can jump in and be immersed in information.
  5. A well-designed store or public building allows you to size up the whole space from outside, or as soon as you walk in - you see immediately how things are laid out and roughly how large and deep the space is.  Today's typical web site is a failure because it is opaque.  You ought to be able to see immediately (not deduce or calculate) how the site is arranged, how big it is, how deep and how broad.  It ought to be transparent.
  6. Movies, TV shows, virtual museums and all sorts of other cultural products from symphonies to baseball games will be stored in lifestreams.  In other words: each cultural product will be delivered to you in the form of an artificial mind.  You will deal with it not as you deal with an object but roughly as you do with a person.

Institutions Afloat In The Cybersphere

  1. Your car, your school, your company and yourself are all one-track vehicles moving forward through time, and they will each leave a stream-shaped cyberbody (like an aircraft's contrail) behind them as they go.  These vapour-trails of crystallised experience will represent our first concrete answer to a hard question: what is a company, a university, any sort of ongoing organisation or institution, if its staff and customers and owners can all change, its buildings be bulldozed, its site relocated - what's left?  What is it?  The answer: a lifestream in cyberspace.
  2. A software or service company equals the employees plus the company lifestream.  Every employee has his own view of the communal stream.  The company's web site is the publicly-accessible substream of the main company stream.  The company's lifestream is an electronic approximation of the company's memories, its communal mind.
  3. Lifestreams don't yield the "paperless office."  (The "paperless office" is a bad idea because paper is one of the most useful and valuable media ever invented.)  But lifestreams can turn office paper into a temporary medium - for use, not storage.  "On paper" is a good place for information you want to use; a bad place for information you want to store.  In the stream-based office, for each newly-created or -received paper document: scan it into the stream and throw it away.  When you need a paper document: find it in the stream; print it out; use it; if you wrote on the paper while using it, scan it back in; throw it out.
  4. Software can solve hard problems in two ways: by algorithm or by making connections - by delivering the problem to exactly the right human problem-solver.  The second technique is just as powerful as the first, but so far we have ignored it.

The Second Coming Of The Computer

  1. Lifestreams and microcosms are the two most important cyberbody types; they relate to each other as a single musical line relates to a single chord.  The stream is a "moment in space," the microcosm a moment in time.
  2. Nowadays we use a scanner to transfer a document's electronic image into a computer.  Soon, the scanner will become a Cybersphere port of entry, an all-purpose in-box.  Put any object in the in-box and the system develops an accurate 3D physical transcription, and drops the transcription into the cool dark well of cyberspace.  So the Cybersphere starts to take on just a hint of the textural richness of real life.

We'll know the system is working when a butterfly wanders into the in-box and (a few wingbeats later) flutters out - and in that brief interval the system has transcribed the creature's appearance and analysed its way of moving, and the real butterfly leaves a shadow-butterfly behind.  Some time soon afterward you'll be examining some tedious electronic document and a cyber-butterfly will appear at the bottom left corner of your screen (maybe a Hamearis lucina) and pause there, briefly hiding the text (and showing its neatly-folded rusty-chocolate wings like Victorian paisley, with orange eyespots) - and moments later will have crossed the screen and be gone.

But What Does It All Matter?

  1. If you have plenty of money, the best consequence (so they say) is that you no longer need to think about money.  In the future we will have plenty of technology - and the best consequence will be that we will no longer have to think about technology.

We will return with gratitude and relief to the topics that actually count.


from John McCarthy 18 June 2000

Comments on the Gelernter Manifesto

  1. I found a lot wrong with the manifesto, so I'll begin with something I found usable in it.  Gelernter grumbles in item 31 that since email messages aren't files they don't have names and can't stand on their own.  I also find it a problem, and it occurred to me how to mitigate the problem in my own mail reader which is within my word processor.

Suppose I'm reading a message that I consider significant.  Typing a single command inserts a reference to the appropriate page in the message file at the end of a special file of messages, puts in the time, and puts me where I can add an identifying comment.  The entry for the email with the manifesto is "Sat Jun 17 12:48:28 2000 /u/jmc/RMAIL.S00==1906 Gelernter Manifesto", giving the time, the location of the message in the mail file and the name I gave the message.

If I later click on that line, I'll be reading the message again.

The purpose of messages having names of some sort is so that the receiver can retrieve a message later.  I doubt that such a name can be automatically generated from the message itself, because the subject line, et cetera are in the mental space of the sender, not the receiver.  The receiver has to somehow give the message a name if he wants to be able to subsequently retrieve it in one step.  In this case, I chose "Gelernter Manifesto".

It took 12 minutes to write and debug the message naming facility in the Xemacs editor.  The MS-Word users I consulted told me that it would be very difficult to script MS-word and Windows email systems to do it.

  1. We all find ourselves repeating essentially the same tasks in using computers.  Here's a slogan:

Anything a user can do himself, he should be able to make the computer do for him.

Fully realising this slogan would be a big step, but even a little helps.  It's called letting the user "customise" his environment.  Point i above is a small example.

Unfortunately, the making of computer systems and software is dominated by the ideology of the omnipotent programmer (or web site designer) who knows how the user (regarded as a child) should think and reduces the user's control to pointing and clicking.  This ideology has left even the most sophisticated users in a helpless position compared to where they were 40 years ago in the late 1950s.

Scripting languages were a start in the direction of giving the user more power, but the present ones aren't much good, and not even programmers use them much to make their own lives simpler.  Scripting is particularly awkward for point and click use.  Xemacs customisation is reasonably convenient, but it isn't contiguous with Xemacs Lisp, a really good programming language.

Linux is a step in the right direction of giving the user control in that the source of the operating system is available to users, but I doubt that many users change Linux for purely personal convenience.

Back to Gelernter

  1. Most of the Manifesto's metaphors, for example "beer from burst barrels" and "scooped-out hole in the beach", aren't informative.
  2. In item 4, Gelernter offers

The Orwell law of the future: any new technology that CAN be tried WILL be.

Like Adam Smith's invisible hand (leading capitalist economies toward ever increasing wealth), Orwell's Law is an empirical fact of life.

It isn't true, and I don't believe Orwell said it.  In the preface to 1984, Orwell wrote that 1984 is a cautionary tale that he didn't expect to happen.  In particular, 1984 has the tv that permitted Big Brother's minions to spy on the viewer.  I don't think Orwell expect that to be tried, and it hasn't been.

Indeed the reverse is true.  Most possible new technologies are never tried.

  1. Gelernter, like many other commentators, is glib about the system software and its documentation being bad.  Don Norman beat that drum, and Apple hired him to make things better.  He and they didn't have much success.  A more careful analysis of what causes difficulty and how to fix it is needed.
  2. The problem with file systems and any other tree structures is that tree structures aren't memorable.  Someone else's tree structure, for example a telephone keypad tree, is often helpful the first time you use it but it is a pain to go through the tree again and again to reach a particular leaf.
  3. I couldn't figure out what Cybersphere was supposed to mean except that it's grand.  Computers haven't changed people's lives to the extent that telephones, radio, automobiles and air travel did early in the previous century.  Paul Krugman is eloquent on this point in the New York Times for 2000 June 18.  Human level artificial intelligence would revolutionise human life, but fewer people in AI are working in that direction than in the 1970s.  Erik Mueller documents one aspect of this neglect in his 1999 article

  1. I think the idea of doing an Amazon search for a book on your own computer is a bad one, because the computations are trivial, whereas the file accesses to the Amazon database are substantial.  To do it on your own computer would require downloading the whole Amazon catalog before you started your search.
  2. Re item 21 thru 26, I don't think changing "desktop" to "information landscape" would have made much difference.  The problem of what you can do with a small screen will remain as long as we have small screens.  A 2' x 3' flat screen with 200 bpi resolution will change computer use much more than another factor of 100 in processor speed.  We also need the bathtub screen, the beach screen and the bed screen.
  3. item 32.  Directories reaching out for files is vague and suggests more AI than is currently available.
  4. There's something in "streams of time", but it's vague.  One thing that is feasible is for an operating system to make a journal including all the user's key strokes and mouse clicks and identifiable more substantial operations.  The journal should be available for the user to inspect, replay bits of, and to offer for expert inspection when something has gone wrong.
  5. I don't understand to the objection to names; they were invented long before computers.  In item 37, Natasha and Fifth Avenue are names.
  6. item 41.  "To send email, you put a document on someone else's stream."  That suggests that the recipient would read it right away or at least at a time determined by the sender.  Present email sits till you get around to it, and that's better.
  7. Paper will be needed until screens are better.  I use paper just as Gelernter suggests.  Print the document for reading and then throw it away.  I'll do that even at the cost of losing the pretty red ink I've put on my printout of the Manifesto.

John McCarthy is Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.  A pioneer in artificial intelligence, McCarthy invented LISP, the preeminent AI programming language, and first proposed general-purpose time sharing of computers.

Source: Arts and Letters Daily; their website is

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