Seer of the mirror world: David Gelernter foresaw the modern internet but thinks computers are still too hard to use
David Gelernter, a pioneering computer scientist, foresaw the modern internet but thinks computers are still too hard to use
“FROM its very beginnings, the software industry has suffered from having too many engineers,” says David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University. “There are too many people who love computers and too few who are impatient with them.” He blames his fellow technologists for making computers too difficult for non-specialists to use effectively. “The industry doesn’t grasp the fundamental lack of sympathy between, conservatively, at least half the population and the software they’re using.” But what about the late Steve Jobs of Apple, who was obsessed with building elegant and easy to use products? He and Dr Gelernter ought to have been natural allies. One of the many oddities of Dr Gelernter’s unusual career, however, is that they ended up as adversaries instead.
More than two decades ago, Dr Gelernter foresaw how computers would be woven into the fabric of everyday life. In his book “Mirror Worlds”, published in 1991, he accurately described websites, blogging, virtual reality, streaming video, tablet computers, e-books, search engines and internet telephony. More importantly, he anticipated the consequences all this would have on the nature of social interaction, describing distributed online communities that work just as Facebook and Twitter do today.
“Mirror Worlds aren’t mere information services. They are places you can ‘stroll around’, meeting and electronically conversing with friends or random passers-by. If you find something you don’t like, post a note; you’ll soon discover whether anyone agrees with you,” he wrote. “I can’t be personal friends with all the people who run my local world any longer, but via Mirror Worlds we can be impersonal friends. There will be freer, easier, more improvisational communications, more like neighbourhood chatting and less like typical mail and phone calls. Where someone is or when he is available won’t matter. Mirror Worlds will rub your nose in the big picture and society may be subtly but deeply different as a result.”
If his vision was correct, Dr Gelernter realised, then new systems would be needed—and whoever built them would have an opportunity to make them more elegant and accessible than existing software. He had already made a big contribution to the field of network computing with his work on the development of Linda, a parallel-programming language that allows programs running on different machines to co-ordinate their actions. Multiple interconnected computers can then operate as a single, more powerful machine. In 1991 Dr Gelernter and his colleagues at Yale demonstrated the value of this approach by linking 14 small “workstation” computers to create a cluster that was as powerful as a supercomputer, but cost a fraction of the price…