The Frontier Between Us
The easiest predictions to make about the next fifty years of computer science
are those centering on the computers, ignoring the people. For example,
I can predict with a fair degree of confidence that there will be fabulous
increases in hardware capability, which will be largely consumed by a corresponding
decrease in software elegance as decades of legacy systems tangle like parasitic
vines. It's when people are brought into the equation, however, that the
business of prediction becomes difficult.
Who would have thought that not only computers, but computer science would
become a centerpiece of pop-culture? Who imagined that one would be able
to buy magazines with articles on caches and dithering at the supermarket
checkout counter? Or that UNIX path punctuation would become a vernacular
element of advertising (in the form of web addresses)?
The biggest surprise from the first fifty years of computers is that computation
turns out to be a cultural object in its own right, with all its warts and
semicolons. Many a visionary had imagined that computers and networks would
have a transformative effect on culture, but it was usually assumed that
the nasty details would become invisible as their influence increased.
It is still part of the marketing orthodoxy of the computer industry that
hardware and software must in some misty future become "consumer products",
as unobtrusive as toasters. And yet it turns out people love to obsess
about the insides of their computers. Children who build elaborate web
pages in HTML and Java routinely burn toast.
The public has often warmed to the surface of science and engineering, but
never before to the depth. While there are tens of millions of people who
love dinosaurs and black holes, how many of them have gone on a dig or analyzed
spectrum data? When it comes to computers, though, a mass culture of technical
literacy is being born, especially among children. We always thought computers
had to become popularized, and instead the public has decided to become
This is due in part to the stalwart marketing of awkward software by Microsoft,
and in part to the economic pressures favoring open systems, which will
always have rougher edges. But those cannot be the only reasons. There
is an emotional draw. Maybe it is the ability to control a microworld that
is more predictable and less filled with pain and ambiguity than real life.
An abstract aquarium, a theater of numbers.
Whatever the reason, I would want to celebrate the public's embrace of computer
arcana, except for one thing. The material itself is unrelentingly ugly.
I want to cry when I see those toast burning kids endlessly tweaking HTML
source code. This is the kind of soul numbing tedium that I once believed
would be forever banished by the end of the nineteen-eighties. In those
ancient days I thought that by now there would be widespread adoption of
brilliant visual programming tools.
Computer science is, alas, the only engine of culture that has not concerned
itself with beauty. Why should we have? We didn't know we were making
culture. We thought we were making invisible tools. We've been granted
a surprise franchise as culture creators. In the next fifty years we have
an opportunity, and a responsibility, to contribute in ways we never anticipated.
Our art is abstract, but has a profound emotional and social effect on our
audience. There are already masterpieces. TCP/IP, along with the related
code that runs the Internet, is perhaps the most dramatic. It is beautiful,
and it embodies a profound conception of openness, and therefore of faith.
It is rare indeed that an unsuspected and positive attribute of human nature
is exposed for the first time through a work of art, but that is exactly
what happened in response to TCP/IP. The internet is such fertile earth
that it practically commanded the blossoming of exquisite new organisms
like the World Wide Web. Never before did we know that millions of people
could cooperate almost instantaneously to build something (the Web) merely
because they wanted to, with no planning, lines of authority, advertising,
or finance. It turns out that in the right conditions, people are good
enough for anarchy.
Unfortunately, TCP/IP is the exception. There are far more numerous examples
of ugliness, such as MS DOS. A hard fact of life is that ugliness in software
is worse than ugliness in other art forms because it is less perishable.
Layers of software become locked in place when new layers refer to them,
and ugliness from lower layers percolates upwards. So we'll be stuck with
MS DOS for many, many years, and it will reduce the beauty of all the software
created on top of it.
How do we make beautiful software? General engineering principles, like
openness, are good enough to create elegance, but not beauty. Beauty requires
an awareness of human affairs outside the computer. When considering the
relationship of people and computers, we're sometimes subject to a figure/ground
illusion. We can easily see the computer as the center and the person as
the peripheral. This illusion is encouraged by the public obsession with
computers. It reaches its extreme in the Artificial Intelligence approach.
Such disconnects from reality are, I believe, among of the primary ways
that computer ugliness comes into being. When software design decisions
aren't made in reference to human concerns, they can only be made in reference
to each other, leading to a self-referential bundle of nonsense suspended
by a sky hook. The simple way to notice the illusion is to point out that
computers don't function independently of people. They are cultural artifacts,
like language, intelligible only to those who know them. To a Martian,
a computer and a toaster are the same.
When we treat information systems as no more than conduits between human
imaginations, grand vistas open up. The pleasant news computer scientists
can infer from the public's early embrace of computer tinkering is that
we will not be serving a population of consumers, but rather of creators.
In the next fifty years, computer science will give birth to a delightful
new vernacular art form that combines the three great art forms of the twentieth
century; cinema, jazz, and programming. The result will be a mass theater
of spontaneous shared imagination and dreaming. My fond hope is that it
will take the form of networked VR with inspirational authoring tools that
are capable of quick, improvisatory creation. But whatever the specific
form, what we are building will encourage people to share interior vision
and treat it as a tangible, worthy thing, even into adulthood.
This is the frontier that information science opens up to mankind. There
are other frontiers enabled by science, of course; the exploration of space,
the study of the brain. But only ours will continue to reveal unsuspected
potential in the most precious of natural phenomena, relationships between
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