Recently, we had the chance to sit down with Yale professor David Gelernter to talk about the future of interfaces and the lack of ambition in our use of technology.
Note: This is the transcript of a conversation with David Gelernter during the internet conference DLD, January 2011. If you have any corrections or suggestions, feel free to contact us via Twitter @sz_digital.
sueddeutsche.de: When we look at the internet today we tend to - at least people who are deeply involved - see it like it has developed in an evolutionary way. But you argue we have to make it do what we want now. So was it just wrong to just let it grow and develop like this?
David Gelernter: It seems to me that the history of the internet today has been exciting and successful. I wouldn't argue that any serious wrong things have been done. But I think the field of computing, not only the technical field, but the much broader discussion among intellectuals, journalists, writers, authors and so forth, is to opt to sit back and let matters take their course, worked out well so far.
But after all there would be no internet if the US department of defense hadn't issued the TCP/IP-protocol in 1982/1983; the development of html, the development of the first browser, these are the results of deliberate decision making. The idea of distributed progress, spreading many people, put lots of ideas into places, is a wonderful and productive idea - I certainly don't want to aim to that. But I also think we need serious discussion besides about what we want the internet to do for us.
When I go to conferences like this, I see an increasing blending between the intelligencia and the commercial (...) so that we're apt to say the most important even deepest ideas are the ones who earn the first million dollars the fastest. I mean, there are companies that are founded - it is like the bubble, although I hope without the same financial craziness - but hear again about companies founded just on the basis of one idea and already in business a few weeks later. I mean, that's fine, it's exciting but there is more to it than just the question of what will get investors' interested, what will bring in the most money, what will get the most ad revenue in the short term. (It's) a tremendously powerful tool and the world is not being fair to itself not to sit down and think.
Don't leave it to the billionaires who run the large companies and don't leave it to the professors who have their own axes to grind. It touches everybody and I think it should be a broader discussion. I think in the history of modern technology for the last twenty years we have seen an increasing passivity on the part of the population and, say, the Western nations.
An increasing tendency, whereas in the early generations of 20th century technology in the United States , it was typical for people to take an active interest into how the machines work. In the United States, teenage boys and their fathers took their cars apart, the Ford Model T. and the early generational cars were simple machines, almost everybody knew how to fix them or at least had diagnosed them.
The early generation of radio: Many people were interested into how radio works, they knew what was inside the radio, they were able to make a certain level of repairs. Airplanes were a very great interest of the general population, in Germany too, for that matter. But increasingly we look at the computer and software and say it is strictly for experts, experts both in technical matters and experts in making money; and they are doing fine - and I think that's a mistake.
sueddeutsche.de: Do you think this is because the language, the code language is too difficult? Or do you think it's the other way around, the eductation - that we don't feel like learning the language is something like learning French or Spanish and that this could lead to a real, the thing of making the internet a tool for us because if we speak the language, then we can all create and do not depend on web developers, coder, whatever.
Gelernter: I don't think it's a failure on the part of education. I don't think there is any need for the broader public to worry about programming in Java or Python or the technical details of this processor or that processor.
As a matter of fact, I think the internet badly needs the ideas of people who know nothing about technical limitations. The most creative people and most visionary ones in this field, are the ones who either don't know or don't care about technical limitations and the state of the art. They are the ones who say "this is what I want" and if the technical guys says "this is impossible, it will take us under", they just say "I'm sorry, get to work and do your best." I don't think it's a matter of insufficient education, I think it's a matter of an attitude, an attitude of passivity in which we defer to experts in many fields, from medicine and economics to physics and technology and language and advertisement, any other field.
A free society can't work that way, it requires each person not to be an educated expert, but each person to care enough to think. Not to learn technically how to do it, but to think. Here is this extraordinarily powerful tool which is almost unlimited in size and in which each node is increasingly unlimited in power. What do I want out of all this machines? Am I really satisfied with what I have?
And I think many people if they would just sit there and ask themselves "Are we impressed with all these machines, with the pad and the pod?" Yes, they are beautiful machines and they do all sorts of wonderful things. They do just what I want , do they provide the service I really like to have, I think many thoughtful people would say no and it's more a matter of thought than of technical idea generation.
sueddeutsche.de: Do you think we may use a wrong analogy because we use words like "web architecture"? If I think about architecture and I think about this room, I think it is a beautiful room, but of course it is not something I could create myself. I could decorate it, but I could not change the architecture. Do you think it is a semantic thing that our mindfield is so narrow?
Gelernter: I think it is a great shame for people to look at architecture, literally architecture, and just say this is not my field and I will let the architect do it. When architecture was invented, if we look at the life tradition of architecture, beginning in the gothic in the late 12th century in France and then spreading throughout Europe, we have communities thinking about buildings, we have craftsmen contributing to them, and it is important for everybody to be part of the architecture of your city, it is where you leave and your environment at the same time.
Not everybody is a craftsman, not everybody is a creative architect, but I wish more people were willing to look at a new building and say "This is ugly, this does not do what I want, I do not find it attractive, it doesn't work well" or could be enthusiastic in a positive sense about some building they do like. I think there are similar issues. It used to be that architecture reflected, broadly speaking, in the west the community's sense of what was fitting. Whether it was for a national building, in the United States (...), in England building the House of Parliaments, the Tudor late medieval style building, expressing the public's idea of what it wanted...we have lost that, when instead of thinking about what kind of buildings we want, we just read about them online, we learn what kind we are getting.
It's our environment and the environment that matters most is the man-made environment, that's the one we deal with most intimately every day, the one we can affect every day.
So I think there is an analogy between the web and between the architecture of this building and this city and I wish people would be intellectually more aggressive. Free society requires of course educated people, but also ones who are sufficiently aggressive intellectually, to take responsibility for the environment they live in, the tools they use, they buildings they live and work in, the computers they make use of.
We could achieve more if we were less easily satisfied, we are too easily satisfied.
sueddeutsche.de: What would be the space for a discussion ilke this, and also a space to draw consequences of not being satisfied with the current architecture we have - or is it in the end just a decision "what does the customer want of the market?".
Gelernter: The technology companies of course are guided by commercial issues. They have stockholders and they have a responsibility to their stockholders to make the most possible money, so thoroughly they take the course that commercially seems to be the best.
But consumers, users of short-term equipment make their decision about whether to buy an iPhone or a Droid or a Blackberry or not to buy one of those at all and buy a Macbook Air and do all my communication there is making a choices between a limited spectrum of possibilities.
Meanwhile, there are all sorts of large obscenities built into our technical environment: One that I mentioned just in passing yesterday - the offices that we work in , the desks we sit at whether at home or at work were designed for 1940s, 1950s information processing.
So we sit in a chair, we sit upright and there is a surface in front of us it is designed so that if I were writing by hand or typing on a typewriter right in front of me - that is not the way we do business with a computer, we don't need a surface like that. If I were to design an office for somebody who uses a computer instead of a typewriter, I would design an office where you could sit back in comfortable chair, where there is a large screen two meters way across the room, because it's much less eyestraining than if I look at something large in the distance, I have a keyboard on my lap, the necessary controls here. It would obviously be completely different, reflect a radical change in the way we do work.
This is a change that should have happened ten years ago or longer, that passed up ten years ago: Large high definition screens were not hard to get, as of 25 years ago it was clear that the offices we lived in were obsolete. It is the same sort of technical absurdity we find in the parallel tracks of communication, which obviously ought to be unified.
A world in which I use e-mail some of the time and texting some of the time and Facebook messaging some of the time, maybe instant messages some of the time, voicemail...it's completely ridiculous. I have one stream of communication, I don't want to watch five streams, I wanna have in front of me all of my communication. I don't care whether one person sent me a text and somebody else left me a voicemail and somebody else sent me an e-mail, I want to see it all right in front of me.
Because clearly my computer needs no change depending on whether I have a small computer or a big computer with me. This kind of unification just making the railroad tracks ages in France the same as in Germany, so Germans don't have to change trains at the border, if you use to go to Russia and Europe.
This is very basic, basic interoperability, compatability, this unification should have happened a generation ago. So the individual devices are beautiful, the iPhone is beautifully designed, the Droid phone and all - individually they are fine, but they add up to an illogical and unsatisfying environment.
And those are just physical, low-level things, and it seems to me expressing the fact that users of this equipment are just not aggressive about saying "here is what I want and here is what I need, so build that for me." So if Google can't do it then there will be a startup of three people in Singapore who say "we will build it". We just need to be more demanding.
sueddeutsche.de: But don't you think we've developed progress on this? Because now we have APIs...of course there is always the question about standards, but standards take their time to develop...or do you think it is just too narrow of a thought to see it like just a question of "I can pipe one stream into this RSS-Reader, this one I can put into Facebook" or whatever. Or do you think this is thought too narrowly?
Gelernter: I think it's much too narrow a thought because we have heard the argument in favour of a kind of reactionary resistance to change on the basis of large investors in the existing infrastructure. We have heard that argument since 1957 in the computing industry.
1957 ForTran the first programming language, IBM invented it and many people said we don't need a programming language and we have all this investment in the ??? code. In the late 1960s early 1970s there were new programming languages like Pascal, like C, the first generation more or less.
And a lot of people said we have millions of lines of code in COBOL and other business data processing languages and we can do everything we want, the mainframes work fine, we can sort through our personal file we are not willing to make all this obsolete.
When the first Personal Computers appeared in the early 1980s people said "what do we need this for, we have well maintained mainframe- and timesharing-systems, we have investments in these things."
At each stage of this game it is a law in technology that the bigger the proposed change, the harder the industry will resist, will be digging its heels simply on the basis of preserving its investment. But I don't care about a large company's investment in stuff, they have plenty of cash - what I care about is progress towards a better environment. And it can be done.
We could take the entire public computers and throw it out today. In essence we have two parallel interconnects, I mean they come together to some extent, but there is a wireless and cellphone world which is to some extent parallel to hardwired internet data links, they are not completely separate...but the point is: It would be easy for us to go on the next step. It would require a large investment, but we have plenty of money to invest. We certainly not meaning me, but the industry, the consumers, the Western nations, how ever you want to define.
sueddeutsche.de: Who should make the rule for this? This would be something that maybe the state could say is important. But at the same time, as soon as the state has its stakes in the internet environment, we always should be careful, right?
Gelernter: Yes, as a general rule, the state is always wrong. There are some exceptions, the research agency of the US department of Defence has funded remarkable projects over the years, for example the development of UNIX, the development of the Arpanet and the internet, but I certainly do not want bureaucrats in Washington or Brussels figuring out what this environment should be.
I'd like DLD to make the proposals, not the ministry of anything. I would like to see arguments about basic issues: What should computing in the internet be like in ten years from now, in 20 years from now? I would like to hear arguments, friendly arguments between different people with different visions, and then... the public at large has different degrees of interest, I think the European public has somewhat more interest than the American public in the direction these things are going...but let the argument happen at DLD, let a newspaper, a blogger-website say "this guy said this whereas that guy said that" and people will discuss it and we will find out people will make their own proposals and then at next year's DLD somebody will be able to say...looking at public response, the web is a very sensitive instrument for saying what the public finds exciting and interesting...so at next year's DLD, somebody will say "the public was excited about this idea of getting rid of texting and getting rid or something else or something could be uniformed, whereas the public was not interested in this..." and we could have another discussion.
Traditionally the West knows how to have a debate about difficult questions that continue to go back and forth and I think it is losing that knowledge as populations increasingly expect experts to dictate to them and bureaucrats to say "We don't care what you want, this is the right way to do it".
But we are still a free society, Europe is, the United States is, many Asian countries are, we can still argue in an intelligence way, we still have things like DLD which is not the only place, but which is a natural forum for saying "which way do we want to go?", not "What's the best way to make money in the next six months" or "What was the most successful business-formula over the last year".
Those are interesting and important questions, certainly for businessmen, but they are not the only important questions. Let them be debated, let the public say what it wants, let the state stay out of it, but you can be sure that once a view, an idea about which way technology should go is out there and has gotten some public interest and support, it will be developed.
Because there will be entrepreneurs who say "I am gonna raise money to do that". We have a tremendously creative entrepreneurial system, we are not using it, we are not feeding it ambitious enough ideas.
sueddeutsche.de: Talking about your idea, because your concept of lifestream which you alluded to a lot of times...the platform that comes closest to it of course is Facebook, at the same time they do well with the proprietary structure, why should they change it?
Gelernter: That's exactly what I would say if I was Facebook. I would say "I have lots of money, I will make all the rules", but for me, for a member of the public who says "I am not willing to worry about what's posted on Facebook" if I am also interested in AOL or Myspace's, other social network sites, I might also have a Gmail-account or another kind of netmail, if I also have a phone service which provides its own communications format or if I use Skype over the internet.
Facebook is making huge amounts of money, I don't expect Facebook to say "Let's change", it has a lifestream in it, it has a lot of other stuff in it. If I was Facebook I wouldn't change, they are making lots of money. The impulse doesn't come from inside these companies, it comes from outside.
sueddeutsche.de: From the users in this case
Gelernter: From the users. I mean, Microsoft was asked by IBM to design a system called DOS, "disk operating system" in the early 1980s and Microsoft produced DOS and made lots and lots and lots of money with this format and would just as soon have produced DOS for the next 5,000 years.
But meanwhile there were people who obtained the Apple Mac, an interface that went back to Xerox in the 1970s, and they said "DOS is old-fashioned, it's not good enough, could be something better." So Microsoft changed. They could have saved a lot of money by just continuing to revise DOS, but the public saw something better and more exciting, easier to use - and that is what will happen today.
sueddeutsche.de: Where do you see developments that go in the right direction that we could actually see in the next twelve months? Or do you think that is a long-time thing that is going to take a bit longer.
Gelernter: I think within the next twelve months we might see some clarity. I think as we see more and more streams, lifestreams, event streams, feeds, activity streams, the Facebook Wall, Chatter that was described by Salesforce yesterday, these are all the same things, lifestreams.
I think we will see clarity that there are two different ways to arrange things on the web: By space - I scatter them across a website, some's here and some's here, or like desktop, an icon is here, an icon is there [points on the different parts of the table, editors note] or I arrange it by time, telling a story: This is what happened this morning, and then five minutes later this happened, an hour later this happened. I think there will start to be clarity that these are the two basic systems.
We need them both, so what we need is to think about an optimal way to do the spacial arrangement, an optimal way to do the narrative arrangement, so we can have one storytelling narrative arrangement not ten different incompatible ones.
So we can have one principle of arranging things in space, not HTML for websites and applets for Smartphones and desktops for computers. I don't think anything is going to change in implementation-terms, I think the industry and the community will see more clearly these are the big categories: space and time. Let's think about the best way to do each one. I think that could happen.
sueddeutsche.de: That means we have to rethink the whole website or is it you have to think beyond it and really imagine the internet like it's everywhere, your lifestream can be everywhere, in your fingertips?
Gelernter: That's very much it. The lifestream is not on the web, it is everywhere, it is in the cloud, it is distributed. I think nobody has to take down his website today, the modern history of software is that new stuff absorbs old stuff.
So in fact we don't lose our investment, it is still there, but we build new stuff that is simpler and more powerful and that includes the special cases. So we move from complexity to simplicity, keep the complex thing but we add simpler layers as we understand better and more clearly.
sueddeutsche.de: Thank you very much!
The interview was conducted by Johannes Kuhn.