The Matrix: MEME 2.11


by David S. Bennahum

The last issue of MEME explored the creation of digital cities -- Web-based representations of our home towns. Towards the end of MEME 2.10 I explored the idea of "taking the pulse" of our cities as a more alluring alternative to entertainment listings and local news. Several readers wrote in suggesting I read a copy of Yale professor David Gelernter's 1991 book, Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox...How it Will Happen and What It Will Mean to learn about a fully-developed alternative to these city-based Web sites.

Gelernter's book was, as these intrepid readers deduced, a large part of the inspiration behind the "pulse" alternative I suggested. In the hyper-amnesiac world of cyberspace where brilliant books are written and forgotten with the lifespan of a version of Netscape (or Netscape itself, actually), this summer I stumbled across a used copy of Mirror Worlds in a second-hand bookstore, and was immediately struck by its timeliness. In the era of rampant World Wide Web info-glut, "mirror worlds," as Gelernter described them, are a solution to a problem as old as computer science. How can we use computers to help us make sense of the vast, ever increasing repositories of information produced by ourselves and society? The question was first put by Vannevar Bush (see MEME 2.06 for description of Bush's "memex" information appliance of 1945) over 50 years ago when he wrote that the volume of information we are creating is booming, while the means we have of sifting through it is barely evolving, creating a gap. Today this familiar crisis has its own buzzword: "information overload."

Gelernter's Mirror Worlds were proposed as the latest solution to the problem. Mirror worlds are software representations of social institutions and individuals, interconnected to form one massive heterogeneous whole existing on a world-wide computer network. People cooperate in the creation of mirror worlds by storing a trail of their lives in cyberspace. That's where their phone calls come, faxes, e-mail, their grocery orders originate from, and where their records are stored -- birth certificate, legal documents -- the entire corpus of stuff we create in the process of living. Institutions provide a similar trail, so for instance a hospital will have its own mirror world, as could the aggregate of institutions--say, a city or a nation. Where the mirror world solves the problem of info-bloat (rather than adding fuel), according to Gelernter, is its ability to provide you with a specific point-of-view on a person or institution. Assuming enough of a record is in the system, the reflection you see is an accurate representation of the what's-so in physical space, permitting people to simply and accurately apprehend the otherwise chaotic jumble of say, the Savings and Loan industry in the United States circa 1982.

This touches upon Gelernter's deeper concern, that stable democracies require informed citizens, and that without some information-complexity filters, the confusion and blindness to trends become destabilizing. The United States is still, for instance, paying for the extraordina