Sterling's sent out the text of the speech he gave this week to the CRA Conference on Grand Research Challenges in Computer Science and Engineering in DC. Mostly, it's about ubiquitous computing, a subject near and dear to my utility-fogged heart, and that stuff is extremely choice, in high Sterling style:
I don't need a "smart" package or an "agent" package.
I don't much want to "talk" to a package. I don't want a
package tugging my sleeve, stalking me, or selfishly
begging for attention and commitment. If a package really
wants to please me and earn my respect, it needs to tell
me three basic things: What is it? (It's the very thing I
ordered, hopefully). Where is it? (It's on its way at
location x). And what condition it is in? (It's
functional, workable, unbroken, good to go). The shipping
company already needs to know these three things for their
own convenience. So they might as well tell me, too. So
I don't have to swallow my ubicomp like castor oil. My
ubicomp arrives in a subtle way, as a kind of value-added
So the object arrives in my possession with the
ubicomp attached. It's a tracking tag. When I sign for
that object, I keep the tracking tag. It's mine now. Ho
Let's say that it's something I'm really anxious to
have: it's a highly evolved mousetrap. The mice in my
house are driving me nuts, because I'm a programmer. I
eat nothing but take-out Szechuan food, and everything in
my house is fatally disordered.
Luckily my new, computer-designed mousetrap quickly
and horribly slaughters all my mice. Not one vermin is
left alive. That's great service, but now I'm anxious to
get rid of it. I really don't need a super-mousetrap
attracting attention, if I get lucky and a hot date comes
over to help me play "The Sims."
Given that I'm a congenital slob, of course the mice
soon return. But by then, I've already forgotten my
mousetrap. Out of sight, out of mind. I paid a lot of
money for it, but I already forgot where I put it.
This is just the opening of a long, funny and thought-provoking riff on what a smart environment means, and it's very good indeed.
But Bruce opens with something that I think is dead-wrong, retrograde -- something that he talked about during our joint keynote at SXSW, that I've been thinking about ever since.
The computer is a gizmo, and it's a great gizmo, but
it's not an ultimate gizmo. Computer science has been the
slave of metaphysics ever since Alan Turing invented the
Turing Test, but a computer is not a metaphysical entity.
It's not free of objective reality. Its bits are bits of
atoms. The only ultimate gizmo is a clock. The clock
never stops ticking. The clock has been ticking for the
computer for quite a while.
It's not just that the pace of basic innovation has
slowed in your field, although it has. It's not just
that computers have lost the lipstick of their geek gadget
romance, although they have. That which was accomplished
in the 1980s and 1990s is under attack. There is a
This ought to be obvious to anybody who uses the
Internet. All you need to do is examine your email.
Where is Al Gore's idealistic, civilized Information
Superhighway? It's a red-light district. A crooked flea
market. A nest of spies. An infowar battlefield. That
is the state of cyberspace 2002. There are fire sales on
every block. It has anything but grandeur. It's
decadent and sinister.
I've had the same email address for 13 years, and
I'm not budging. That's where I staked my little claim on
the electronic frontier, and by gum, I remember the Alamo
and I ain't a-goin' to go. Therefore, my email in 2002
is full of 419 fraudsters from Nigeria. And unsolicited
porn ads. And a galaxy of farfetched medical scams from
malignant, unlicensed quacks peddling Viagra and growth
hormone. With unreadable, unicode, collateral bomb-damage
from the gigantic spam mills in China, Korea, Thailand and
I think Bruce is way off base here. The computer isn't a gizmo -- a particular
computer may be a gizmo, but the
computer is a universal machine. It's Turing's (or Von Neumann's) marvellous insight made real: it is as important to assisted cognition as the written word is. The fact that Universal Machines were constrained by their relative lack of power made it seem as though there was fundamental innovation taking place when machines got faster and smaller, but that was an illusion. Depending on your PoV, the innovation took place in Turing's day and stopped, or it has been continuous ever since, but the drop off Bruce describes just didn't happen.
The Internet is an insight as key as the computer. The Internet is a system for connecting anything to anything else. It is the sum total of millions of gentle-persons' agreements to follow some basic protocol, but beyond that, it is nothing more than a design philosophy.
There's a convenient way of visualizing the net: a cluster of thick "backbone" trunk-lines mated to one another with core-routers, ramifying into ever-finer pipes, down to the whiskers of copper that joins the "core" to the "edge" over the "last mile."
Like Newtonian physics, this is so much bullshit. Occassionally useful, but still: so much bullshit. The fundamental rule of the Internet is that any two points can talk to one another -- the end-to-end principle. What's more, anyone can join up, attach a computer to the network without securing permission from a central authority, and once connected, can talk to anyone else. The Internet's role in our world is to connect any two points. There is no "last mile" of the Internet, only millions (and soon, billions) of first miles.
The Internet isn't shaped like a tree. It's shaped like a bush that's contorted into Klein-bottle topology, a continuous plane whose every edge is mated to another edge.
On the Internet, we exchange messages with one another: please send me this file; please search for this record in your database, please display this file in your browser-window.
On the Internet your right to swing your fist never stops, because it only hits my nose if I execute the "hit your nose" instruction you sent me. On the Internet, it's my responsibility to decide whose instructions I want to execute.
Mozilla was designed for use by people who live on the net. It was written by people who live on the net. And because it was designed by the net/for the net, it has excellent features that would never make it into a technology designed by someone who gave a festering shit about "business models." Chief among these is the ability to right-click on any banner ad and select "block images from this server" from a pop-up menu. A little judicious right-clicking on the sites you visit most frequently and the Web is transformed in a kind of anarcho-utopoic marketing-free-zone. Where a decade ago, Mozilla's coders might have been publishing zines like AdBusters, today they're simply busting the ads.
This works because I can tell my browser to simply ignore the directives in the files that some Web server has provided me with. Those directives aren't orders, they're suggestions.
If Bruce is buried in spam, it's not because there are too many criminals sending out dumb come-ons; it's because Bruce has decided to execute the directives those criminals have sent his way. I don't execute those directives. I use Vipul's Razor and SpamAssassin; my inbox has virtually no spam in it (despite the 500-700 spams sent my way every day) because I take part in a collaborative filter, enabled by the network that lets anyone to talk to anyone else, which allows us all to aggregate unnoticeable wisps of effort that tracts the untractable.