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Lanier (yes, Jaron) on Software, Biology, Complexity, and …

By - November 20, 2003

I am a subscriber to John Brockman’s Edge, which is sometimes (well, for me as a rank average mind, more than sometimes) insufferable for its – well, its intellectual preening (it’s basically conversations with folks who are scary smart) and its steadfast unwillingness to make itself reasonably approachable (its last missive, which comes by email, weighed in at 8900 words and seems entirely unedited, for example). But, at times I will plow through the thing, and on a recent occasion, I did just that when along came an interview with none other than Jaron Lanier, Wired staple way back in the age and a constant reminder of how fun and freaky those days were. (more below)

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Jaron’s interview is entitled “WHY GORDIAN SOFTWARE HAS CONVINCED ME TO BELIEVE IN THE REALITY OF CATS AND APPLES.” See, back when I was a fresh faced ME at Wired, I suffered this kind of stuff earnestly, and really focused and tried to understand what the hell folks like Lanier were talking about. The world hung in the balance, I felt, and it was my job to translate. I haven’t had that urge for a while…

But this piece, dense though it is, touches on some basic realities behind search – which as most engineers in the field will tell you, is one of the most difficult software problems of all time. Lanier references the halcyon days of programming when Papert could make a perfect little Logo program, or Ivan Sutherland could revolutionize the field of graphics (and all of computing, really) with a little program called Sketchpad. (Makes me think of the gorgeous contours of early Wordperfect compared to that Kilimanjaro of shit now known as Word…) Lanier points to how most mourn that loss of simplicity. It feels a lot like how engineers in search talk about the first crawlers, the first search engines, PageRank back when it was not muddy. Lanier suggests we got it all wrong the first time we tried to create computer science, and we need a new approach to software, based on something he calls “phenotropic investigation.” I cannot grok it to the point of making it make sense to you, but I can say this – it makes my Spidey senses tingle. The basic idea is similar to what Kevin Kelly and others have been all up about – a return to more biological approaches to solving problems. Here’s an excerpt:

“My engineering concern is to try to think about how to build large systems out of modules that don’t suffer as terribly from protocol breakdown as existing designs do. The goal is to have all of the components in the system connect to each other by recognizing and interpreting each other as patterns rather than as followers of a protocol that is vulnerable to catastrophic failures.”

OK. The piece is on the Edge site if you want to read it. Why do you care? Well, it does mention Google. Sure, it’s one of these pieces that makes my head hurt. But…I did find it interesting when he said this:

“Of all the things you can spend a lot of money on, the only things you expect to fail frequently are software and medicine. That’s not a coincidence, since they are the two most complex technologies we try to make as a society. “
Funny, then, that I maintain two blogs, one on the impact of search (one of the biggest software problems in the world ), and one on health (Tonic, not yet fully public). I guess am a sucker for punishment. Onwards…


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