First, Software Eats the World, Then, The Mirror World Emerges

David Gelernter of Yale

(image A month or so ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with Valley legend Marc Andreessen, in the main for the purpose of an interview for my slowly-developing-but-still-moving-forward book. At that point, I had not begun re-reading David Gelernter’s 1991 classic Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean.

Man, I wish I had, because I could have asked Marc if it was his life-goal to turn David’s predictions into reality. Marc is well known for many things, but his recent mantra that “Software Is Eating the World” (Wall St. Journal paid link, more recent overview here) has become nearly everyone’s favorite Go-To Big Valley Trend. And for good reason – the idea seductively resonates on many different levels, and forms the backbone of not just Andreessen’s investment thesis, but of much of the current foment in our startup-driven industry.

A bit of background: Andreessen’s core argument is that nearly every industry in the world is being driven by or turned into software in one way or another. In some places, this process is deeply underway: The entertainment business is almost all software now, for example, and the attendant disruption has created extraordinary value for savvy investors in companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Apple. Further, Marc points out that the largest company in direct marketing these days is a software company: Google. His  thesis extends to transportation (think Uber but also FedEx, which runs on software), retail (besides Amazon, Walmart is a data machine),  healthcare (huge data opportunity, as yet unrealized), energy (same), and even defense. From his Journal article:

The modern combat soldier is embedded in a web of software that provides intelligence, communications, logistics and weapons guidance. Software-powered drones launch airstrikes without putting human pilots at risk. Intelligence agencies do large-scale data mining with software to uncover and track potential terrorist plots.

That quote reminds me of Wired’s first cover story, in 1993, about the future of war. But in 1991, two years before even that watershed moment (well, for me anyway), Yale scholar Gelernter published Mirror Worlds, and in it he predicted that we’d be putting the entire “universe in a shoebox” via software.  Early in the book, Gelernter posits the concept of the Mirror World, which might best be described as a more benign version of The Matrix, specific to any given task, place, or institution. He lays out how such worlds will come to be, and declares that the technology already exists for such worlds to be created. “The software revolution hasn’t begun yet; but it will soon,” he promises.

As we become infinite shadows of data, I sense Gelernter is right, and VCs like Andreessen and the entrepreneurs they are backing are leading the charge. I’ll be reviewing Mirror Worlds later in the summer – I’m spending time with Gelernter at this home in New Haven next month – but for now, I wanted to just note how far we’ve come, and invite all of you, if you are fans of his work, to help me ask Gelernter intelligent questions about how his original thesis has morphed in two decades.

It seems to me that if true “mirror worlds” are going to emerge, the first step will have to be “software eating the world” – IE, we’ll have to infect our entire physical realities with software, such that those realities emanate with real time and useful data. That seems to be happening apace. And the implications of how we go about architecting such systems are massive.

One of my favorite passages from Mirror Worlds, for what it’s worth:

The intellectual content, the social implications of these software gizmos make them far too important to be left in the hands of the computer sciencearchy…..Public policy will be forced to come to grips with the implications. So will every thinking person: A software revolution will change the way society’s business is conducted, and it will change the intellectual landscape.


Author: John Battelle

A founder of NewCo (current CEO), sovrn (Chair), Federated Media, Web 2 Summit, The Industry Standard, Wired. Author, investor, board member (Acxiom, Sovrn, NewCo), bike rider, yoga practitioner.

10 thoughts on “First, Software Eats the World, Then, The Mirror World Emerges”

  1. The mirror world will reflect the parts of us that is revealed through data eaten by all that software. How will it influence us back? Will it make us reveal more or hide more? How much control will we really have? What power will the data owners have? Who will they be Governments, Corporations, or a new entity altogether.

  2. I think the “Turing Boundary” if I may coin a phrase is crucial. Increasingly we cannot in “on-line settings” (ie perceived via technology) distinguish man from machine.

    We already see the “prove you are human” sign-in to block bots.  Very soon these will not function.  There must be (if we as humans are to be served by technology) a universal “embedded distinction” convention (or law), between machine and human interest. But insofar as soon as human interest can be digitized (eg the “like”) it must also carry meta-data to support this function.

    Failing this is is clear that provision by Asimov for Laws of Robotics to prevent human harm can never be regulated

    These rules however came about in a world where machine and man occupied discrete boundaries.  

    Here on this blog, playing on-line games, on stock-markets and in battle they no longer do so.

    If we cannot distinguish life, we cannot value it, and if we cannot value it are we not doomed to extinguish it?

    1. Lots to consider there! it’s something Kevin Kelly is thinking a lot about – read his two last books (one is a rather fantastical – and free – sic fi graphic novel). he thinks robots/AI will get to the point of contemplating their own intelligence, and asking exactly the questions you do. Then what’s truly “human” anymore? Hmmm.

      1. Thanks John – I will have a look.

        Meanwhile I must draw your attention to a rather wonderful typo (for a twisted blogging mind like mine)

        When I read of a “sic fi graphic novel” (sic);  I assume this is the special sort of sci-fi that becomes real as in def. sic –  thus was it written 🙂  

  3. Fascinating John.  Yes, I think this is a terrific frame for looking at the world.  And involves a certain kind of revolutionary thinking.  I wonder if its hard, next to impossible to get one’s arm around such a change if its not embedded in your psyche to begin with.  In other words if you aren’t an Internet native understanding some of what its like to be one is really hard.

    Going to the next level, harder.  And that only if you come into the framework without the framework of the old (as a reference point perhaps but not with all the blinders) do you see what the new really means in its new terms.  Although of course Gelerner was prescient.  Food for thought.  

    What I do find so disturbing is I think this trend does tend to atomize us.  Its like, just a little bit, the evolution of how Congressmen and Senators operate.  It used to be that there were few staffers and they worked things out so much between each other.  The politics were different but in some ways without so much staff you have to engage directly much more.  And your staff tends to be more ideological than you.  Now there is so much less interaction amongst principals.  That has a big impact.  Working these things out more amongst bites than people is, well, advantageous, but really really scary.  People so often mistake intelligence for wisdom.  We are in a world which is vastly more intelligent than the one of just a few years ago.  But more wise?  And good luck on public policy.  These gizmos give so much power to those who will do everything to avoid restricting them, its almost as if saying you might is like saying they are all Winston Smith’s.  Take care.  Go Bears!

  4. I think this draws nice parallels with the idea that we will eventually model the universe in an effort to better understand our forebears, potentially unearthing identifying markers that could prove that our own universe is operating inside a higher-level experiment of the same ilk.

Leave a Reply