Practical Mirrorworlds

Back when I was an architecture student, twelve (ahem!) or so years ago, one of the books I read with most lasting impact was “MirrorWorlds” by David Gelertner, the computer scientist perhaps most famous for being targeted and injured by the Unabomber.

In “MirrorWorlds”, Gelertner imagines powerful software providing models and simulations of the ‘real world’ and the change in our understanding and society that will arise from that.

Amazon.com’s page on the book says this by way of synopsis:

Imagine looking at your computer screen and seeing reality–an image of your city, for instance, complete with moving traffic patterns, or a picture that sketches the state of an entire corporation at this second. These representations are called Mirror Worlds, and according to David Gelernter they will soon be available to everyone. Mirror Worlds are high-tech voodoo dolls: by interacting with the images, you interact with reality. Indeed, Mirror Worlds will revolutionize the use of computers, transforming them from (mere) handy tools to crystal balls which will allow us to see the world more vividly and see into it more deeply.

Creating ‘mirrorworlds’ has long been a dream that we can see repeated in the history of ideas, from Buckminster-Fuller’s World Game to the 1:1 scale map commissioned by Borges’ ficitonal emperor:

“…In that Empire, the Cartographer’s art achieved such a degree of perfection that the Map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the Map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these vast Maps were no longer sufficient. The Guild of Cartographers created a Map of the Empire, which perfectly coincided with the Empire itself.”

Recently, Larry and Sergey, our current information-emperors released Google Maps into the world.

Google Maps is an incredibly refined user experience, combining a number of valuable datasets that Google acquired, a great UI utilising cutting edge interface-code thinking, and as you’d expect some very efficent back-end technology.

This being the age of “Web 2.0” every application of merit is also invariably a platform whether it plans to be on not, so Google Maps has spawned some amazing innovations by its users: like Jon Udell’s audio-annotated maps [see also Charlie Schick from Lifeblog's thoughts on this type of 'life-recording'], and the fantastic Craigslist Housing Hack, which is a powerfully useful merger of small-ads listings for accomodation with the google maps interface .

Google, a few weeks after launching the Maps service, integrated satellite imagery from it’s acquisition of Keyhole. Again, the user-base seized upon this and started making their own uses, and moreoever, using this to tell stories.

Take a look at Flickr’s Memory Map group [See this Wired News story for more on the meme], where people are using Google Maps to tell stories about childhood, where they grew up or memorable events. Another trends is exemplifed by MezzoBlue’s post “Google Maps and Accountability” where the satellite imagery is used to illustrate the extent of environmental damage done by the forestry industry in British Columbia.

Salk Institute, La Jolla, California
^ Google Maps Satellite Image of La Jolla, California

And thus, a new view on the world around which you can inspire new thinking or action.

Which is precisely the promise of software simulation and modelling proposed by Gelertner a decade ago in Mirrorworlds.

Google’s mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” is rapidly creating practical mirrorworlds for us to explore.

Imagine a future Google mirror world, which:

  • Is real-time:
    with live satellite imagery showing weather, jet-streams, pollutant flow, traffic jams, cattle herds, refugee camps…
  • Has overlays:
    showing visualisations of abstract data – population density, energy use, wealth, “now playing”, infant mortality

And crucially…

  • Has history:
    Could show all the above, either from archive data, or simulation ansed on the historical record – from 1970, 1940, 1900, 1800, 1600… etc… etc…

What realisations and reactions would we have if we could gaze into this mirrorworld knowing it was real, not a simEarth, and further more – the only one we’ve got?

It would be the software-equivalent of when the space program in the late-sixties afforded us the first view back at the pale blue dot we’re stuck on.

We are the first ‘simulation-generation’ – we are used to constructing and manipulating ever more sophisticated models of reality or unreality on our personal computers.

Increasingly, what has started out in the mirrorworld of play that the videogame industry invents is revolutionising how we work and learn.

In their book “Got Game”, business strategists John Beck and Mitchell Ward state:

It’s the central secret of digital gaming… Games are providing real, valuable experience… [they] offer real experience solving problems that, however, fantastic their veneers, seem real to the player. When gamers head off to play, they are escaping. But… they end up in an odd-looking educational environment.”

And in education, PC-pioneers like Alan Kay are pursuing ‘mirrorworld’ like learning environments, driven by the mantra that “point-of-view is worth 80 IQ points”

Mobile mirrorworlds could give you that IQ boost Kay is working towards wherever you were. Augmented-reality researchers have been donning back-packs full of computers and ridiculous looking head-up displays for a decade or so, trying to build them.

A more practical, accesible version is being built bottom-up using cameraphones, web-services and primative locative technologies right now. Not only Google – but Yahoo, Amazon/a9 and a host of hackers and start-ups are setting about skinning the world in data.

Once these substrates are there, you can bet that manipulable models and visualisations will be built atop them. This is the other component of the mirrorworld: the “what-if” wonderlands you can explore with
a software model of reality.

Why we make models

We have always built models to understand how reality works – by taking them to breaking point, changing our approach, exploring the alternatives; we’ve made progress. We’re up against real problems casued by that progress – many parts of the pale blue dot are at breaking point – so making better decisions based on better models is crucial. Mirrorworlds are not just a playful diversion or powerful business tool – but a survival strategy.

Before I get too misty-eyed for the mirrorworld future of sustainability, happiness and harmony, a (hyper)reality check. There are some powerful players switched-on to the power of simulation.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are actively pursuing it

“modeling is pretty magic stuff, whether it’s management problems or business customization problems or work-flow problems, visual modeling. It’s probably the biggest thing going on”

What happens to our understanding of reality when there’s a monopoly on mirrorworlds?

French philosopher Baudrillard, in his “Simulation and simulcra” (You’ve read it right? I bet BillG has…;-) in reference to the mirrorworld mapping of Borges’ emperor, warned that:

“Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”

In order to see that our new digital/real mirrorworlds reverse the Baudrillian desertification of the real world, it is crucial that we can not only understand the territory, but who and how they have done the mapping and their modelling – that we can own it, examine it and remap/remodel it ourselves – that the maps and models are open, free and shared by all.

The peer-production and scrutiny of the Wikipedia (and indeed the ideological discussion around it) might give some idea of what it’s like to create a reference work of this kind.

Then we will have mirrorworlds that we can all build on.

====
A side note – as part of Amazon’s mirrorworld of the printed word, they have introduced SIPs: “statistically-improbable phrases” that are supposed to automagically sum up the essence of a book. Here are the SIPs for “MirrorWorlds”:

chronicle streams, software ensembles, computational landscape, task cloud, simulated mind, evocative possibility, ensemble programs, tuple spaces, information machinery, mass border, software revolution, memory pool, software machine, information machines

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