The Empty Future

Here’s where the Net is going, as far as I can see. The world is moving to an “Empty Computer” model of computation. In the Empty Computer world, all my digital assets (all my docs, apps, images, videos, soundtracks, mail mssgs etc) are stored in my personal data structure, afloat in the Cybersphere. I can access my personal structure from any net-connected computer in the world (obviously, modulo security checks).

Today’s computing model is a dead end, and we’re near the end of this road. People have more and more computers and quasi-computers (cell phones, iPods, etc.) in their lives. For many people, the management problem was already verging on impossible five years ago. It’s increasingly hard to remember where a file (or the latest version of a file) is stored. And, as desktop PCs get cheaper and more capable, installing a new one becomes more and more of a pain. Whatever method I choose, it takes far too long to move all the stuff I need to the new machine. And even though storage is dirt cheap, I always wind up leaving lots of stuff behind, because it’s too much of a nuisance to move it all. (Over the last few months there have been several announcements of new apps designed to synch up your files over all your various machines. One thing we know for sure: these are going nowhere. No one is going to buy them. This is exactly the kind of systems app most people hate to have anything to do with.)

Under the Empty Computer model, I buy a new computer, plug it in and my whole digital world is available on the machine as soon as I connect to the net. I can smash up my old machine with a sledgehammer and feed it to the dog; it doesn’t matter. All my digital assets are afloat in my personal data structure on the net, available to me automatically on every computer everywhere–on computers in phonebooths, supermarkets, planes, airports, classrooms, my office, etc. I log on and identify myself and there’s my stuff. Computers become viewing devices for tuning in personal data structures (which are floating out there in the cyber-cosmos like Venus).

The Net will provide distributed, reliable, fungible storage for these floating personal data structures. What will the structures look like? I claim they’ll look like “lifestreams,” the electronic timeline-journals we first implemented in the mid ’90s (everything fully indexed; with a past, present and future; the stream begins with your birth certificate). Lifestreams have various good characteristics, and people can learn how to work them in three minutes or less. (No one is willing to spend more nowadays.) But, whether or not the all-inclusive personal structure of choice turns out to be a lifestream or something else, the Empty Computer model is the way we’re going. And the Net’s future is to get us there.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”