Sunday, November 22, 2009

Today is yesterday's tomorrow (sort of)

The other night I was watching Ghostbusters II (oh, don't ask why) and right in the middle of it Harold Ramis' character uses The Computer to look up information on a historical figure. I'll use GBII for reference here since it's handy, but I could have picked any number of others.

The Computer has been a staple of science fiction for decades. It's interesting that its role in such movies is very often not to compute but to look something up, as was the case here. Our hero gives the computer the name, and back comes a neatly formatted 80-column by 24-row answer, with underlines and everything, saying who the person is.

Of all the technological devices in such movies, The Computer always seemed among the less plausible. I'm not counting the ghost-zapping equipment as technology; it's magic and falls firmly under suspension of disbelief. The Computer counts as technology because it's assumed just to be there. At some point in the future, super-powerful all-knowing computers will be generally available. How do we know? Just look at the movies ...

There were a couple of reasons The Computer always seemed particularly implausible. First, knowing a bit about real computers makes it harder for me to gloss over the technical hurdles. Force fields? Jet packs? Sure, why not? That's physics. Physics is what you major in if you're too smart for anything else. They'll figure it out. But a computer you can just type some vague query into and get a sensible answer? Come on. Like that'll happen.

Second, it always seemed like a computer smart enough to, essentially, act like the Encyclopedia Galactica would surely have all kinds of other powers that the careful scriptwriter would have to take into account. If The Computer can tell you who the bad guy in the painting is, why can't it tell you how to take him out?

You can probably tell where I'm going with this. Today, about fifteen years after GBII, you can sit down at your home computer, type in the name of a historical figure and very likely come up with a concise, well-formatted description of who the person was, thanks to the now ubiquitous browser/search-engine/Wikipedia setup.

As powerful as it is, though, the system is an idiot savant. It won't tell you how to neutralize a malevelolent spirit (or rather, it won't tell you a single, clear way to do so) and it won't do a lot of other things. It just allows you to quickly locate useful information that's already been discovered and made publicly available. It's powerful, but not magic.

What particularly strikes me about the description above is the presence of Wikipedia. Large, fast networks of computers were already building out in 1994. Mosaic came out while GBII was in production. The missing piece, and one that I don't recall very many people predicting, was the massively-collaborative human-powered Wikipedia, not a technical advance in itself, but something very much enabled by several technical advances.

The Internet, HTTP, browsers, scripting languages, broadband, email, databases, server farms, cell phones, etc. -- these are all technologies. Wikipedia isn't, and yet it fits easily and comfortably into the list of advances from the last few decades. It fills a niche that's been anticipated for decades, but -- fascinatingly -- not by the anticipated means of using sheer computing power to somehow divine the history of the world.

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