Monday, June 18, 2007

Seeing There

In his 1991 book Mirror Worlds, David Gelernter argued that we should be trying to engineer systems that help us "to achieve something that is so universally important and yet so hard to come by that it doesn't even have a word to describe it." Gelernter called it topsight. "If insight is the illumination to be achieved by penetrating inner depths," he wrote, "topsight is what comes from a far-overhead vantagepoint, from a bird's eye view that reveals the whole--the big picture; how the parts fit together. ('Overview' comes fairly close to what I mean. But an 'overview' is something you either have or you don't. Topsight is something that, like insight, you pursue avidly and continuously, and achieve gradually)" (pp. 52-53). One route to topsight that Gelernter proposed was to build microcosmic "mirror worlds" that would faithfully reflect live data collected continuously from the world, and summarized to create levels of abstraction.

The Mirror World is directly accessible, twenty-four hours a day, to the population that it tracks. You can parachute in your own software agents. They look out for your interests, or gather data that you need, or let you know when something significant seems to be going on. You consult the Mirror World like an encyclopedia when you need information; you read it like a dashboard when you need a fast take on current status (p.6).

When I first read Mirror Worlds sixteen years ago, this seemed like science fiction, a beautiful dream. Now it seems like business as usual. Using my GPS-enabled phone and Google Maps mobile I'm able to see an aerial view of my position and route. I like to walk whenever I can, and often study radar imagery to look for gaps in rain or snowfall. If I'm stuck on the highway, I can use the phone to look ahead through a series of traffic cameras. Google has recently upped the ante by adding an incredible amount of data to Google Earth and by rolling out their new Street View for select cities. It's become natural to treat the internet as, in William J. Mitchell's colorful phrase, "a worldwide, time-zone-spanning optic nerve with electronic eyeballs at its endpoints" (City of Bits, 31).

The widespread digitization of historical sources raises the question of what kinds of top-level views we can have into the past. Obviously it's possible to visit an archive in real life or in Second Life, and easy to imagine locating the archive in Google Earth. It is also possible to geocode sources, link each to the places to which it relates or refers. Some of this will be done manually and accurately, some automatically with a lower degree of accuracy. Augmenting places with sources, however, raises new questions about selectivity. Without some way of filtering or making sense of these place-based records, what we'll end up with at best will be an overview, and not topsight.

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