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Reading :: Mirror Worlds

Posted by: on Oct 15, 2012 | 2 Comments

Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean
By David Gelernter

I’ve discussed David Gelernter before on this blog, in the context of his work on lifestreaming. In this book, Gelernter touches on lifestreaming, but in the context of a larger discussion of where software development is going. Specifically, writing in 1993, Gelernter imagines a world in the not-too-distant future in which complex systems—such as cities, states, and nations—can be modeled in “mirror worlds,” providing up-to-the-minute overviews of the changes in those complex systems, giving us the ability to understand those systems better, and thus positively impacting public discourse. Imagine playing SimCity with a real city.

The book is not large, but it does a lot of things. Let me see if I can disentangle these.

Gelernter argues that we often have trouble getting to the big picture, understanding the entire system. Instead, he says, we get mired in the details, something that he calls ant-vision. “Ant-vision is humanity’s usual fate; but seeing the whole is every thinking person’s aspiration. If you accomplish it, you have acquired something I call topsight.” Topsight—the overall understanding of the big picture—is something that we must “pursue avidly and continuously, and achieve gradually.” It’s a systemic understanding, a way of seeing the whole (see p.11; 30; 42; 51). Mirror worlds are a way to assist in achieving topsight by modeling the complex interactions in an entire system, interactions that are continuously updated via sensors. But topsight, like insight, comes gradually; don’t confuse it with the model itself, understand it as something that the model make it possible to achieve.

Gelernter doesn’t see mirror worlds as a way to control these complex systems so much as a way to understand them by achieving topsight. And he sees this achievement as not just technical but also public: a way to help people better understand the public information with which they are concerned, a way to “convert the theoretically public into the actually public,” and in the process, a way to help the public become better consumers of information who can make better decisions.

As Gelernter describes mirror worlds, he delves into programming concepts: simple ones such as procedures, variables, and recursion, then more complex ones such as tuples. His casual, talky style makes these concepts seem completely commonsensical—in fact, I would have really enjoyed reading this book when I was pursuing my computer science degree.

Overall, the book is really intriguing. Although I think Gelernter ultimately misjudged how achievable mirror worlds would be, I was impressed by the book’s scope and by how well Gelernter connected the public sphere, programming, and complexity in a popular book.


  1. David Ronfeldt
    October 15, 2012

    good review of a forgotten but important book. i've always liked gelernter's “topsight” concept. arquilla and i referred to it many times in our writings about cyberwar, netwar, and swarming.

  2. Clay Spinuzzi
    October 15, 2012

    And I forgot to mention that your writings are where I first ran into the term!

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