Jaron Lanier’s surface-embracing vision

Near the end of Dreaming in Code I took a chapter to look at some of the more visionary efforts today to reform the troubled world of software development. One key portrait was of Jaron Lanier. (It was a delightful coincidence that, well after I’d settled on my book title, I discovered that Lanier had once told an interviewer, “I used to dream in code at night when I was in the middle of some big project.”)

This month in his column in Discover, Lanier uses my book as a jumping off point to discuss some of the same questions I set out with:

Why do some software projects sail to completion while so many others seem cursed? Why must software development be so difficult to plan?

These questions should concern everyone interested in science, not just programmers, because computer code is increasingly the language we use to describe and explore the dynamic aspects of reality that are too complicated to solve with equations. A comprehensive model of a biological cell, for instance, could lead to major new insights in biology and drug design. But how will we ever make such a model if the engineering of a straightforward thing like a personal productivity package confounds us?

In the heart of the piece, Lanier explains, more fully, his big idea — “phenotropics”: a software system, inspired by biology and robotics, in which surfaces “read” each other using fuzzy pattern recognition, allowing for systems that are better able to handle small variations from the norm without crashing.

Suppose software could be made of modules that were responsible for identifying each other with pattern recognition. Then, perhaps, you could build a large software system that wouldn’t be vulnerable to endless unpredictable logic errors.

He mentions Web 2.0-style mashups as one fledgling step in this direction, and also provides an anecdotal account of a project from the 1980s that he collaborated on with Andy Hertzfeld (another central figure in Dreaming in Code) called Embrace.

It’s a mind-expanding read, like so much of Jaron’s stuff. Embrace surfaces! Find patterns!
[tags]jaron lanier, phenotropics, software crisis[/tags]

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