From the Publisher: The body electric

A fair test of someone’s cultural orientation might be whether Bradbury or Whitman leaps to mind when you mention “I sing the body electric.”

After a recent visit with John Seely Brown, chief scientist for Xerox, I was definitely thinking of the former. Not because science fiction has anything to do with Brown’s work. He’s a perfectly serious scientist. It’s just that what he talks about can summon up recollections of old science fiction plots.

Brown is the head of Xerox’s PARC (the legendary Palo Alto Research Center, where the mouse and the graphical user interface were born).

PARC played a pivotal part in real life a generation ago and also had a role in The Pirates of Silicon Valley, a new film about the founding of Apple and Microsoft. At one point in the movie, an apopletic Apple chief, Steve Jobs, is railing at Microsoft’s Bill Gates about the Windows’ graphical user interface (GUI) based on a desktop metaphor.

Windows, Jobs snarls, ripped off that GUI from Apple!

Nonsense, counters Gates, Apple and Microsoft both swiped the GUI from PARC. “What?” demands the fictional Gates, in the movie’s best moment: “You’re mad at me because you stole it first?”

On a recent swing through Silicon Valley, I noticed that Apple has run down the pirate flag that once reportedly flew over its Cupertino, Calif., campus. Nowadays, Apple is hard at work pumping out pastel iMacs and powerful enterprise systems such as NetBoot, Apple’s spiffy new network administration solution that runs on its OS X server.

From pirates to pastels, change is endemic to Silicon Valley, and changes born there have a way of affecting us all.

In fact, change is the central thing engaging the scientists at Xerox PARC today. For one thing, Brown assured me—as the poor guy must have to do again and again—Xerox and its research center are a lot better now at recognizing the value of their own innovations.

But it’s change on a much grander scale that really intrigues him. The pace of technology-driven change is mind-boggling, he noted. What’s more, he predicted, we will continue to experience the “hyper-exponential growth” of technology for years to come.

Even the basic metaphor of technology is about to be overhauled, he said. The mechanistic metaphor — windows, tools, desktops — is transforming into a biological metaphor, according to Brown: computational immune systems, electronic neural networks, digital nervous systems.

Xerox, said Brown, now caches the contents of the entire world wide web. Doing so has allowed PARC scientists to understand phenomena such as “internet storms,” spontaneously occurring outbreaks of electronic congestion.

“You encounter them all the time,” said Brown; but without Xerox’s huge cache of internet data, scientists wouldn’t be able to tell exactly what’s going on. “Xerox is extremely interested in system health,” said Brown.

Computational immune systems that mimic human ones might reduce these internet outbreaks, he suggested: “The human body has longevity that greatly exceeds expectations. That’s because of the body’s immune system. Our immune system looks for strange stuff in the body and then goes and attacks it.”

“Bots,” electronic entities dispatched to the internet, might serve a similar function, Brown said.

To some, it might be new to “sing the body electric,” but Walt Whitman and then Ray Bradbury were on to the metaphor a long time ago.

At Xerox PARC, Brown makes sure his faculty includes poets and artists as well as engineers. Survival depends on adaptability, he explained, and in an age of hyper-exponential change, adaptability demands diversity.

Both Whitman and Bradbury would have liked that.

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