The Empty Computer

The noted computer scientist David Gelernter has been working on what he believes will replace the World Wide Web. He calls it the Worldbeam. Learn more here.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Gelernter’s article puts a lot of emphasis on security, I noticed, but that’s precisely where I feel his idea is shakiest. Not that I know anything about computer programming, but if today’s ace hackers are any indication, there are minds as brilliant as Gelernter’s out there, waiting to seize upon this (or any) new concept and twist it to their own ends. And if Gelernter feels that the Worldbeam can ensure privacy even from government intrusion, I think he’s overly optimistic. Maybe I’m missing something, but the article makes it sound as though the basic security paradigm remains largely unchanged: people will still be encrypting their documents (or the documents will be encrypted automatically). I’m not reassured that hackers, or the government, will have a difficult time prising open the Beam’s security measures. Whatever else the Worldbeam might be, it’s probably not a panacea for people worried about cyber-safety.

    I’m also not too enthralled with the “beam” metaphor, which Gelernter uses at several points to illustrate how information constantly flows into the past (“stream” sounds somewhat better than “beam” to me, though my filthy mind also finds “stream” more open to X-rated parody: cyberspace-as-golden-shower). The metaphor feels like a step backward from weblike interconnection: the current web metaphor portrays a user as able to access any part of the Worldwide Web at any time; physical distance is not an issue. The beam metaphor, on the other hand, feels as though data that has receded too far into the past will eventually become irretrievable. I’m sure that’s not what Gelernter’s concept is all about, but that’s the general feeling I get from the metaphor.

    Something like that irretrievability does happen on the Web today, but is not so much a function of “flux and recession” as of random archive deletion: tiny parts of the Web “wink out,” so to speak, even as new parts of the Web are born. (Otherwise, old documents and web pages remain, for the most part, as accessible as new ones.) An example of this “winking out” might be the deletion of data from Google’s cache. Another example might be the crashing of a crucial server. If I read Gelernter correctly, though, he’s saying that everyone plays a role in maintaining the existence of all documents on the Beam, so such disappearances simply cannot happen. But squaring this notion of “permanence through interlinked support” with the unbidden image of documents receding forever into the past makes for a lot of mental static. As a result, I’m not really sure how permanent a given document or app might be on the Beam.

    But even though I have issues with certain aspects of the beam metaphor and questions about how much security the Beam will bring, I think a CGI rendering of the metaphor as an immense column of light surrounded by a hollow “column” of tiny, densely packed, glowing stars, each representing an individual user, would be a compelling illustration of Gelernter’s bold idea.


    Bit of trivia: the French term “l’abîme,” pronounced “la beam,” means “the abyss.”

    Posted April 24, 2007 at 4:09 am | Permalink
  2. Andy-in-Korea says

    I get the distinct impression the author doesn’t understand that the ‘new’ thing he’s describing is a stripped-down version of what currently exists.

    He’s all hot in the pants about a simpler (read: less capable) version of the internet for (no disrepect, but let’s be honest): old farts who still need an afternoon to transfer files to a new machine.


    “The Worldbeam is a constantly growing journal or time line of electronic documents. Its storage is dispersed over many machines for reliability and safety, but to users the Beam looks like one structure. ”

    Umm…. the quote is a circular reference to the same object. Think of the blind men describing the elephant, but they’re all touching part of the leg.


    “Are you afraid that you’d have to spend two hours a day assigning access privileges to every part of your Beam? Don’t be.”

    “Oh goodie! The salesman promised me that THIS one would solve all my woes and Be Easy™.” If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is.


    “In today’s computing environment, it’s easy for spies, bureaucrats and thieves to “share” private information that isn’t theirs…”

    SPIES = BUREAUCRATS Telling indeed.

    What are you really afraid of author: the system, or people who can/will use it deviously? Because if it’s bad people you’re afraid of – they ain’t going away.


    “…and (paradoxically) hard for public agencies to share information in the public interest.”

    And (paradoxically) that’s a political/social problem.

    The technology works well for large entities who truly wish to use it. Public entities, well, are resistant to change. They most likely let their new computers sit around for a few days to avoid transferring their files, too.

    Posted April 24, 2007 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin and Andy, and thanks for turning a throwaway, I’m-too-beat-to-write-anything-tonight post into something worth reading.

    I absolutely agree that the security difficulties are being treated far too casually here, and that there will be a great deal of reluctance to relinquish local storage of sensitive information.

    One thing that I do like about the idea is the same concept that we were pursuing at the fantastically promising (but ultimately doomed by the personality conflicts of its founders) prospective-search company PubSub; namely that folks are intersted in what is happening on the Web right now; this model seems very nicely suited for that.

    Thanks for sharing that apt French homophone; presumably in Old French it was “abisme”, as in “abysmal”; the circonflex tips us off to the missing ‘s’.

    Welcome, Andy, and thanks for visiting. We must remember that Gelernter is not exactly computer-illiterate, although there is sometimes a tendency for the professional to have only rudimentary familiarity with consumer gear, I must admit, having been guilty of it myself regarding both computers and audio.

    We can wait and see how this goes. The standards organizations that control the Internet are hardly uncritical of new ideas; for this thing to succeed, it will have to be robust indeed. It should be interesting.

    Posted April 24, 2007 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  4. Andy-in-Korea says

    Hi Malcolm, thanks for the post – and to Kevin for pointing this out on his blog.

    I didn’t mean to sound *too* harsh on the author, I know he’s not a dolt. But the tone of the article struck me as his own I’m-too-beat-to-write-anything-tonight post. What still strikes me, though, is his expounding on the benefits of the shiny, new thing which is, fundamentally, the same thing.

    Posted April 25, 2007 at 9:52 am | Permalink