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July 2, 2001
New Economy: Selling a Vision of the Future Beyond Folders
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
The fawning introducers burbled. The rock music blared. And out of the wings
of the vast auditorium at PC Expo, New York's glitziest high-technology trade
show, walked the computer scientist David Gelernter.
His stocky frame, mop of curly hair and look of distracted intensity made him
seem a little like a lost graduate student, someone who might have wandered
onto the stage while looking for the pretzel stand. But by the standards of
the computing world, Mr. Gelernter is a rock star.
One of the truly certified Smart Guys, he pioneered technologies in the
1980's at Yale University that allow computers to collaborate — what is now
known by the buzz phrase peer-to-peer computing. He is also an accomplished
painter and a writer of fiery social criticism, whose essays and fiction
appear in such publications as The Weekly Standard and Commentary.
Last Thursday on the stage at PC Expo, he was trying to show that he can also
be an entrepreneur. Professor Gelernter, 46, founder and chief scientist at
Mirror Worlds Technologies, wore a black suit, striped shirt and a tie the
color of ancient parchment. He also wore a brown leather glove covering the
remnants of his right hand — the most visible of the critical injuries he
sustained in 1993 after opening a package sent by Theodore Kaczynski, the
terrorist known as the Unabomber.
Mr. Kaczynski thought of himself as a revolutionary; but David Gelernter is
the real thing. Though he rarely gives speeches, Professor Gelernter
captivated the crowd with an hourlong performance that was deliberately
provocative and salted with laugh lines.
The time has come, he said, to fix a problem that has not been addressed in
some 15 years: Computers are lousy at organizing our information; the
antiquated system of sorting documents into folders and trying to maintain
order has fallen apart.
"Working together, named files and hierarchical folders have turned modern
desktop computers into electronic versions of a 1940 Steelcase file cabinet,"
he said. "We do the filing; we do the organizing; we do the retrieving. Why
do we put up with it? How many of us wanted to grow up to be file clerks?"
Fixing the file folder system might seem like an awfully small target for one
of the most respected figures in computer science. But the issue and the
design decisions that led to this current state of affairs are as fundamental
to computing as they are intractable.
And now Mr. Gelernter wants to sell us all a solution: Scopeware, a set of
computing tools for helping information organize itself in ways that users
can readily understand. The system, which made its debut in March, takes all
the documents of a business (or, in a version still to come, of a single
user) and works quietly alongside current software to organize every new
document into a "stream" in the order the documents are created.
Onscreen, the stream looks like a long row of icons receding into the past:
word processing, e-mail, presentations, spreadsheets and more, identified by
little symbols and a few words. Move the cursor over any document and a
representation of it shows up in the lower right corner of the screen; a
mouse click brings the full document up in its original form. The stream can
be dipped into, and the documents sorted in a number of ways through powerful
The Mirror Worlds team has designed the system to accommodate business
computer networks, mobile laptops and hand-held devices, diverting the stream
wherever it is needed. The effect of having everything in one place,
Professor Gelernter says, is a new ease in finding individual documents that
are now scattered among many applications. More important, he says, the
stream forms a kind of narrative: it tells a story.
"We sometimes forget that the basics of information management don't change,"
he said. "We think and talk and listen; we read and write and look at
pictures. That was the essence of information management in the 13th century,
and it still is today. Computers can put us in touch with the world and, more
important, with ourselves."
Professor Gelernter says he is not selling his wares so much as a new vision
of the future. "It would be crazy to predict that Scopeware will emerge as
the winner in the changing world of information management," he told the
audience. "But I will predict this: Scopeware's properties are the properties
that a winning system will need, and the direction Scopeware points is the
In fact, little of Professor Gelernter's critique is new. And many companies
have worked to solve the problem. Many companies are scrambling to offer
products in the technology niche known as knowledge management. But something
about Scopeware grabs people.
The author and technology commentator George Gilder grew even more hyperbolic
than usual after getting a look. "To try the Gelernter system is to fall in
love with it," he wrote in the May issue of the Gilder Technology Report
newsletter. "It is elegant, easy, natural and beautiful. It will prevail."
Is it crazy to try to start a revolution in computing at a time when everyone
else appears to be hunkering down, and when Microsoft, coming off last week's
appeals court ruling, seems as dominant as ever?
There was precious little in the glittering booths at PC Expo that claimed to
break with the past; most of the products on display were designed to do what
people already do, but a little more efficiently or powerfully. But, as
Michael Satow, the chief executive of Mirror Worlds, says, "That's the best
time to go on the offensive — when everyone else is on the defensive."
For his part, Professor Gelernter has come a long way since that terrible day
in 1993 when he opened a mysterious package delivered to his Yale office. The
explosion left him scarred, partly blinded and deaf in one ear. In an e-mail
response to a few personal questions, he wrote: "I can do what I need to do
(be with my family, help educate my boys, paint, write, make a living). My
hand hurts continuously but not acutely. Mainly this sort of thing just runs
your energy down & down & down. By early evening I'm more or less dead on my
He doesn't let the past burden him; Mr. Kaczynski is "still a topic of no
interest to me," he wrote.
"Victimhood is a state you accept or reject, and I'm still the farthest thing
on earth from a victim."
If anything, he continued, the attack has left him with a renewed sense of
purpose — an urge to wrestle everything there is out of every day, whether
the time is spent with a canvas, with family or on Scopeware.
But he said he also knew that he was not the only driven person in the
technology business. "There are lots of devoted fanatics out there, and it
doesn't take getting blown up by a bomb to make you believe intensely that
what you have is important, is coming, is exactly right."
He craves success for Scopeware, and "the inevitable clarifying intensity
that follows coming to work one morning & almost dying DOES have something to
do with it."
Despite everything, Professor Gelernter wrote, he is one of the fortunate
ones. "I can't claim that everything's turned out exactly as I'd hoped; far
Still, "as Fred Astaire tells Joan Leslie in `The Sky's the Limit,' `I
couldn't be luckier than I am tonight.' "
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